Sweeps are for litter, not for living and loving human beings
by Rev. Angela Ying, November 6, 2019
It’s November, which means cold, wet, chilly weather is here. On any given night in our city, sadly, more than 3,500 neighbors live on the streets, under bridges, in tents, on sidewalks, in abandoned buildings and in cars — if they even survive the night and are not swept away.
Where did Seattle go wrong and become a city of people “sweeps?!” The word calls to mind clean cities, except sweeping is what they do to garbage. People are not garbage.
Seattle’s sweeps cost over $8 million yearly. In the past three years, that program has no proven track record of getting people into permanent housing.
Did you know there is an alternative Seattle program? Our tiny house village program has quietly and humanely moved over 500 people — that’s correct, over 5-0-0 — living on the streets into permanent housing over the last three years. Last year it cost around $3 million.
Which of these should our city fund in 2020? The latter, of course. We need tiny house villages. And we need more of them, now, more than ever.
Tiny house villages are neighborhoods of 8-by-12-foot, sound structures, providing shelter and safety. Our faith communities have been involved in the construction of many of them, as they are simple and rapidly built. They include heat, electricity, insulation and locking doors. The average tiny house costs $2,700. Do I hear an Amen!?!
Built in community groupings on vacant lots, tiny house villages have common kitchen and dining areas, laundry, showers, washrooms, vital services, community resources and access to education, jobs, day care, transportation and health care. They keep our neighbors — adults and, yes, children — safe.
In tiny house villages, many are able to overcome the fear, isolation, trauma and disempowerment of living on the streets.
Tiny houses are not permanent homes. Yet, according to the Seattle Human Services Department, our tiny house village program is the most effective and successful shelter program in the city for moving people from the streets into permanent housing.
We currently have nine tiny house villages in Seattle, though one is at risk for city defunding.
Mayor Jenny Durkan is not seeing with 20/20 vision. Instead of her proposed $8.3 million for sweeps in 2020, we could use the money to build 14 tiny house villages with 64 people in each village. That could mean life or death for 900 of our most vulnerable neighbors.
Our faith communities and 43 faith leaders recently signed a letter supporting City Council member Kshama Sawant’s call to greatly expand funding for up to 20 more tiny house villages in 2020. The number of signatories is growing.
My Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh colleagues and their synagogue, church, mosque and temple members know that tiny house villages work. Instead of annually throwing money away with sweeps, let us invest in proven tiny house villages, for our neighbors!
And, what about that other program? The sweeps push people trying to make it day to day from one dehumanizing situation to another. Residents of the tiny house villages who have experienced both programs share that sweeps are demoralizing and devastating to everyone involved.
Last year, in our Martin Luther King Jr. County of unprecedented wealth, 5,228 people were found sleeping on the streets, and 191 ended up dying there. This is an unconscionable shame and an immoral injustice.
Tiny house villages work. Sweeps don’t.
We want to live in a city that takes care of everyone. Sweeps are for garbage, definitely not for our neighbors.
Let us take back our city, for and by the People!
Reverend Ying is Senior Pastor at Bethany United Church of Christ, a community working for racial, economic, LGBTQ and climate justice with campus partner organizations.
This Commentary article first appeared in the Real Change News, November 6, 2019