Earthquake Recovery Rebuilds Opportunity for Homeless in King County

King County’s high homeless statistics have been buried in the rubble of the past as numbers have declined proving the strength of this covetable jurisdiction. Ten years after the Seattle Fault earthquake, it is astonishing to think back on the social conditions and levels of homelessness that once existed in King County. Following the devastation of the earthquake, prioritization of opportunities to reduce homelessness has led to a healthier, stronger and more productive King County.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

A silver lining of recovery was a new focus towards addressing homeless conditions and increasing community resilience. Local government agencies and community groups came together to improve accessibility through abundant and affordable housing and support programs. This cooperation founded several affordable housing units, and provided support services and other resources to residents without permanent places to live.

Prior to the magnitude 7.2 quake, as many as 9,294 King County citizens were homeless on any given night. After the disaster, this number increased, as many people were unable to live in their damaged homes. Ten years later, the success of the region’s plan to end homelessness has resulted in a 98% decrease in the homeless population living on the streets as a result from the quake. Chronic homelessness populations have also declined by 98%.

After a meeting on Tuesday,  Jane Kane declared, “King County has become a leader in the country in effectively addressing the issue of homelessness”.

In the weeks after the shaking stopped, recovery seemed to be an impossible prospect, let alone solving difficult problems that existed before the earthquake. With extensive destruction to buildings and infrastructure, increased homelessness occurred because residents were often forced to leave their homes.

The key leader in this successful social renovation was the Committee to End Homelessness which is comprised of eight founding organizations that include the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the City of Seattle, Eastside Human Services Alliance, King County, North Urban Human Services Alliance, Seattle-King County Coalition for the Homeless, South King County Council of Human Services and United Way of King County. These stakeholders have worked together over the past ten years to improve the homeless situations that exist throughout the jurisdiction. Although their work together began before the disaster, their success in implementing affordable housing units, social service support, secure homeless communities and employment opportunities has been emphasized since the earthquakes occurrence.

Fortunately, these pre-event planning efforts helped the County parallel physical reconstruction with social revitalization. The development of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County guided the projects implemented post-quake. The focus successfully secured 9,500 units of housing for homeless people. Improving access to affordable support services was another goal achieved since the quake.

Founding organizations of the Committee acted as primary financiers of these projects. The Seattle Human Services Department and the Seattle Office of Housing were the top City Department funders. Collaborating with the City of Seattle, King County and the United Way of King County were an additional 140 organizations and churches that were willing to provide services and operate housing. Homeless citizens were given access to supportive assistance that was outlined in King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. The engagements of the public through this extensive network of local organizations eventually lead to many residents supporting this goal to improve conditions for homeless people.

While acknowledging the success of the project, it is important to realize the accommodations that were made by the County to expedite social betterment. Prior to the earthquake, individualistic attitudes absorbed communities, who after the earthquake realized the importance of social togetherness. Many citizens exchanged self-centered mindsets to ones that embraced community generosity.

There was a competing focus between the priorities of rebuilding infrastructure before social reconstruction, yet the community oriented mindsets that emerged after the earthquake fought for more than just a strong physical environment. Investment and savings toward finances dedicated to social improvement raised concern as the condition of the economy might fluctuate and the funds may be required for other “more important” needs. But with community backing this allocation has gained priority and protection from other uses.

“In the past 15 years I have never witnessed so much community support and service provided to homeless residents throughout the County,” said Stew Plasser, a homeless resident for over 10 years in Federal Way. He was overwhelmed by the transformation he has seen in attitudes towards homelessness since the quake displaced thousands in the County. The outreach from homeless support programs helped Stew get a job and he now lives in an affordable housing complex where he has access to general health services.

Many affordable housing units were built in Federal Way, Seattle, Sea Tac, Burien and Renton. 9,500 units in total are now available to homeless individuals and families in King County. Although they are not free, rent is very affordable and general health services are provided on site.

Quake damage to residential properties forced homeowners and apartment renters out of their homes for weeks, sometimes months. The displacement resulting from this earthquake mirrored that experienced after the Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand. With damaged roofs, ripped foundations and water damage, thousands of people fled to the streets in fear of the conditions of their homes. With little response from insurance companies, residents were forced to seek temporary shelter. Many people had nowhere to go so they built temporary camps. It wasn’t until this time that homeless residents, like Stew, noticed the shift in attitudes towards chronically homeless people. Community members, rich and poor, were forced to live on the streets, which changed their understanding of what it was like to be homeless. This insight sparked the realization that the homeless problem throughout King County needed to end, and this could only happen with full community support and backing.

Similar mass homelessness caused by a hazard event was seen after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Up to 400,000 people were displaced and did not have access to food, water or shelter. The federal government provided many aid relief services and temporary housing in addition to funds dedicated to public rebuilding. These funds allowed the city to quickly restore housing units and reduce the number of homeless victims.

Congress took similar action after the Seattle quake ten years ago. An allocation of funds, in addition to those from the County, allowed for the construction of the residential units and restoration of previous housing. In an effort to reduce homelessness beyond the cases caused by the earthquake, extra units were built to house chronically homeless citizens and other residents who did not have access to shelter prior to the disaster.   These buildings required that residents seek employment, with assistance from the Committee in conjunction with local businesses. All residents of these complexes pay affordable rent. The buildings also provide tenants with meals and basic care, which are included in their rent.

The establishment of these housing complexes has also collaborated with King County transportation services and now provides free transportation for residents to commute to work. This has given the residents the opportunity to earn an income and easily afford the services that were previously unaffordable. Additional collaboration with local businesses has opened employment opportunities for homeless members of the community that has helped individuals get back on their feet. The stability provided by an income and affordable services has helped King County become more resilient and productive, showing the true strength and pride of the community.

Additional accommodations that have emerged in quake recovery and County revitalization are tent cities. Before the disaster, Woodinville, Bothell and select other cities in King County strongly fought against the establishment of tent cities in their communities. This was fueled by a fear of increasing crime rates and damage to vacant land. But the widespread displacement resulting from the quake strengthened community resilience as residents of these communities were forced thomeless2o find temporary shelter for themselves. By creating their own temporary shelter communities, King County residents realized the security and support that tent cities provide to chronically homeless populations of King County who need care and stability.

As neighborhoods and homes were rebuilt, these once reluctant communities welcomed tent cities into the vacant land of their communities. Strict codes of conduct, litter patrol and security presence has ensured that tent cities remain safe and promote the wellbeing of homeless populations. They have also restored community support and networks, which has strengthened the community’s resilience.

The main concern of the County was how to implement projects without losing all of the cities’ funds and ensuring that the investment would be successful. But as community resilience has strengthened, so has the willingness to subsidize homelessness efforts.

Leader of the Committee to End Homelessness. Jordan Garden said, “We were able to dramatically decrease homeless numbers throughout all of King County by increasing homeless prevention efforts. New units of housing and affordable and free supportive services now provide stability to residents who were previously homeless.”

The success of reduced homelessness is a result of transformed circumstances throughout the County that were non-existent before the disaster. A majority of communities now have an understanding of what its like to be homeless because of their quake induced displacement. This new understanding combined with additional federal funds promoted the success of projects aimed at reducing homelessness.

A town hall meeting discussing future plans to completely end all homelessness took place last week. One previously homeless community member reflected on the progress and achievement of the community’s collaboration.

Carol Jean said that, “It would have been impossible to even attempt ending homelessness without the entire community’s involvement. Now King County recognizes that homelessness is not acceptable and it must be addressed. Our infrastructure fell apart, but our sense of community did not. To me, our strength as a community has never been stronger.”

It was with this emotion filled announcement that King County recognized the unification of the community and the collaboration of many groups, to accomplish the goal of ending homelessness. The transformation has been one of the most successful efforts from Resilient King County planning which has received endless praise for their hard work and commitment to bettering the community.