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Originally published Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Editorial: Seattle City Council presses on against homelessness

The Seattle City Council has displayed a compassionate approach to solving the persistent challenge of homelessness, though the results have fallen short of the goal.

Seattle Times Editorial

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YEAR nine of the audaciously named Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County just began. It has been a fabulous marketing plan, bringing focus to a sprawling social ill. And it produced some results, helping add more than 5,000 housing units for the homeless countywide.

But that new housing count is just over halfway to the plan’s overall target for new housing, and its namesake goal remains beyond reach. The 2013 One Night Count of homeless people in King County found 2,736 homeless persons. That’s nearly 25 percent more people than in 2004, when the Ten-Year Plan was being drawn up. By that measure, homelessness is growing, not ending.

The Great Recession, of course, had much to do with that, crushing jobs and shredding the safety net. But those challenges underscore the ambition of the plan, the need to plod on, one step at a time.

That is just what a majority of the Seattle City Council did last week in calling for closure of Nickelsville. The homeless camp of about 125 people has squatted on city land in West Seattle for more than two years, without electricity, running water, bathrooms, but with plenty of rats and mud.

“It’s the worst of the worst conditions. It's a recipe for people getting sick,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, one of seven council members who signed a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn demanding closure of the camp by Sept. 1.

The council proposed spending $500,000 to transition Nickelsville campers to shelters or other housing, working one-on-one to help resolve root causes of homelessness. Religious groups will likely be enlisted.

This is the compassionate response — to the campers and to Nickelsville’s neighbors, who’ve grown weary of a permanent protest camp outside their doors. It also allows Food Lifeline, a nonprofit food provider, to buy the parcel commandeered by Nickelsville for a new headquarters.

Members of Nickelsville responded with this: “It was a shocking thing to see this letter from city leaders that pretty much talked about us like dogs in a kennel.”

As grating as that rhetoric is, council members are the ones who go home to a warm bed and running water. Some people opt for Nickelsville instead of shelters because shelters usually split up couples and ban pets. To a traumatized homeless person, a dog may be an only friend. Preserving couples and allowing pets should be incorporated into the plan to end Nickelsville, and in future homeless funding.

And once — and if — former Nickelsville residents stabilize, lobbying the Legislature for mental-health and chemical-dependency funding would more effectively strike at the root causes of homelessness than trying to shame the City Council into ignoring a squalid, illegal camp.

Those are small steps. But it’s only incrementally that we’ll actually end homelessness.

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