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Lockers for the homeless = a complex issue

In an article on KOMO today, the folks at SHARE are calling out councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell for an editorial they ran in the Stranger calling for freestanding, outdoor lockers for the homeless. But I feel like maybe the real issue isn’t that this already exists — it’s that the plan to expand/add more isn’t really ideal. 

From KOMO:

"Council people don’t always check the facts before they speak, so when they are saying that, it’s like, ‘Hey, wait minute, we already have a locker program," said SHARE volunteer Issac Pace.

Which makes Sally B. and Bruce look a little foolish…until you realize that what they want is more (and more accessible) lockers, which really wouldn’t offer the same kind of service. 

As Pace himself — who is just a volunteer so I don’t want to rag too hard on him for talking to the media when they came a-knockin’ — said, SHARE only has 150 lockers, and according to the last One Night count, there are around 3,000 people living on the streets of King County at any given time. The need is definitely there, which the councilmembers know. 

And they aren’t really proposing some brand-new thing that they thought simply didn’t exist before because they didn’t do any research — they’re proposing a different model, which would serve different people with different needs. Which isn’t necessarily to say that the councilmembers’ plan is better, though.

Unlike the lockers that SHARE offers, which are self-policed, free, and kept in a donated space, the councilmembers’ proposed system, which borrows from multiple different cities’ models, would likely be paid for by the users, monitored, and in public spaces or at assistance spots. 

From the councilmembers’ blog post:

Here’s a small step we can take toward restoring a sense of dignity and safety in Seattle:

• Like Lisbon, provide freestanding lockers outside. Those who get the lockers must maintain regular contact with their case manager, keep the locker area clean, and agree not to store illegal substances or weapons.

• Like Berkeley, negotiate with a private storage company to make lockers available at fair prices. Locker users must be in regular contact with a case manager and have a plan to get off the street.

• Like Madison, contract with human service providers to add lockers or protected storage areas where they offer showers or food.

• Like Sacramento, work with local churches and shop classes to build simple wooden lockers available across the city.

So, the lockers that the councilmembers propose would also only be available to those who are actively working on becoming non-homeless — which is actually kind of an uncool thing to ask for when providing a service that is necessary for homeless folks, regardless of whether or not they’re interested in getting off the streets. 

It’s not a secret that for some people, for myriad reasons, living on the streets is preferable. And in a city where permanent housing is getting rapidly more expensive and in-between options like tent cities are being closed down with fancy footwork by those who thing houses are the only places to live, it’s getting more understandable. So requiring locker users to actively hunt for homes is actually kind of problematic.

Additionally, policing the lockers by mandating regular check-ins with case managers can be seriously prohibitive for some people living on the street. Mental illness, addiction, or any other number of afflictions (not to mention shitty, expensive transit, incarceration, and other struggles homeless folks face) can make it difficult to regularly check in with someone who’s probably going to dig through your shit to make sure you don’t have some weed or a knife in your locker.*

Oh, and by asking that locker users not keep those things in their lockers, you’re forcing them to just carry them around with them, which is a safety and legal hazard that the lockers would just opt not to address because think of the children or something.

It’s laudable that Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell are looking out for the homeless in this very-practical manner — seriously, a place to store your shit is majorly, majorly helpful — and it’s also understandable that SHARE and other organizations (there are several shelters which offer storage) who offer this service already might feel like they’re talking a bit out of school by doing so.

But really, the issue here isn’t that the councilmembers didn’t do their research — it’s that their proposal is kind of part and parcel with most proposals by City Council: It addresses a problem with a solution that will go over well with voters and tax payers, but doesn’t actually help the people who need it the most. 

*Here’s another question — in a state where you’re now allowed to possess marijuana, would you be able to keep it in your city-owned locker?

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