(The Center Square) – Come November, six years will have passed since Seattle declared homelessness an emergency, but Colleen Echohawk wants to be the first mayor to treat it like one.
Homelessness in the Puget Sound region has been considered a crisis since late 2015 when Seattle declared a state of emergency in search of solutions. That same year, at least 10,091 people in the King County metro area were living on the streets or in shelters. By 2020, 11,751 people experiencing homelessness in the area were counted by the federal government, about half of whom were people of color.
Those disparities are what Echohawk says led her to run for office and close the housing gaps the pandemic threatens to widen further.
“I grew up in a family where if someone was experiencing homelessness, my parents brought them into our house,” Echohawk said. “My parents have taught me if you see something that’s a problem, and you can be of use, and you have solutions, you need to step up and step forward.”
Since 2018, reports suggest the cost of homelessness in the Puget Sound could total as much as $1 billion in medical, police, nonprofit and public services. Its human toll is immeasurable for Seattle’s indigenous peoples who made up 15% of those experiencing homeless last year.
A member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation, Echohawk grew up working in the hotel run by her mother, grandmother, and aunt in her native Alaska where she says they worked hard to keep a roof over their heads. That’s getting harder every year in Seattle, one of the costliest cities in America. In 2016, the city pegged the cost of closing its 27,481 housing unit gap by 2030 at $3.4 billion or half the city's 2020 operating budget. Echohawk is confident she can find that money as mayor.
“This is a very prosperous city,” Echohawk said. “I feel that it's absolutely my responsibility to find those dollars and there's many places for us to be thinking about bringing these dollars in.”
Echohawk, the founder of the Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness, has spent the past seven years doing just that as executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, a native-led human services agency offering culturally-sensitive housing for indigenous peoples. There, she turned a team of nine into 65 and grew a budget of $500,000 to $17 million.
Getting the city back on its feet will mean leaving everything on the table, Echohawk says. That includes moving the homeless from sidewalks into hotel rooms with federal funding, repurposing vacant buildings, building more tiny homes, and rezoning Seattle's neighborhoods. Businesses will also need another stimulus to stay on their feet, she says, and raising one from public or private partners is on her to-do list.
For Echohawk, that list includes setting Seattle on its way to meeting its climate goals. Part of that, she says, will involve putting more electric cars on the road and more bicycles on the sidewalks with the goal of cutting the city's public fleet emissions in half by the end of her first term.
Seattle needs to put its money where its mouth is, Echohawk says, and she likes the idea of a capital gains tax to have Seattle’s wealthiest pay more into public services. She sees the city divesting from law enforcement as it steps away from the homeless sweeps that made it infamous with housing advocates. Community relations, she says, will be up to social workers and neighborhood ambassadors as "Defund the police" activists have demanded.
“It's not good relationship building when you bring an armed officer to the scene of a homeless encampment,” Echohawk said.
With regards to the city’s protests against police brutality and racism, Echohawk has nothing but praise for what she calls a force for progress.
“I think we can look back in history and see that without protests in this country, we would not have some of the progressive policies that have changed people's lives,” Echohawk said.
Echohawk sits squarely on both sides of the fence in the debate over defunding Seattle’s police as a member of both the Seattle Community Policing Commission and the Downtown Seattle Association, the latter of which has led opposition to police budget cuts and shown support for more punitive homelessness responses.
Holding the Seattle Police Department accountable, Echohawk says, boils down to picking the right police chief. She should know as one of three people who vetted Carmen Best for the job in 2018. Best, who stood by the department's violent crowd control tactics and often sparred with the city council, resigned her post in September.
"We need to reset this police department," Echohawk said. "I believe Chief Best made some strides toward accountability but clearly there is more work to be done."
Echohawk believes the SPD has good officers up for the job, a view consistent with the sunny optimism behind her candidacy. But Echohawk takes pride in producing results. She sees her entrepreneurship as proof her campaign is more than aspirational.
“This is the opportunity for generational change, where we are saying that we truly will live out our progressive values as a city of Seattle,” Echohawk said. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Seattle voters will elect their next mayor when they turn in their mail-in ballots on November 2.