Young Professionals of Seattle just launched a new division: YP Impact. The intent is to build awareness around some of the issues impacting Seattle, and the local organizations fighting for solutions. YP Impact is leveraging these organizations to provide volunteer opportunities and actionable ways for young professionals to create positive change in the community.
As part of an initiative to shed light on the issue of homelessness in Seattle, I was able to speak with local thought leader, Lauren McGowan. Lauren works at United Way as the Sr. Director of Ending Homelessness and has spent most of her career fighting poverty in Seattle, and empowering others to do the same. Ask her about the issue and you’ll, no doubt, get a sense of urgency she operates with…
Ahmad Corner: There was an interview featuring you a while back where you described homelessness as a “crisis” and a “state of emergency”, which I tend to agree with. You then went on to say that people needed more than services and housing, but they needed hope. How do you go about providing hope to someone dealing with crisis as serious as homelessness?
Lauren McGowan: 6,000 people sleeping outside is absolutely a crisis and we haven’t treated it that way. It’s easy to lose hope when you are sleeping on the streets or in your car and don’t see a path forward. To exit homelessness you need housing and income but getting there isn’t easy – you want to know that people care. That’s why we hold events like the Community Resource Exchange that give people both hope and help.
AC: The recent population boom (and influx of high-paying tech jobs) has, in part, contributed to a widening income gap in Seattle. Some people correlate this with increasingly limited access to housing and other resources for lower income residents. How does United Way navigate the side effects of this kind of economy?
LM: We are so lucky to live in a thriving region that provides incredible opportunities for many. The downside of our growth is gentrification and sky-high housing costs. But I’ll take our economy, our philanthropic community, and our innovation above any other city. The opportunity we have is to change policies so that people with low-incomes can benefit from the prosperity of the region. We can start with changing our regressive tax code and investing in proven anti-poverty tools like a state Earned Income Tax Credit.
AC: The recently proposed Head Tax was a relevant and highly contested subject in Seattle. Mayor Durkin’s revised proposal pledged to build 600 new affordable housing units, which I can only imagine would’ve made a net impact on some of the issues United Way is taking on. Did the approval, and/or subsequent repeal have any tangible effect on United Way planning?
LM: The Head Tax came and went pretty quickly so it didn’t impact our plans but it did help highlight the need for much more affordable housing.
AC: How were you able to foolproof your strategies against policy decisions?
LM: Policies and investment levels change from administration to administration. We focus on making sure people have access to housing and income because we know those are the most important tools to help people exit homelessness.
AC: The homelessness issue – partially because of the head tax conversation – has, unfortunately, been politicized. Any issues with public perception that United Way has had to deal with?
LM: Homelessness has always been political. Most of the funding to address the issue is from the government. We must elect leaders who want to invest in effective solutions. The Head Tax debate definitely created a new level of discussion about homelessness – who was responsible for the crisis and who is responsible for fixing it. At United Way, we believe the answer is all of us. That together we can build a community where everyone has a home. We need collaboration, empathy, hope, strong policies, excellent programs, and significantly more housing. The important thing to remember is that we don’t have a homeless crisis because people aren’t working hard to solve it or that people experiencing homelessness are at fault – it’s stagnant wages, institutional racism, a poor mental health system, our weakened safety-net and the lack of affordable housing.
AC: Not a lot of people have the kind of optimism it takes to face issues as complex as eradicating homelessness, yet you’ve chosen this as a career. Extraordinarily commendable, but surely challenging beyond my comprehension. What is the why behind you doing what you do?
LM: Homelessness is deeply personal. My parents experienced homelessness and it was the leading cause of my mother’s death. Beyond my personal experience, I have a deep belief that housing is a basic human right and that homelessness is a solvable issue – it takes the public and political will to invest at the scale of the problem.
AC: If I’m a member of the community and want to know more about how I can join the fight against homelessness, what are some steps I can take to help move the needle?
LM: Start by voting – because ending homelessness requires that we elect people who will create policies that bring people indoors.
Talk to your friends and family – let them know that homelessness is solvable.
Visit the United Way of King County website to learn about opportunities to give, volunteer, and advocate.
We live an incredible community of organizations that are dedicated to ending homelessness – visit their websites and get involved.
YP Impact is a budding community of young professionals with an interest in giving back to the community we live, work and play in. If you’re interested in joining the community or just hearing more, visit this page and sign up to follow along.