by Sarah Toce
Former U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan has made history as Seattle’s first lesbian mayor and only the second woman in history to hold the office. Running on a platform of free college tuition for Seattle public high school graduates, criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and protection of small business communities, Durkan secured endorsements from the nation’s top civil rights advocates, labor union groups, progressive political allies, and tech leaders.
The 59-year-old partnered mom of two has lived most of her life in Seattle. Shattering the glass ceiling during the 2016 election was a professional, as well as personal, gain.
‘I was touched watching Oprah on the Golden Globes,’ Durkan said. ‘But the part that I thought was really interesting was when she said, ‘As a little girl, seeing Sidney Poitier get the award…’ showed her that a black person could be anything, and before that she didn’t know that…We’ve had a lot of success in the LGBTQ community, but the community is still under assault – particularly the transgender community. You know, when the President of the United States can simply tweet that people can’t serve in the military because of who they are and it goes almost unchallenged in Congress, we know we’ve got a long ways to go.’
She continued, ‘People forget that while marriage is equal – equality is there – in many states the things that go with it aren’t,’ she said. ‘You can’t adopt. You can’t have property rights, and the like. Workplace protections exist in very few states. We have a long ways to go – and I think it’s important to have people at the forefront who stand with you and for you.’
Durkan had a message of unity to share with the millions of people marching in the streets during the Women’s March in Seattle – and throughout the nation.
‘I think the march really exemplifies what we have to do,’ Durkan said. ‘Last year’s march, to me, was the antidote to the inauguration. It was a thing that gave me up and that made me realize we could all come together. We saw every kind of person marching and it was loving and inclusive and optimistic. And I think that we’ve reached a new stage. That was the coming together and the resistance. Now we have to organize and reclaim.’
One might suggest that the U.S. political climate can be gauged through the planning and execution of gathering audiences and opportunities, such as the women’s march.
‘Each of these stages is the next stage of the political movement,’ Durkan concurred. ‘We have seen that it’s not enough just to resist. We have to have the affirmative plan and the people putting it in place.’
The resistance and affirmative action are not party exclusive either, according to Durkan.
‘I think that people need to stand for what they believe in, so it’s always good to have dissent in the ranks,’ she said. ‘But we also have to realize that we are up against very unified and strong political wins. Donald Trump was not an anomaly. I think that if we don’t stand for what’s better and come together, that we risk having him or people like him re-elected. If you look at our differences within the progressive base, they’re nothing compared to what we have to fight.’
An immediate local battle for Seattleites is the homeless issue. In her first major legislation, Durkan proposed ‘Building a Bridge to Housing for All,’ a plan to sell an underutilized City property to address Seattle’s affordability and homelessness crisis. Her plan would leverage $11 million from the sale of an underutilized City property to create urgently needed bridge housing for those in our community experiencing homelessness and to support households on the verge of homelessness, while also reinvesting in essential City services.
‘With too many families pushed out of the City and too many people living on our streets, we need to take urgent action to help those unsheltered and on the verge of homelessness. Leveraging one City property, we can provide essential services and attack our affordability crisis,’ said Durkan. ‘There’s no quick or simple solution to solving this urgent challenge, but we can focus our efforts to rapidly deploy cost-effective shelters to move people out of doorways and tents and into safer spaces.’
Durkan’s legislation is co-sponsored by four Councilmembers, including Council President Bruce Harrell (District 2, South Seattle, Georgetown), Councilmember Rob Johnson (District 4, Northeast Seattle), Councilmember Debora Juarez (District 5, North Seattle), and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw (District 7, Pioneer Square to Magnolia).
Durkan’s proposal includes investing $5.5 million in a Bridge Housing Investment Strategy (examples such as mass shelter tents, hard-sided tents, wood-frame sheds, portable modular bunkhouses or cabins, backyard cottages, and the master leasing of existing apartments). This strategy will kick off with a project to serve chronically homeless women in Seattle by the end of spring 2018.
Additional funding of $2 million would maximize housing options for those on the verge of homelessness by piloting a Seattle Rental Housing Assistance Pilot Program. A reinvestment of $2.5 million into Seattle’s communications capabilities is also on the table. An upfront Mandatory Housing Affordability payment of $2 million for affordable housing is also in the proposal.
Women in the referral network in need of immediate shelter due to domestic violence or other displacement events have long looked to Catholic Community Services (CCS) and Catholic Housing Services (CHS) programs. One example is Noel House at St. Mark’s Cathedral. The Women’s Referral Network is the method by which these women find the resources to have a clean, inviting, safe space to sleep every night. Noel House is able to accept 40 women per night. Currently, there is not a clear solution as to what will happen to these women should funding of the Women’s Referral Network be eliminated.
‘We’re in the midst of shifting strategies,’ Durkan said. ‘I think we have to focus resources on people to where they are to meet them in their crisis. ‘Far too long we’ve had this monolithic response to the homeless crisis and it’s shown that it hasn’t worked very well. I think we have to really focus on the various populations and one of those populations of women has not been well served. Mary’s Place really jumped into a vacuum where you had moms with kids who were very under-served in the system. I think we have to do more there. We have to focus on both women who have been abused with or without kids, but also on the kids themselves. And it’s not just the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. Those kids are the future of this country. If we don’t support them now, we’ll be supporting them in ways through their whole life. If you look at the difference in cost between supporting someone in shelter versus supporting them in good schooling, or supporting them in good schooling versus prison, the smart thing for society to do is to provide clean housing and good opportunity.’
There is not currently a realistic way to track the homeless population in tent cities throughout Seattle, Durkan said.
‘That’s another thing that’s been very frustrating,’ she said. ‘You come in with a lot of questions about how we’re going to decide how we help the various populations – who are victims of domestic violence? Who just lost a job and could use some re-training? We haven’t kept very good data. And there’s obviously a balance between keeping the data and privacy that we have to be aware of, but at the same time if we really want to make a difference in these people’s lives, we have to give them the resources they need. The only way to give them the resources they need is to know what those are.’
On the subject of sanctuary cities, Seattle is not backing down.
‘We were looking at all options and we knew the areas in which they [the Trump administration] would focus first would be immigration and marijuana,’ Durkan said. ‘So we had both legal and social strategies ready for that, and we think we’re both on the right legal footing and on the right moral footing. We will do what we have to do to protect the people in Seattle and protect legal businesses in Seattle.’
Sarah Toce is the Editor-in-Chief of The Seattle Lesbian