From Pearl Jam to PR Campaign: How the Seattle Foundation Helps Fight Homelessness

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready tear it up at Safeco field, August 2018. (Photo Credit: Pearl Jam Homeshow’s Initiative)

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready tear it up at Safeco field, August 2018. (Photo Credit: Pearl Jam Homeshow’s Initiative)

By Amanda Palleschi

Seattle is home to fresh fish, tech giants and grunge rock.

But it’s also the site of the nation’s third-largest homeless population.

With that in mind, The Seattle Foundation has been actively working with nonprofits, government, and some of the city’s most famous residents to tackle a controversial and often-misunderstood issue.

Last summer, the foundation partnered with Pearl Jam — the Seattle-based rock band — for a series of benefits called The Homeshows concerts that raised nearly $11 million to help support nonprofits working with Seattle’s homeless population.

But the foundation’s efforts extend far beyond this important, high-profile effort. The concerts helped kick start efforts by the foundation and other partners to form new alliances and work with county and city officials in a more coordinated way, says Fidelma McGinn, the foundation’s Chief Philanthropy Officer.

The result is a targeted effort to provide access to funding to as many as 300 service providers across King County to address homelessness. Many of these organizations provide wraparound services to help people in immediate need and connect them to additional services.

“Prior to this, frankly, it was a very fragmented effort,” McGinn says. “The city of Seattle would do something and it would not be coordinated with the county, and individuals would be lost in the system.”

But even as this effort has taken root, homelessness has become a lightning-rod issue in Seattle.

This spring, Seattle’s KOMO-TV aired a controversial documentary called “Seattle is Dying.” The hour-long special featured interviews with police, drug addicts, business owners and others over macabre music and sweeping drone shots of homeless encampments. The report portrayed Seattle’s homeless as wayward, mentally ill people who pose a threat to public safety (and property values), and can’t be controlled by local law enforcement’s too-lax crime policies.

While the report called greater attention to the issue, many in the city’s philanthropic and nonprofit community believed it spread harmful disinformation about the root causes and effective solutions to homelessness.

“The piece was of the opinion that this intractable problem was a stain on our community and a blight and all the effort to try to solve it had failed,” McGinn said, adding that it portrayed property and homeowners living next to homeless encampments as the true victims. “They painted this picture where homeless people should be criminalized and it had this attitude...that they got there because of poor choices they made.”

The foundation, along with partners in the philanthropic, hospitality and nonprofit communities and homeless advocacy groups, worked together to develop a media strategy that aimed to correct the narrative. They began with an open letter, developed fact sheets and a social media campaign, and placed op-eds in major media outlets. 

“The group that had come together last year really came out with some good myth busters and counterarguments and statistics that helped take the narrative in a different direction,” McGinn said. 

Amanda Palleschi