Tents in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

KOMO 4’s Seattle is Dying documentary hit Seattle like a giant stink-bombshell. Homelessness has been a big issue in Seattle for a while, but the documentary focused attention on particular elements of the crisis–spoiler alert: both the analysis and the proposed solutions were bad. Nonetheless, it got a lot of play.

And while the general rule is the fact check never receives as much attention as the falsehood, in this case rebuttals received a ton of attention. David Kroman said his article (which included an interview with the guy used as an exemplar hopeless addict in the special despite being housed now for several years) was his most-read Crosscut story ever by a wide margin. Gene Balk showed that crime stats are on a downward trend from highs in the 1980s and early 1990s–in spite of the assertions and doom and gloom framing of the special. For our part, we published a take by Professor Sara Rankin and Michael Maddux late in the news cycle and still it was our second most-widely-read story of the year so far.

For our coverage at least, this really marks a shift. We write about homelessness here and there, but generally those articles are not particularly widely read. Other urbanism topics generally get more attention. But, with the realization the Right-wing is on the march on the issue, interest is really growing in homelessness and progressive solutions to the underlying issues that are creating it–thorny issues like poverty, lack of affordable housing, rising health care costs, and neglect of the mental health system.

Eric Johnson and KOMO suggest rounding up homeless folks and taking them to a prison island off the coast for mandatory treatment–conveniently all the problem cases are assumed to be addicts. That this idea is brandied about and being taken seriously is waking a lot of folks up. This is good. We need to be awake to solve this crisis.

But let’s turn our attention to ideas more rooted in reality and compassion. How about building more supportive housing? How about a social housing building spree to ease displacement pressure? How about universal health care that doesn’t treat mental health as an afterthought? And as for funding, how about dedicating progressive revenue sources that serve the dual purpose of narrowing our gaping wealth inequality at the same time?

Advocates for homeless folks feel a sense of deja vu as the same ideas are debated. The City of Seattle and King County have been tussling with the issue for many decades.

Local Historical Context

In 1986, eight years in to his mayoral tenure, Charles Royer identified the social service system as overwhelmed and tried to diagnosis some fixes. The problem persisted. On the campaign trail in 1998, Mayor Paul Schell vowed to end homeless before the new millennium. He convened a regional homelessness task force but obviously failed to meet his ambitious goal. Ironically, the package of solutions the task force came up remain very similar to what every future task force has proposed–whether Mayor Ed Murray’s “Pathways Home” task force or Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “One Table”. Ideas are not in short supply, but implementation and follow through is.

For its part, King County launched a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in 2004. That effort was rebranded as All Home–point-in-time counts suggests they haven’t shrunk the size of the problem in a decade, even as interventions have helped it from ballooning even larger than it has. The problem looms large. King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force Five-Year Action Plan put the need at 44,000 affordable homes. The 2018 point-in-time count estimated more that 6,320 unsheltered homeless people in the county, with another 5,792 folks in homeless shelters.

Seattle has vacillated between polar opposite approaches to homelessness:

  1. Stamp it out and sweep it under the rug. This is the approach that brings us anti-panhandling laws, frequent homeless camp sweeps, involuntary commitment, and prison islands. Criminalizing homelessness is seen as a deterrent and tough love folks need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Critics call this a cruel and never-ending game of a whack-a-mole.
  2. Investing in care, housing, and support for homeless people. The Housing First model of supportive housing is one way Seattle has tried to reach people where they’re at to get housed first and deal with drug and mental health treatment once stably housed. The challenge is the approach requires having enough supportive and affordable housing–and that is expensive in a market as hot as Seattle’s.

Sticking on one theory of change has not been a strong suit of Seattle’s response to homelessness. We bounce back and forth between the two approaches and some leaders try to embody both–even when they work at cross purposes, such as when care providers tell us that sweeping camps make it harder for them to build relationships with unhoused folks and get them to accept help or stabilize their lives. The sweeps also cost a whole lot of money that could be spent housing folks.

National Historical Context

The typical conservative playbook has been to point to local government funding for homelessness service, which is generally on an upward trend, and posit that homelessness not being closer to disappearing means the approach failed. We just need to better invest the funding we already have, that convenient talking point goes. This ignores the structural challenges we’re up against–many of them exacerbated by the neoliberal turn in politics, which has entailed the federal government weakening the social safety net.

Reagan ushered in the era of gutting public housing, for example. The managed decline of that social housing stock means that increasing numbers of low-income folks are at the mercy of the private market. Concurrently, Reagan engineered the market to be more hostile to low-income folks as he rolled out Enterprise Zones, which targeted low-income areas for hyper-investment via tax breaks, displacing and ratcheting up the rent burden on residents. Bill Clinton rebranded them Empowerment Zones but continued the policy approach. Trump expanded and rebranded them Opportunity Zones, carving out further tax breaks in his signature tax-cuts-for-the-rich package. In short, American leaders have placed the policy focus on gentrifying working class neighborhoods rather than building working class neighborhoods.

Welfare reform has also hit low-income households hard. Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996, replacing it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a block grant program which has weakened with time. 69% of families in poverty received government assistance just before the reform, but by 2016, just 23% of such families received help. Employment assistance has not been a strong element of the program despite the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” intent of the reform. The results is millions of kids in deep poverty–8% of Washington state students are homeless–more than 40,000 kids!

In such an environment where the federal government is helping poor people less and less while using tax policy to focus development in low-income areas, is it any surprise homelessness is on the rise? Do we expect a few extra million dollars at the City level to single-handedly stem the tide as much larger scale federal programs wither and late-state capitalism tightens the noose?


So, the challenge is great, but maybe there is a shortcut to fixing homelessness?

People seem to be looking for one. Whether it’s newfound fiscal discipline or a shiny new app. More and more, it feels like there isn’t one. An app cannot make more housing magically appear or take the place of a social worker or a medical professional. In the end, vanquishing homelessness for good may well require a fundamental reordering of society, renewing forgotten commitments to social housing and the social safety net.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.