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?

Shortcuts

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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10 COMMENTS

  1. So what , in your opinion, happens to those that refuse and no longer have your compassion? Do they get sent to prison to mix with actual criminals? What crime would they be charged with?

    In my opinion, the idea that someone who has been addicted to drugs for years will suddenly shape up with that one extra chance is just as naive as believing that building social housing will solve all our woes.

    Like the article mentions, the whole system needs a rework, not one part of it and until then our compassion as a society has to extend further than “you get one shot”.

    • You do realize that possessing, selling, and using illicit drugs is illegal and those partaking in these activities are committing a criminal offense, right Kyle? Good, glad we got that out of the way.

      Neither me or Michael are suggesting a “one strike you’re out” rule. As I highlighted in the comment below, I firmly believe that substance abuse must be managed first before a homeless person struggling with addiction has any realistic chance at holding down a steady job/maintain stable housing. I’m a proponent of continuing the sweeps and to elaborate on the what I think could work re: addiction:

      1) If a homeless person is swept up and a case manager/medical care professional identifies them as high risk for substance abuse or the individual seeks out rehab then they are offered treatment at a resident facility.

      2) If a homeless person is caught in the act by police using illicit drugs then they are ultimately given the choice of either being charged with a criminal offense or have the charge deferred and receive treatment at a resident facility. If they fail to comply with treatment X number of times then the choice is removed and they are charged/deferrals are reinstated.

      After successful completion of the treatment program the recovering addict is assigned a case manager who will assist them with finding employment/climbing up that housing ladder I discussed below.

      • Of course I understand that. Your scheme implies that everyone can be fixed. There are people out there who can’t be fixed. By that I mean they may never be a functioning members of society due to ,yes, drug addiction, but also terrible childhoods, broken homes, etc. We may have to take care of them, as a society, until the end. That’s my issue with people saying their compassion ends after some line in the sand and then sending them to prison to mix with murderers and the lot.

        Your outlined plan isn’t a bad one, it just doesn’t account for those who may never be able to make the conscious or right-headed decision to get treatment, or those that are just too broken to function in society.

  2. According to this FB post by Eric Johnson, Seattle is Dying is about drug abuse and addiction. He has already done a special on homelessness. I do agree with Brian Nelson where he writes: “Part of the solution needs to include increased funding for treatment centers to assist people, like the gentlemen featured in the Crosscut article, while they work to overcome their addiction. If they are unwilling/refuse to participate and instead continue to choose to lay strung out on sidewalks/parks/public spaces, well that’s where my compassion ends.”

    https://www.facebook.com/EricJohnsonKOMO/posts/2310518712342975

  3. I think we can all agree that there are several paths to homelessness: economic hardship, running away to escape domestic abuse, mental illness, addiction, etc. Where we differ is the solution; here’s a general outline of what I think should happen:

    When people are “swept” out of their encampment the first place they should end up at is a temporary housing facility. Whether it be a tiny house village, a building, or large FEMA tents, the facility offers a warm sanitary place to stay, bathrooms, showers, food, donated clothing, and access to onsite medical care professionals. They are also assigned a case manager/social worker whose goal is to work with the person over the next several weeks to find them employment. Once employed and their finances have stabilized they are then transitioned out of the temporary housing and into a low income unit where they less frequently continue to work with a case manager. At this point the formerly homeless person is no longer in crisis mode and can focus on re-establishing their life. This approach continues the sweeps and requires building both more temporary housing facilities and low income units. This doesn’t mean build them in the heart of Seattle but the low income units should be located in areas that offer accessible public transportation so people can get to/from work.

    I see the housing path out of homelessness as:
    tent/couch/car -> a temporary housing unit (FEMA tent, tiny house, etc) -> a low income housing unit (SHA or similar) -> an affordable housing unit (as defined in the MHA)

    Just as important as the housing path are the services provided along the way.

    A note about addiction:
    These are the homeless that tend to be the most visible, have the hardest time finding/maintaining stable housing, and provide the biggest nuisance to everyone around them. If these folks have any shot at maintaining a steady job/living in permanent housing then the disease that is their addiction must be managed first. While it’s their choice to abuse substances, I do think it’s our responsibility as a city/region to provide a path to recovery. Part of the solution needs to include increased funding for treatment centers to assist people, like the gentlemen featured in the Crosscut article, while they work to overcome their addiction. If they are unwilling/refuse to participate and instead continue to choose to lay strung out on sidewalks/parks/public spaces, well that’s where my compassion ends.

    • Great article. I love reading a little national and historical context that are so often missing from the discussion of homelessness.

      I do not love two new commenters repeating the same right wing talking point in back to back comments. This Komo piece and these commenters- Brian Nelson and Michael Rice- seem to be here as part of a general strategy to divide Seattle and discourage any actual action on these issues.

      I am afraid that we have quietly entered an era in Seattle politics where right wing astroturfing is impacting local issues. The head tax backlash had a strong smell of it and when I read about how the Koch brothers helped defeat the Nashville transit package with an army of paid organizers, I get concerned.

      I hope our city leaders recognize this threat and rise above what may continue to appear as a growing rage in our city against homeless people, taxation, social housing, transit and other such social engineering.

      • Yikes. Here I was thinking that I was providing a reasonable and thoughtful outline for what I believe would be an effective way to assist people getting off the streets and into housing.

        A little about me: Have lived in King County my entire life and in Seattle proper since 2005. The last time I watched KOMO News was when Bruce King was the lead sports anchor and Eric Johnson was just his budding little assistant doing sports themed “Eric’s Little Hero’s.” Stay away from cable news and prefer to consume my journalism from the PBS News Hour, Washington Post, NYT, CHS Capitol Hill, Crosscut, and occasionally here. Huge fan of Obama, supported HRC in 2016, and yes, opposed the head tax.

        All this is to say, if you think I’m some sort of right winged troll then you’re sorely mistaken my friend. Might be a good idea to take a look at yourself and wonder why you have such a knee jerk reaction to paint a message that you disagree with as astroturfing rather than trying to engage.

        • Thanks for that Brian. You’re right. It was a knee jerk reaction to seeing the same line about compassion having its limits in two posts in a row. I reread your comment after I posted that and realized you are sincere. Sorry to jump the gun.

          The truth is I have no way of knowing what motivates commentators online but I get frustrated when I see a rising wave of comments like Michael Rice’s cut and paste repetition of your quote with a link to KOMO’s website that still seems very unusual for this blog. And I certainly am not making up this strategy. You can listen to how a Democrat in Alabama actually employed the strategy in the last senate election in Alabama on This American Life.

          To address your actual point, if you don’t feel compassion for drug addicts on the street, so be it. Frankly, I can’t blame you and I don’t htink it is particularly germane to to the issue of what we do to address the problem of drug addiction. But, if you are implying that as a society we are spending too many resources to assist drug addicts, you are sorely mistaken. The conflation of those two things is the wedge issue. Yes, we all get numb to the sight of heroin addicts nodding off on our streets, but it still makes much more sense to house them and connect them to drug treatment and yes, make sure there are people who have the ability to treat them with compassion than it does to save money by not doing those things.

          If you are aware of any sort of drug treatment program that is effective and deals with people with a lack of compassion, that is something worth sharing. But to conflate your attitude toward someone you see on the street with how we should act as a society to address the issue of drug addiction or homelessness misses the point. We need to take collective action because none of us has the infinite compassion and resources to address the issue on our own.

          • Drew, thanks for meeting me in the middle, and yeah, totally agree that more often than not comment sections just devolve into a cesspool of snaky and disingenuous replies – if I’m being totally honest I’m not guilt free from occasionally adding to them.

            Now onto addiction & homelessness; buried toward the bottom of my first comment I wrote:

            “…While it’s their choice to abuse substances, I do think it’s our responsibility as a city/region to provide a path to recovery. Part of the solution needs to include increased funding for treatment centers to assist people…”

            I elaborated a bit in my response Kyle:

            “…If a homeless person is caught in the act by police using illicit drugs then (should be) ultimately given the choice of either being charged with a criminal offense or have the charge deferred and receive treatment at a resident facility. If they fail to comply with treatment X number of times then the choice is removed and they are charged/deferrals are reinstated…”

            I completely agree that housing/treatment first is the correct approach and that more resources/funding needs to be devoted to it. I’m personally advocating for building resident treatment facilities that become mandatory for homeless who are arrested for drug related offenses and also are offered to homeless that volunteer for rehab/identified as high risk during their transition into employment/housing. The facilities provide: 1) immediate shelter 2) treatment to address/manage their addiction 3) case managers that will integrate them with other services available to homeless. If they successfully complete the program and once they gain employment they are then shifted into SHA-esque housing.

            If this is the approach the region took and “they are unwilling/refuse to participate and instead continue to choose to lay strung out on sidewalks/parks/public spaces, well that’s where my compassion ends”

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