DESC Fires Back at Unsubstantiated Accusations in ‘Seattle Is Dying’ Sequel

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The Morrison (pictured in the left corner) was the centerpiece of "Fight for the Soul of Seattle" citing the frequent 911 calls. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

KOMO anchor turned self-anointed homelessness guru Eric Johnson is seeking to recapture the magic of Seattle Is Dying in a new sequel released this month. While in the original Johnson proposes locking up homeless addicts in a prison island near Tacoma for forced substance abuse treatment, the villain in “Fight for the Soul of Seattle” is Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), a Seattle-based supportive housing and homeless shelter provider.

There’s plenty of holes in KOMO’s conservative narrative, but from a journalistic integrity standpoint, no error looms larger than the fact Johnson never even sought comment from DESC to confirm his outlandish claims, which impugned DESC’s motives and organizational mission.

“A recent project by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, ‘Fight for the Soul of Seattle,’ conflates and simplifies complex issues, mischaracterizes DESC’s mission, and ignores our successful track record housing and supporting some of the city’s most vulnerable and marginalized people,” DESC wrote in a response released Monday. “The producers of the show never reached out to DESC to request information or an interview. We have deep expertise on these topics, and would have provided details about our work and pointed them to decades of research on proven interventions in addressing homelessness, drug addiction, and other behavioral health issues.”

“Dodge Nearing Jr. might still be cycling through state hospitals, rehab, his parents’ house and the street without permanent supportive housing.” (Photo and caption by DESC)

DESC proceeds to correct Johnson’s slapdash theory of addressing homelessness, a cause DESC has been dedicated to for four decades. With a Sinclair megaphone, Johnson’s gut-feelings about homelessness got a ton of attention, while a nonprofit like DESC must fight uphill to gain support, despite their wealth of direct experience fighting homelessness. Seattle Is Dying got national attention and has over eight million views on YouTube, and Fight for the Soul of Seattle is already past 1.5 million.

Johnson’s idea centers around getting tough and doling out longer prison sentences and forced treatment for addiction–an affliction he wrongly assumes is the primary cause of most chronic homelessness. He melodramatically begins his 90-minute “documentary” by claiming anarchy reigns in Seattle, a theme he hammers repeatedly.

“I’m going to say some hard things about this place–not because I don’t like Seattle, but because I love it,” Johnson dramatically narrates. “And I’m going to start by saying this: Seattle no longer feels the need to stop anyone from doing anything for any reason at any time. The most stunning city in America is dying alright.”

The DESC patiently points out that supportive housing has the evidence to support it where forced treatment does not: “Forced treatment was abandoned because it doesn’t consistently help people and it often hurts them.”

Likewise, most of the homeless people shown in the documentary are human set pieces. Unless they confirm his narrative, Johnson doesn’t talk to them and instead narrates over longshots taken without the subject’s permission. This allows him to invent stories for people he’s never met–ostensibly in the cause of saving imperiled souls. But he never asks how people living in shelters and supportive housing–some of them already dealing with mental illness–cope with a pandemic and recession that’s making life hard for everyone as social support networks fray under the strain of distancing.

Johnson never discusses the issue of crowding in prisons increasing the risk of spreading coronavirus–and prisons have been a major hot spot across the country. He just wants to fill up jail cells even if it’s a de facto disease and even death sentence as jails become overcrowded. While the Pacific Northwest had avoided the worst of this trend, recent signs point to outbreaks in our prisons, too.

The whole thing oozes of suburban gaze refined into conservative propaganda. Johnson channels the perspective of people who commute into Downtown Seattle from the hinterlands just wanting clean streets devoid of poverty, so they don’t have to furrow their brows on the way to a sporting event or a cozy high-paid office job. Is it erasure or healing they want?

In contrast to the KOMO model, the DESC is focused on supportive housing with a continuum of care, providing tenants the ability to stabilize their lives and willingly chose treatment rather than coercing them. The reason this model is superior is not because it makes bleeding heart liberals feel better. It’s because it works–relying on hard evidence rather than anecdotes.

“For well over a decade, we have opened up our low-barrier approaches to housing and support to researchers at the University of Washington and DePaul University,” DESC writes. “Every single research study conducted at our sites has demonstrated that the more you respect people’s autonomy and meet people ‘where they are,’ the more they stay off the streets, the less they drink, the fewer problems they have, and the more money taxpayers save on publicly funded services.”

Part of why Johnson targets DESC is because they signed on to the Decriminalize Seattle coalition (as did The Urbanist) urging the City to cut funding for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) in order to increase funding for community-based public safety and health instead. He also blames The Morrison, the DESC’s supportive housing complex and headquarters, for crime on Third Avenue, noting that 500 block sees the most crime and 911 calls of any block. Of course, the County Jail and Courthouse being around the corner is also linked to that distinction.

Clearly the special is politically motivated, with Scott Lindsay co-producing and starring in the piece. Lindsay was a tough-on-crime public safety advisor to former Mayor Ed Murray who ran for City Attorney in 2017 against Pete Holmes and took just a quarter of the vote. Some expect Lindsay to run for City Attorney again, and his strategy seems to be doubling down on conservative stances.

The special stretches out to 90 minutes as Johnson meticulously lays out a revisionist history of 2020. Two events take center stage: SPD abandoning East Precinct and Carmen Best resigning. In both cases he manages to blame the Seattle City Council while ignoring the complexity of what actually happened.

The memorials along the East Precinct police station--now christened the Capitol Hill Community Center--keep growing. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
The memorials along the East Precinct police station–briefly christened the Capitol Hill Community Center. SPD has since put up barricades. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

A little bit of mystery surrounds East Precinct abandonment because neither Mayor Jenny Durkan nor Police Chief Carmen Best say they gave the order. They have instead passed the buck to the precinct commander on duty, but rather than punishing this commander, they’ve sought to deflect blame. On July 1st, Mayor Durkan sent in her troops to retake the East Precinct and sweep the CHOP. So the lasting negative effects of the abandonment and the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) seems largely to do with injured pride at SPD and anxieties about being fodder for conservative propaganda rather than signaling Seattle is actually an anarchistic state.

Chief Best with a Downtown Seattle buildings and street behind her. Video is here: https://www.seattle.gov/police/together
Police Chief Carmen Best in recent “Bridging The Gap” video. (Credit: City of Seattle)

Likewise Johnson omits some key details on Best’s resignation. “The reality is that City Council ran her out of town,” Johnson said. In her own words, Best said the main reason she quit is because she didn’t want to do any layoffs, which the Council had requested. And the inconvenient truth for Johnson’s sob story is Best landed on her feet, quickly snagging a job locally as a KING 5 law enforcement analyst plus a gig nationally as an MSNBC contributor. Her SPD pension will be well into the six figures, which she confirmed before resigning. Carmen Best is going to be alright, and she may have had one foot out the door no matter what the City Council did. It’s easier to play a police chief on TV than in a living breathing city in the midst of a reckoning over racial justice and stalled reform efforts.

Best is also cited as they claim that diversionary tactics won’t work, branding the Council’s strategy a “social experiment.” Johnson and Lindsay are skeptical of this “permissive strategy” and also upset that the No New Youth Jail coalition tried to block the County’s new juvenile detention center and call for an end to youth incarceration. As they lean into tougher sentencing and policing, the racial impact of our criminal justice system is glossed over.

Johnson’s dream is to establish an involuntary treatment center called “Hope Haven” that wouldn’t be a prison, but you wouldn’t be allowed to leave. All the problem cases would go there and we’d wash our hands of it. It’s seductively simple. DESC offers a dose of reality: “To date, there is no evidence to support the idea that coercive treatment or the criminal legal system are effective treatments for substance use disorders, mental illness or homelessness.” They cite an expert, whose talk lays this out in detail.

Rather than make connections to broader societal ills like the skyrocketing housing costs in Seattle, the KOMO special dumbs it down. The pandemic and recession means thousands of Seattleites have lost their jobs or seen their businesses bleed money or go under. While high-end apartments have seen prices go down, many people renting lower in the market haven’t seen relief as their finances have tightened. Meanwhile, the market for buying homes is only getting more ungodly expensive as more people seek to upgrade and get more space to quarantine in.

“But what is different now from decades ago is that with our population and growth boom has also come thousands more people who are suffering on the streets than in any period before. Multiple studies have connected this increase to the rising cost of housing,” DESC correctly noted. “And when you have many more people suffering, you are going to see more problems in the areas where suffering people congregate.”

There is a fight for the soul of Seattle. But that battle is about maintaining our compassion and better virtues even when it’s tempting to lash out or sweep problems under the rug. It’s about solving root problems rather than only playing whack-a-mole with symptoms. KOMO’s documentary has shown us the alternative to a compassionate holistic approach and it ain’t pretty.

Correction: An earlier version state the prison island Johnson highlighted (McNeil Island) was near Everett, but it’s actually near Tacoma in the South Sound.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Deborah ARTHUR

Absolutely Right. Ants..

PNW Local

Doug, your “evidence” does not align with the observable world in Seattle. I’ve worked as a first responder on the streets of Seattle for 25 years and conditions there are much worse over the past 4 years than at any other period in my lifetime. The “compassion” being shone to some folks that are homeless by allowing them to live in public spaces and take what they want from anyone they want without penalty is not benevolence. Indeed, anarchy is the norm in many parts of Seattle, that is not debatable. I don’t understand why the needs and wants of a very small portion of the area’s population get to impact our city in such dramatic and awful ways? And yes, many of the people living on the streets of Seattle are not from our region, I know because I get to interact with them regularly in my work life. This area is a bastion for their way of life many say; so hospitable and generous is the shared sentiment; “we can live how we want”.
Indeed, the people that pay all the taxes that support all these (aforementioned) programs are beginning to evaluate the “results”. Seattle is a world class city; it surly does not look like it right now. So, I will continue to raise my family of 5th generation Seattleites on the eastside where I don’t have to worry constantly about their safety and security. I’m not alone in choosing to not go to Seattle anymore, it is a shitshow there.

Anonymous

The KOMO piece was imperfect and definitely one sided, Sinclair can be a propaganda machine for sure, but this documentary made two major points very clearly that I think are widely accepted:

(1) homelessness must not be made illegal (something on which people across the spectrum agree), but

(2) homelessness also should not be enabled by allowing openly illegal behavior, ignoring shoplifting, and allowing mass tent cities (something you certainly don’t need to be a far right winger to support).

It seems to be on that second point where the we disagree (and where the super-progressives are out of touch). I have compassion for those who are homeless, but I also have compassion for those who want to live in a city where drug use, trash, and filth aren’t prevalent. Somewhere that we’re proud to call home.

You correctly point to the housing crisis as a major causal factor, which needs to be addressed for sure. But that isn’t an excuse for lawlessness in the streets.

I’m glad to see in this comment chain I’m not the only person who agrees on this point.

Ryan L Edwards

YES!!! Finally someone tells it like it is, thank you!!!

John Crichton

As a lifetime Seattle native, who has a half-century living in and around the city, I can say with certainty that Eric Johnson is nothing more than a reactionary propagandist who knows next-to-nothing about the problem of homelessness in this region. The bulk of homelessness prior to 2010 was primarily the result of untreated mental illness, and the city and state’s horrible lack of mental health treatment and support.

After 2010, the bulk of homelessness was caused by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google importing tens of thousands of people a month into the region, causing housing costs to inflate at an obscene rate, and displacing numerous poor and blue-collar working class people from their homes. Worse, a huge percentage is also those who were moved here by the megacorporations, then laid off from their jobs within two years, dumping them into a community without sufficient housing, and mired in debt from their relocation costs.

Worse, not only did the city, county, and state governments refuse to invest in creating affordable housing (while giving massive tax breaks to those self-same megacorporations that were causing the problem); but they also bulldozed a great deal of low-income housing and replaced it with luxury condos and upper-middle-class “mixed use” projects.

“Fight for the Soul of Seattle” is yet another in a long line of anti-homeless, anti-poor, anti-blue-collar reactionary hit pieces funded by the megacorporations who run this city and its surrounding suburbs.

Johnson’s banging on about locking up all the homeless also makes me wonder if he’s invested in the for-profit prison industry; because this is exactly the sort of propaganda they’ve been hitting us with for two decades now. I’m willing to bet he’s lodged firmly in their pockets.

Anonymous

All of what you said about the causes of homelessness are true, and none of it was disputed by the documentary. The point of the documentary is that the answer to the housing crisis isn’t to allow lawlessness. Yes we need housing, we need more services, but we also can’t allow the streets of Seattle to be a shitshow.

Anonymous

no one ever seems to address the lack of treatment for mental health or addiction in our state, or that many of the people on Seattle streets are not from Seattle. Seattle is a social experiment.

Brendan

This has been a problem well before the pandemic. It seems that the “evidence-based strategy” that you speak of is allowing criminals to run freely unprosecuted, destroying property, stealing from wherever they want whenever they want. Allowing people to not only possess any drug they desire, but allow it to be sold and taken anywhere, again unprosecuted. Go ahead stay in your tent at the kids playground and shoot up heroin, all part of your strategy?!

It seems the “investment” you speak of is getting rid the only protection these businesses and people had. Not only defunding police but attacking them. You’ve invested new policies to decriminalize creating a free for all, you really think the pandemic hurts businesses more than the fact that noone wants to shop in a store that is crowded with and surrounded by people shooting up, shitting on the sidewalk outside the store that’s boarded up from all of your buddies throwing rocks through their windows.

Your evidence-based strategy is what is the problem, and the investments are taking the city the wrong direction. Eric Johnson’s anecdotes should open your eyes.

Seattle services

I think you got that reasoning backwards. Pain must be greater to stay the same if you want them to change.

RB

Amen. And I’m a longtime Democrat.

Shawn Nelson

Great post!

Anonymous

Corona virus is spreading in jails, so we can’t lock people up?!? Thousands of “free” citizens are getting it. You lost the sliver of legitimacy you had with that one. I’ll never understand the lefts unending enabling of criminals.

Anonymous

I live in Olympia and nobody here wants to go to our own downtown let alone Seattle’s! Homeless gather where there are liberal services…..drugs or not, mental illness or not. The protests, boarded windows and the pandemic play into the lack of tourism and fear.

Pretending you are helping by taking grants and giving out services doesn’t fix anything…..the pain to change must be greater than the pain to stay the same to create change.

Anonymous

I live in Seattle, so I am here 24/7. Those videos don’t even scratch the surface. Suburban White Folks are completely delusional in Washington. Stop congratulating yourselves on your radical liberalism and maybe go actually talk to a minority in the city, but not a bum or homeless drug addict. Go talk to the minority folk who work hard everyday despite the shit filled world y’all have created for us. Remember you are all unwanted Colonizers!

#decolonizenow

Regino F Maldonado

You only need to walk by it for yourself to see who is not being truthful. Seattle is a dangerous dump.

Jmk

The DESC has only been trying for 40 years. They need more tax money, and another 100 years.

Jules James

Involuntary Commitment is what I took away from the documentary. The documentary is spot-on portraying an addict’s life on the streets. We need to start the job of forcing addicts into long-term treatment. We can only start the funding process when Seattle returns to enforcing all laws equally. If there are no consequences when drug addicts steal public land for private use and shoplift “for need”, that drug addict will continue to betray family and friends. That self-harming individual will continue to prey upon the social services that are needed by productive people who are struggling, defoliate our greenbelts, and continue to desecrate our urban landscape with the ugly sidewalk scenes of lawless hopeless depravity. The shopkeepers of our city deserve better. “Compassion” means involuntary commitment for addiction treatment. Government policy is perpetuating the agonies with addict death as the most expected way out. That is cruelty.

James

This article is even more biased than the video. The results are clear. We’ve had DESC and Seattle’s policies for years now and the problem has only gotten worse. We have 3x the number of homeless as Houston with only 1/3 the population! Maybe we should continue down the permissive path of California so we can match L.A. and San Francisco!

Daniel Thompson

As someone who lives in suburbia I can tell you the blogs there are filled with comments from citizens who believe Seattle is Dying and Fight For The Soul Of Seattle, and they get into Seattle enough to see what is going on.

Unfortunately those 8 million and 1.5 million YouTube hits include tourists, which is not good for a city that in the past generated a lot of tax revenue from tourism, especially with Bellevue and other eastside cities just across the lake. CHOP didn’t help, abandoning a police precinct, or the protests/riots, or the resignation of Chief Best, or the decision by Mayor Durkan to not run again after four previous failed mayors after claiming on national TV that in Seattle CHOP is considered a summer of love. Public proposals to end prosecution of misdemeanors or property crimes also does not help. The closure of Bartells on 3rd and Macy’s on 4th, and all the boarded up stores hurts. Business owners in Seattle have been very vocal about their dissatisfaction.

The reality is there are two Seattle’s: 1. the neighborhoods which are quite lovely for the most part, although 22% of parents send their K-12 students to private schools, which would be higher if more parents could afford private school, the second highest percentage in the nation; and 2. the downtown core where I have worked for 30 years (Pioneer Square). Say what you will about DESC, but we are spending close to $1 billion/year regionally in federal, state and local homeless aid, and the problem is getting worse. The consultant Seattle hired was very critical of the lack of objective results, endless number of agencies, and lack of coordination, and the the Seattle Council ignored her report.

Seattle is Dying and Fight For The Soul of Seattle were not made by folks who hate Seattle, or competitor cities like Bellevue. The makers may have a different ideology than many progressives although they have lived here for 30 years, but most citizens and tourists are not nearly as progressive as Seattle residents. What really hurts is when these folks come to Seattle and see what they think looks a lot like what they saw in the videos, or see Seattle on national TV.

The question is why would Seattle residents or progressives or DESC care about what these documentaries claim if the makers of the documentaries are biased or the depictions not true? Because they will hurt business and tourism, and progressivism needs a lot of tax revenue, and maybe because they worry the documentaries are revealing the truth in many cases. Vacancy rates have been falling by quite a bit and rents too for housing in downtown Seattle, and meanwhile it seems like the Urbanists have abandoned the downtown core for the outlying exurban neighborhoods when the true housing and retail density should be downtown, except both require safe and populous streets to thrive.

Douglas Trumm

“The consultant Seattle hired was very critical of the lack of objective results, endless number of agencies, and lack of coordination, and the the Seattle Council ignored her report.” This is false. The council backed many of the suggestions including establishing a regional homelessness authority and running more of the policy through there. Seattle held up its end, but the authority has been plagued by delays even getting a director. The same consultant (Barb Poppe) came out against the sweeps that have continued during the pandemic. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/what-durkans-legacy-on-unwinnable-issue-homelessness-looks-like/

Like KOMO, you overlook the pandemic. That’s the biggest reason tourism has nosedived. Downtown is far less bustling because many major employers have instituted work from home. Downtown businesses suffer for those reasons, too, but homeless people make a juicier scapegoat. The pandemic also makes staying in a tent seem more attract to a crowded shelter in many cases.

The Puget Sound Business Journal cobbled together and circulated that billion dollars per year figure, but only $746 million was claimed to be spending on homelessness, the rest was indirect costs. Even that report admitted it might not be enough since “Building 12,000 units would cost $3.6 billion.” And 12,000 is likely not the right target since it’s a static measurement that would only houses everyone homeless at that point in time, rather than accounting for the fact more people become homeless over time, particularly as rents rise, which they also acknowledge. https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2017/11/16/price-of-homelessness-seattle-king-county-costs.html

There’s no cheat codes or short cuts. Arresting our way out of this problem won’t work. It takes real commitment to evidence-based strategy and investment. What feels like commonsense to folks like Eric doesn’t work in practice. If he knows otherwise, he should point to evidence rather than anecdotes.

Anonymous

I’ve read your article and the two articles you provided. You claim that the DESC has “decades of research on proven interventions in addressing homelessness, drug addiction, and other behavioral health issues.”

However neither your article, nor the links you provided above, actually contains data that shows they have any evidence of proven these interventions. You make it appear that they know how to get drug addicts to stop using drugs and being homeless. But you don’t. Your lying. No evidence exists. If it did, you would have provided it. They don’t actually have the first clue. The treatment isn’t working. The homeless problem isn’t getting better. These issues are getting worse.

If I’m wrong, please provide the decades of research the DESC has that they have proven evidence of how to successfully get people to stop using drugs and how to stop being homeless.