It’s a common refrain about homelessness in Seattle: People are flocking to the region for the overabundance of free services. Like the supernatural villain in a horror flick who’s stabbed, doused with gasoline and set ablaze, then subjected to a Latin incantation aimed at sending them to parts unknown, the notion of Freeattle doesn’t want to die. It’s still inhaling deep breaths of falsehoods despite evidence to the contrary.
Many cling to the belief that unhoused people aren’t local. Clearly they all must be from some other city. Spoiler alert: They’re your former neighbors and former high school classmates.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Aren’t they just moving here to get shelter?’ I’m going, well, crap, there’s more people living outside than are in the shelters so it doesn’t make any sense to even think that way,” said Rick Reynolds, executive director of Operation Nightwatch. “We’ve got a lot of feeding programs but a lot of those feeding programs and free giveaway programs are keeping people in their expensive housing. So it’s not just the homeless people that benefit from that compassion and care.”
Operation Nightwatch is a grassroots organization providing vital assistance to those on the street. More than two decades ago, Reynolds was asked in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle if people were moving to Seattle for the social services. The phrase “Freeattle” hadn’t made it into the local vernacular just yet but the sentiment was there just as strongly as today.
Reynolds partially credits the rising visibility of our homeless neighbors as a contributor to the belief they are flocking here in droves from other places. Tents are no longer limited to wooded areas and under bridges.
“They’re not coming from anywhere. They’re neighbors. They were living in apartments six months ago.”
“They’re not coming from anywhere. They’re neighbors. They were living in apartments six months ago,” Reynolds said. “I think the perception is just like this migrant group of hobos like from the 1930s just following the work around and try to use up resources wherever they go.”
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Perhaps the Freeattle myth reached peak pervasiveness with the creation of a parody song with the same title courtesy of KIRO radio host Dori Monson. Nearly two years ago the vocal conservative aired a song written by one of his listeners and performed to the tune of Bobby Sherman’s “Seattle.”
Originally written as a theme song for the television show “Here Come the Brides,” the song lauds the beautiful blue skies of the area. KIRO listener Pasithea C. converted the lyrics from “Like a beautiful child, growing up free and wild / Full of hopes and full of fears, full of laughter, full of tears / Full of dreams to last the years in Seattle / In Seattle” to “We have laws, they don’t care, the stench of meth fills the air / We give them stuff then they steal ours / The politicians in their ivory towers / Hand out free restrooms and public showers in Freeattle / In Freeattle.”
It only gets more insensitive from there.
All Home King County’s survey during the yearly count of our homeless neighbors showed that 77 percent of respondents reported living in King County at the time they recently lost their housing.
Two recent surveys run counter to the Freeattle narrative. All Home King County’s survey during the yearly count of our homeless neighbors showed that 77 percent of respondents reported living in King County at the time they recently lost their housing; 20 percent of respondents reported being born or growing up in King County; and 24 percent reported having lived in King County for a decade or longer.
The city of Seattle’s Homeless Needs Assessment survey showed 49 percent of respondents reported they were living in the city of Seattle when they most recently became homeless.
The city of Seattle’s Homeless Needs Assessment survey showed similar results: 49 percent of respondents reported they were living in the city of Seattle when they most recently became homeless; 31 percent report being originally from Seattle; of the 69 percent of respondents not originally from Seattle, 15 percent report living in Seattle for a decade or more.
Felicia Salcedo from All Home King County said people often ignore the data and rely on personal experience they’ve had with someone who is homeless.
“People have one interaction with someone experiencing homelessness and then they conflate that with the entire population,” Salcedo said. “It sticks in people’s minds when they do have those experiences as opposed to the data that we collect on the broader population.”
Because it’s a myth she encounters often, Salcedo shares information she learned from Jennifer Ho, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official, as a rebuttal.
“Every single community thinks that other communities are sending their homeless,” Salcedo said.
Ho said that people want to blame local homeless populations on outsiders, but it’s impossible for every community to be importing homeless people from the outside.
As the fourth fastest-growing city in the nation, people are attracted to the Emerald City for a number of reasons. Low unemployment, higher wages and an abundance of jobs are among them. Reynolds sees commonalities between the person who moves here for a six-figure gig at Amazon and his grandfather who relocated here in 1937 from Kansas City to work for better pay at the shipyard.
“They’re coming because they think there’s going to be an opportunity here that they don’t have where they came from,” Reynolds said. “Most guys that I talk to that get stuck in Seattle and have to use shelters came here to get on a fishing boat, came here to get an $18-an-hour job working as a security guy or a janitor. They had a friend that told them they could stay with them; it didn’t work out. That happens. Relationships break down and they’re stuck.”
Salcedo and Reynolds say when people arrive in Seattle is beside the point.
Salcedo and Reynolds say when people arrive in Seattle is beside the point. They’re here and they need services.
People who are homeless are contributing financially through sales tax and the federal income tax. According to the city’s Homeless Needs Assessment, 41 percent of homeless people have full- or part-time employment.
“There is no doubt that we’re a generous and loving community,” Reynolds said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but that kind of community. A community that cares about everybody, not just the wealthy.”
Rather than debate who is worthy of help, Salcedo wants those who are housed to stop “othering” those who aren’t because we need everyone to participate in the solution. She stresses that homelessness isn’t caused by personal failings and character flaws. It’s a systemic issue inhibiting people from succeeding.
“It’s school systems, it’s health care systems, it’s criminal justice. It’s our legacy of racism in our national and local politics,” Salcedo said. “It’s all those things and I think that gets really messy for people and really muddled, but it’s really critical that we talk about it and that kind of issue as opposed to saying that some people make bad decisions and that’s why they’re in a situation that they’re in.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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