In a recent poll conducted by the Seattle Times and career pollster H. Stewart Elway, residents of King County were asked about homelessness, policy and prevention. Areas of question included personal priorities, trust in local government and feelings about spending.
The poll — like basically all polls — is not representative of the population it seeks to understand. The pollsters reached just .02 percent of the population of King County and the majority of respondents, for example, were homeowners, even though the split of renters and those who own a home in Seattle is almost exactly even.
Still, the results quickly provided a kind of Rorschach test in Facebook threads; the general “compassion” expressed was hailed as proof that Seattle is not, in fact, a town of grouchy, nimbys. Meanwhile, the distrust of local politicians has been held up as evidence that what we’re currently doing — whatever that may be — isn’t working.
Most people said they wanted to see more affordable housing being built, though the poll didn’t ask whether folks would be OK with that housing showing up in their neighborhood. About a third of respondents said they favored a “zero-tolerance” approach to bringing people inside — which usually means throwing them in jail and offering no services or support whatsoever — while 43 percent of people stated that they believed homeless individuals, themselves, could be doing “much more” to solve the problem.
What hasn’t been addressed adequately, though, is how little the respondents seem to know homelessness, in general. When asked in the privacy of their homes, residents of the area still, perhaps in an attempt at self-preservation, will blame people, not systems, for their problems —even when there is abundant evidence to the contrary.
According to the Seattle Times, “ percent cited addiction and substance use as the main cause of homelessness, and 26 percent mentioned mental illness.” Looking at the city of Seattle’s 2017 Homeless Needs Assessment document, however, more than 45 percent of homeless individuals don’t use any substances, while less than 30 percent report alcohol use — much less than that of the general population. The Needs Assessment also found that the single biggest catalyst for homelessness isn’t substance use or mental illness — it’s the loss of a job.
This is, to my mind, what this poll presents — the tragic, awful truth that, regardless of outreach and news stories and a constant barrage of information, the belief that homeless individuals are somehow at fault prevails. That is what I see in the ink blot.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
Read the full Feb. 6 - 12 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.