After the KOMO special “Seattle is Dying” — a one-hour, lurid portrayal of homelessness and drug addiction in the Emerald City — hit the airwaves on March 13, Washington state Senate Republicans called a press conference.
Opening remarks at the press conference from State Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup), ranking member of the Homelessness, Affordable Housing and Mental Health Committee, reflected the program’s tone and language.
“We have people dying of drug overdoses in our streets. We have laws that are not being enforced. Neighbors do not feel safe. This is a crisis we can no longer ignore,” Zeiger said.
However, what followed almost a week later was two hours of testimony and careful questioning by lawmakers of both parties. They asked and answered fundamental questions about the overlapping crises of homelessness and substance abuse afflicting not just Washington, but the entire country.
The work session brought together voices ignored by the KOMO special, including groups that specialize in health care, housing, shelter and case management. After each presentation, lawmakers asked what they could do to help solve the crisis.
The work session brought together voices ignored by the KOMO special, including groups that specialize in health care, housing, shelter and case management.
“Housing,” said Melodie Pazolt, acting assistant deputy director of the state Health Care Authority’s division of Behavioral Health and Recovery. “We need more housing.”
It was a consistent refrain.
Professionals in the field want a mix of housing to meet a range of needs. Affordable housing to help low-income people who cannot cover the rising cost of living. Market-rate housing to smooth the cost curve for middle- and higher-income families. Rapid-rehousing for people who need a little help to get back on their feet.
Permanent supportive housing for people like Robert Champagne, who, as reported by Crosscut, was once chronically homeless and addicted to opiates but has now been housed for more than three years. Filmed at a vulnerable moment but never interviewed on camera, Champagne was featured as an example of the “wretched souls” that make up a crisis that violates our jewel of a city.
KOMO declined to answer questions for this story about their reporting approach.
“Seattle is Dying” focused on drug and alcohol addiction, separating people suffering from these illnesses from the “real homeless,” purportedly those who are willing to work but can’t make ends meet. To suggest a solution, reporter Eric Johnson traveled to Rhode Island to learn about a Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) program, an opioid treatment administered to incarcerated people.
Evidence-based methods of addressing other mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders were conspicuously absent from KOMO’s one-hour exploration of the topic.
So were key data points including the dearth of opioid treatment available in the state.
The Buprenorphine Pathways Program opened by Public Health-Seattle King County in January 2017 was at capacity within 13 weeks. Calls to a recovery helpline for referrals to addiction treatment services jumped 48 percent between 2016 and 2017. The state caps the number of patients at methadone clinics unless counties ask for a waiver, artificially restricting the supply of treatment spaces.
Derek Young, Pierce County Councilmember for District 7, told lawmakers that for every 10 people asking for opioid-related medication assisted treatment, they had one opening available.
“If someone raises their hand and says they’re ready for treatment, they’re ready for help, we need to be ready to say yes,” Young said.
Homelessness and drug addiction do intersect, and housing is still critical in those circumstances, said Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, one of the largest emergency shelter and housing providers in Seattle.
“There is no medicine or health care intervention as effective in improving outcomes than permanent supportive housing,” Malone said.
“There is no medicine or health care intervention as effective in improving outcomes than permanent supportive housing.”
Homeless people face many obstacles to getting substance abuse treatment. Things like state-issued identification, health insurance and transportation are all necessary to access and stay in treatment, but they are more difficult for people with no home to acquire and maintain.
People still try. Some have had as many as 16 prior attempts at treatment before getting into housing, Malone said.
“It’s not for lack of wanting to be better, wanting to be different or trying to be better, trying to be different,” Malone said.
The work session aired on TVW.org, which airs content from the legislature and other public-focused productions. It isn’t likely to have the viewership of the highly publicized news special, which was set to air four times in the month of March and as of April 1 had 1,669,108 million views on YouTube.
Sara Rankin, director of Seattle University Law School’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said fear drove the virality of the video. She called the special “intentionally provocative and counterproductive.” She decided that the best response was not to go out guns blazing, but to try to bring people closer to her understanding of homelessness and its solutions.
“We need to, all of us, on all sides, understand that ending chronic homelessness is a shared interest, and if it’s a shared interest, we have to share in the solution,” Rankin said.
“We need to, all of us, on all sides, understand that ending chronic homelessness is a shared interest, and if it’s a shared interest, we have to share in the solution."
Solutions don’t just mean reducing visible homelessness. They mean safeguarding community resources. Rankin and the Third Door Coalition — a joint venture between business leaders, service providers and researchers — point to the cost effectiveness of getting people who are chronically homeless into stable housing.
Chronically homeless people use more emergency services, which are expensive and largely funded by the public. The cost of keeping a person in the hospital for three days is as much as housing them for a year, according to Kelli Larson of Plymouth Housing. Punitive alternatives are also expensive — a three-month stay in county jail comes with the same price tag as a year in housing.
It can be hard to make the case for giving housing to people that viewers of “Seattle is Dying” might see as undeserving, but Rankin says she’ll keep trying. Homeowners themselves must cope with rising property taxes and other costs of living in the city.
“I’m tired of preaching to people who agree with what I have to say,” Rankin said. “I want to change minds.”
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Seattle is splitting, not dying
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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