I like to think that this ugly thing we’re witnessing — call it the great “Seattle Is Dying” disruption — is a watershed moment that could lead somewhere good. Change begins with acknowledging what’s broken.
Seattle is not dying. That’s click-bait KOMO bull-crap; an act of political framing that appeals to fear, invites victim blaming and bends toward reactive solutions to complex problems.
Seattle, if anything, is doing a little well for our own good. We are the second-fastest growing city in the nation. Incomes among the wealthiest 20 percent are soaring.
We are a glitzy, rich city, defined by our billionaires and “Frazier” and tied with San Francisco for most unequal city in America. Both cities have the same problem: Amid the wealth, people are dying, and it isn’t pretty.
This is hard to watch and even harder to experience. There is shame in this. Shame that easily turns to blame.
But here’s a place to start: Our systems are, indeed, deeply broken.
Our mental health system — which triages a flood of human misery to channel appallingly scarce resources — is visibly failing to meet any standard of adequacy.
The failed “war on drugs” has, in King County anyway, stepped away from harshly punishing addiction, but has yet to give way to supportive investment in treatment and services that meet people where they are.
We have a deeply dysfunctional criminal justice system that has long been a bulwark of institutional racism. Mostly, incarceration just increases the brokenness. This costs all of us. This too can be changed.
Successful programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and Vital, which seek to build bridges of repair and redemption within that system, operate at a fraction of the scale that is needed. These are places to build.
The 2019 Count Us In results tell us that homelessness in King County has decreased by 8 percent, but tent camping is up by 32 percent. What are we to make of this?
What we’re doing is both working, and not. Veteran, youth and family homelessness all show encouraging declines, as they have in the past. More people are moving from shelter to housing.
It turns out that when we strategically invest resources, we make gains.
Housing First works. Early intervention works. Homeless prevention works. The farther we go upstream, the better we do. And housing, ultimately, is the answer. It’s hard to heal from anything when you’re mired in trauma and bare survival.
Housing, ultimately, is the answer. It’s hard to heal from anything when you’re mired in trauma and bare survival.
Since the Homeless State of Emergency was declared three years ago, the power to shape Seattle’s response to tent encampments has resided with the mayor. Our “state of emergency” was less an urgent commitment to action than a seizure of power to control policy.
This hasn’t gone well. The mayor’s strategy has amounted to a policy of displacement and enforcement. We’ve fenced off large unauthorized encampments and broken them into little ones. The landless then migrate through our sidewalks and interstitial spaces, avoiding both capture and help.
It is a pointless guerrilla war that we have lost because policing isn’t the right solution. More removals with less outreach just churn the misery faster. It doesn’t stop the dying, but it does make people harder to reach.
More removals with less outreach just churn the misery faster. It doesn’t stop the dying, but it does make people harder to reach.
If you don’t want people camping on sidewalks, offer somewhere to go that’s safe and allowed. Where there’s support instead of harassment and a constant open door to services.
When we see misery, mental illness and addiction on our streets, and yes, criminal behavior that affects our quality of life, we are right to seek change. Even to be angry.
Not the bad faith anger that manipulates homelessness as an urban wedge issue. Not the kind of anger that lays the burden of decades of multi-level system failure at the feet of City Council progressives.
But the kind of anger that is rooted in compassion for those who suffer, and works urgently toward solutions that heal.
No. Seattle isn’t dying. But we can do much better.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Read the full June 12 - 18 issue.
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