Nothing could be more predictable. Trump has finally weighed in on homelessness, and liberals are to blame.
Here in Seattle, the president’s recent remarks on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” echo a familiar narrative of privilege, power and “filth” on our streets.
Homelessness, Trump said, is “destroying a whole way of life,“ and is “not what our country is all about.”
Ordinary citizens are the victims. “You have people that work in those cities. They work in office buildings. To get into the building they have to walk through a scene that no one would have believed possible.” The police, said Trump, “are getting sick just by walking the beat.”
Ominously, and in blatant disregard of history, our grammar-challenged president goes on to say that the homelessness we have now is new, and suggests we may need similarly unprecedented solutions.
“We are not very equipped as a government to be doing that kind of work. That’s not really the kind of work that the government probably should be doing. We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up,” Trump continued. “It’s inappropriate. Now, we have to take the people and do something. We have to do something.”
In Trump’s worldview, homelessness is a product of the progressive rot commonly found in sanctuary cities. “This is the liberal establishment,” Trump said. “This is what I am fighting.”
Here in Seattle, this has a familiar ring, fed by a toxic online culture and cheered on by right-wing media outlets that point to the KOMO news special “Seattle is Dying.” The story goes that our beautiful city will thrive only once the “liberals” who challenge wealth and power are swept aside.
A history of blame and repression
Homelessness has often been politicized in Seattle. Our darkest periods have occurred when rational policy debate has been eclipsed by political demagoguery. During these times, homeless people have typically been blamed and victimized for forces that lie far beyond their control.
During the depression era, this looked like clearing Seattle’s Hooverville by giving seven days notice before setting it on fire. In April 1941, the survival settlement burned to the ground for the last time, and the Seattle Port Authority condemned the remaining shacks and cleared the area for good.
The war economy brought full employment, and pro-labor post-war economic policies resulted in more than three decades of steady growth and decreasing inequality. Homelessness was reduced to a fringe phenomenon, mostly found among older, White male alcoholics.
By the 1980s, the economic shocks associated with a globalized economy, along with federal disinvestment in housing and human services, brought mass homelessness back to stay.
The new face of homelessness mirrored the map of economic vulnerability: families, youth, veterans and people of color.
By the mid-1990s, amid much overheated talk of downtown “blight,” Seattle followed then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s lead to target the unsightly poor. We passed “civility laws” to exile homeless people from commercial areas and joined other American cities in turning toward criminalization.
A decade later came the downtown residential high-rise gold rush, and Mayor Nickels’ declaration of “zero-tolerance” for urban camping. With this came a city-led narrative of filth and contagion, which identified homeless people with trash, feces, urine and needles.
At first, this looked like slicing tents open with machetes and trashing encampments without warning. Homeless people and advocates fought back hard, and a set of rules was created to offer formal notice, outreach and storage of possessions. Yet these contained large, problematic loopholes that persist today.
With the Great Recession came a brief pause in Seattle’s frenzied growth, and with that, a new round of blaming the homeless for Seattle’s empty storefronts. An aggressive panhandling ban was proposed by business interests, but vetoed by Mayor Mike McGinn.
Downtown interests and their media supporters, unaccustomed to losing, reacted like a cornered honey badger. The Seattle Times called the vote a “profile in cowardice.”
Yet, for a time, they calmed. After all, Seattle ranks among the fastest growing cities in the nation. Incomes, at least for the top 20 percent, are rising dramatically. The convention and tourism industry is experiencing record growth. And construction cranes continue to dot our skyline.
But the truce could not hold.
Politics of division and misdirection
As Seattle’s tech boom brought rapidly rising rents and ever-higher levels of radical inequality, rates of homelessness soared. When a modest employee tax on Seattle’s most successful businesses passed our City Council to raise $45 million annually for housing and human services, the honey badger came out of hiding.
A toxic civic dialogue flourished on websites like Nextdoor and the Facebook page Safe Seattle, resurrecting the anti-homeless narratives of filth and contagion from the Nickels era.
A progressive tax on the top 1 percent of highest-earning businesses was conflated with regressive tax fatigue, and popular support for the measure tanked. Amazon bullied and blackmailed the mayor and City Council into ignominious retreat, and Political Action Committee funded by the downtown interests mobilized to target every councilmember who ever opposed them.
Our mayor has appeased the law-and-order crowd by doubling down on homeless sweeps and replacing best-practices human services outreach with increased displacement and policing.
Trump’s recent blatherings only highlight what we already knew. Homelessness is being deployed as an urban wedge issue — dividing us with the rhetoric of fear and disgust — driving our “liberal” city politics toward a realignment that favors wealth and power.
The federal government has largely abandoned the most poor, and has left the urban areas that have the tax base to provide human services holding the big bag of social dysfunction that has ensued.
Now Trump is attacking the “liberal political establishment” in those cities for providing the services the feds won’t.
Ever since King County’s failed Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, local government and human service providers have been aligned on one truism: Localities don’t have the resources to solve the problem, and we will end homelessness only when the federal government comes to the table with the resources we need.
We’re still waiting. And Trump’s idea of “doing something” is unlikely to be what we had in mind.
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. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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