This weekend, “60 Minutes” looked at homelessness in Seattle and got it sorta right. There has been a dramatic rise in unsheltered homelessness on the West Coast, and Seattle has the third highest number of homeless people of any city in the nation. About a third of these are unsheltered.
These are just the plain facts.
The reason that homelessness is rising in Seattle and other places like it, says “60 Minutes,” is not complicated. The cost of housing — driven by that thin expanding slice of the wealthy that is moving here — has risen by 60 percent in Seattle over the past five years alone.
Seattle, along with other tech-heavy West Coast cities like San Francisco, is a magnet for high-earning individuals. They are drawn by lucrative work, cultural amenities geared to the wealthy, and low taxes for the rich.
But for the rest of us, there’s an obvious downside. Woody Guthrie got this right about the West Coast back in 1940 in a song: “But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got the do-re-mi.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan told Anderson Cooper that Seattle has homelessness on the run. “We’ve added 500 shelter beds,” she said, “taken down 1,000 illegal encampments and secured funding for 5,000 units of housing in three years.”
Not so fast, Jenny. This makes it sound like there is shelter to go around and that the solution to housing affordability is only a matter of time. No, and no.
Recent rounds of homeless sweeps under Mayor Durkan have mostly increased the stress on unsheltered people and made them less likely to accept help. New shelter beds have swiftly filled, and little is available to those being displaced that hasn’t already been rejected.
In Seattle and everywhere else, the homeless people who get helped first are those who are most sympathetic: families, veterans and youth. The most visible homeless people, on the other hand, are those that the system has most consistently failed: people who are unsheltered and often struggling with disability and addiction.
And that 5,000 units of housing the mayor talks about? It’s a start. An independent analysis published last year by McKinsey & Company says the region requires at least 14,000 new housing units that are affordable to people who are homeless. That means free or deeply subsidized.
While “60 Minutes” draws a straight line from rising inequality to higher housing costs and increased homelessness, that line of inquiry falls safely short of reaching any real conclusions.
Instead, they offer without comment that President Trump has signed an executive order to explore how housing deregulation might increase supply. Maybe this is their idea of “balance,” but Trump’s proposal is hardly a serious policy solution.
The private market exists to provide housing at a profit. If anyone gets housed in the process, that’s incidental. Under this system, those who provide no profit get no housing. No amount of deregulation will change that.
“60 Minutes” also looks to charitable giving. Amazon, for example, has committed $2 billion to homelessness and early education. They estimate their cash and in-kind gifts to Seattle’s Farestart and Mary’s Place at $130 million. Apple, too, jumped in, pledging to spend $2.5 billion on homelessness in California.
These efforts are necessary but insufficient. Real solutions to homelessness will require about $30 billion in housing subsidies annually. But more to the point, these corporate behemoths must stop pretending they’re our saviors and just pay their taxes like everyone else. Public priorities are best served by public funds, not private charity.
Which brings us back to the problem “60 Minutes” mostly avoids: radical inequality.
To solve homelessness, we need to revisit how the crisis came to be. Since Reagan, we’ve disinvested in essential public goods like housing, health care and human services.
We have done this to disempower the poor while delivering one tax break after another to increase the wealth and political power of the rich.
We have, over the past four decades, severed the relationship between wealth and the public good. Repairing this disconnect is where real solutions to homelessness need to start.
The causes of homelessness, as “60 Minutes” says, are really not that complicated.
What they don’t say is this: Given a bit of political courage, neither are the solutions.
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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