It’s not hard to look around our city and notice what’s changed in the last decade. There are more tents and more people in visible distress. There’s more litter, and more “Detroit diamonds” sprinkling the gutter to remind us of last night’s smash-and-grab. We also notice the other changes — the ones that more directly impact us. The higher prices and longer lines at the grocery store and gas station; more traffic that makes us late.
When a city grows, things change and there are more people with more needs. And suddenly, it seems like what was once a little town is now a big city with all those big city problems. It’s easy to blame the changes on the people you assume are new here — especially when those people live outside in the open where their impact is the most visible.
But in addition to the fact that most unhoused folks tend to be local, the truth is that more than just the number of people living among us has changed.
In Washington, the minimum wage, which voters elected to increase in 2016, topped out at $15.74. That’s a 71% increase over the last 10 years, outpacing the rate adjusted for inflation by a little less than $2 per hour. On paper that sounds great for workers, but in reality, it doesn’t even begin to cover all of the other increases.
During that same time, housing prices have increased 155%, and the cost of food, gas and other basic needs have increased exponentially faster than wages. We also now pay more for health care services, utilities and basically everything else.
Which means that a person working hard — working full time, every day — has just never been able to catch up. They are just one injury, one bike crash, one family crisis away from losing everything. And that’s what’s changed. Thirty years ago in Seattle, most people who earned an honest living could afford a mistake or a bit of bad luck. But about 10 years ago, that started to change.
It’s easy, as housed people, to look at someone in a tent and assume the worst: that they came here just for the free handouts (which, are they?) or that they’re where they are because they were too lazy or “crazy” to get their lives together.
But what we don’t see is all of the things that have changed around all of us and the ways in which those changes have not impacted us equally. Seattle has certainly changed a lot, but for many, that change has only brought disaster.
Read more of the Nov. 29–Dec. 5, 2023 issue.