Homeless in Seattle? There’s more to those numbers

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Homelessness is one of those issues that just won’t go away.

No matter where or how you live, or even your income, education or income, finding, keeping and affording housing is a pressing issue.

If you have visited any major city across the country or around the world – or even smaller cities – you will see homeless people on a scale, and to a degree you never would have imagined possible.

By scale and degree I mean both the numbers of homeless people, their age range (from infants to the elderly) their background (many were professionals – and  about half of all veterans have been homeless at some point since their service) and the sheer tenacity of the impact of homelessness.

Those who find themselves homeless find themselves seemingly at the mercy of a whole, unstoppable cascade of secondary, compounding, co-occurring catastrophes.

And being homeless insures that they will continue – if not dramatically increase.

Not many of us will live in the home of our dreams, but not being able to afford shelter or personal safety at even the most minimal level should never be one of our options.

Homelessness could be described as a rolling, continuous state of trauma.

And it’s a trauma that could happen to any of us. As we get older, medical expenses may become overwhelming, or our primary, defining relationship hit a glitch, homelessness should not be yet another inevitable trauma on our  horizon.

Those tents and ragged shelters we see in our urban – or even not so urban – corners are expressions of personal calamity. No one arrives at any destination – even one so presumably near-gravitational as homelessness without a multiplicity of fiascoes, disasters, bad luck, poor – if not desperate, decisions – and deception.

Anything from unexpected eviction to a health crisis can trigger homelessness.

Nothing defines, literally within its walls, our past, our identity, our relationships and our values more than where we live.

And to lose that, by whatever means, is a shattering experience.

As with success, it takes many hands and many small  decisions, to end up homeless.

To restate the obvious, as with every social problem, there is no single cause for our multi-dimensional housing dilemmas – and no single solution.

And as with every social problem, there is no shortage of “experts” willing, if not eager to pontificate on the moral failures of the poor and the corrupt ineffectiveness of out-of-touch politicians.

This has been the script for all of human civilization. The abused have never been able to escape the blame for their own abuse, drug addicts or alcoholics are perpetually blamed for their situations.  (1*)

Even those kidnapped or captured (as with Senator John McCain) are often blamed (and maligned) for their captivity.

Our response to homelessness (and its common companion, drug or alcohol abuse) is a failure of policy – but it also, on the part of too many of us, a failure of comprehension if not compassion.

Too many of us rely on lazy stereotypes and either blame or defer all responsibility to authorities (and, as in the case of many, somehow do both at the same time).

No matter what else might be going on at the ground level, few things are as glorious as a spring day in Seattle. Photo: Morf Morford

No matter what else might be going on at the ground level, few things are as glorious as a spring day in Seattle. Photo: Morf Morford

Such is the case, it seems to me, of the recent KOMO TV special “Seattle is dying”. (2*)

To make the case that one of the fastest growing, most tech-savvy, internationally recognized trade based cities – and home to the two richest individuals on the planet – is at death’s door is contrarian at best.

I watched this TV special the first evening it was broadcast on March 14th, 2019. I have had time to process it and take in a variety of responses.

The intended goal of the TV special was to start a conversation – and it certainly has – although the conversation since mid-March has been more about the KOMO coverage than homelessness.

The conversation about the homeless – and their intrusion into the lives of  otherwise respectable people trying to go about our business – and enjoy our local parks, has been a continuing topic of conversation for more years than I’d want to even consider.

The scale of homelessness is hard to even take in.

I heard a representative of Tacoma Public schools report recently that there are about 1,800 homeless students in Tacoma schools this school year (2018-19). Enough, he reminded us, to fill a full-sized high school.

To presume that most, or even any, of these students are homeless because of their addiction or “bad decisions” is cruel, false, ignorant and heartless. And is far more reflective of who we are than of who they are.

The scale of the numbers of homeless people in Seattle is breathtaking – about double the number in 2014.

In other words, as Seattle has grown, so have its problems. Just like every other city.

The response to the KOMO TV special has been extreme – and for the most part predictable; The Stranger has a piece titled “KOMO’s ‘Seattle is Dying’ News Special is Killing Me” (3*)  and Real Change” (4*) a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice” presents their case from the point of view you’d expect from homeless advocates, while the more conservative media could not be more gleeful in its portrayal of the  (real or imagined) decline and destruction of “liberal”, “leftist” or even “socialist” Seattle. “Thanks Lefties” is how one online media source put it.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Rush Limbaugh had to have a program titled “Seattle Is What Happens When Liberals Run Things”.

He may be right, but when his target is literally the idealized goal of almost every city in the country, if not the world, his argument might not have the intended effect.

The “America Thinker” states it bluntly “‘Seattle Is Dying’ because Liberalism Is Killing It”. (5*)

In fact this article closes with this call to action – ” If Seattle voters truly want to cure to what is killing their once beautiful city, they must stop electing liberals.”

At least in their final sentence they are honest – their intentions are purely political – not homeless advocacy or addiction intervention.

So this issue continues to confound our urban growth, our legal system and our daily lives. (6*)

Ironies, contradictions and outright deceptions are everywhere on this issue.

To solve any problem, it is a good idea to ask some basic questions – the more basic, the better.

Is crime, property or against persons, higher now in Seattle?

The answer simply, is no. In 1994 there were 69 homicides. Over 60 murders each year was common back then. The murder rate is about half that now. Seattle had 31 homicides in 2018, the highest  number in ten years.

When in comes to per capita crime (numbers thanks to the FBI) Seattle ranks number 96 out of 100. (7*)  In other words, Seattle is far safer in terms of almost any category of crime than Anaheim, Honolulu, Wichita, Nashville and more than ninety other American cities.

Is Seattle one of the cities with the highest opioid addiction/overdose rates? No.

The city with the highest overdose fatality rate is Dayton, Ohio.

The city with the highest rate of drug use in the USA is Missoula, Montana. In a recent survey, 14% of all households reported illicit drug use in the previous 30 days.  (8*)

I know that facts are boring, but I’d like to imagine that our laws and policies would be based on facts instead of fantasies or stereotypes.

The issue of homelessness is surrounded – if not embedded – by assumptions and urban legends – most of which – like the one about the BMW-driving pan-handler – allow us to make up a story and blandly walk by a fellow human being in distress with a clear conscience.

The KOMO TV special bothered me on a personal level for several reasons. It struck me as sensationalistic, simplistic and amateuristic.

The hand-wringing about addicts around every corner serves no point except to raise the emotional temperature – which is, apparently, the intent.

Yes, addiction is an issue among the homeless, and based on my work with the homeless and addicted, if you  were homeless, you’d used be using drugs too.

Blaming liberal politicians for every social ill is lazy, false and certainly poor journalism.

Is this set of problems unique to Seattle? No.

Are homeless people flocking to Seattle because of its “liberal” policies? No. A  recent survey showed that more than 80% of King County’s homeless population grew up in King County. And only 6% come from out of state (www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/new-homeless-count-in-king-county-shows-spike-in-number-of-people-sleeping-outside/).

I’ve always urged my students to ask themselves practical questions – in this case, if you were homeless, would you move to Seattle? I think the answer is obvious – no one would.

Locking people up is not, and has never been a solution. We already have the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in history. Prison only marginalizes – if not traumatizes – an already vulnerable population.

Addicts and the homeless need to be restored and and reconnected with their families and communities. Not shamed and punished even more than they already have been.

They are not our enemies, they are our neighbors, co-workers and family members.

My final objection to ‘Seattle is Dying’ is that it suggests what King County (and every county in Washington state, it seems) always suggests – send addicts, prisoners, the mentally ill, sex offenders and every person in crisis to Pierce County.

It’s easy to rail against clueless and corrupt politicians, they seem to be everywhere and at every level. But my experience is that the vast majority are decent, level-headed citizens trying, many times with indescribable obstacles, to do their best.

As always, when you compare Seattle to Tacoma, the obvious relentlessly emerges – everything is bigger, busier and more intense there. If you want grime, crowds and opportunity beyond description – you can find it all in Seattle.

And, of course, there are reasons some of us prefer the pace and possibilities of Tacoma….

Got gum? If you do, save some for Seattle's infamous "Gum wall."  The Gum wall is a popular tourist destination and a dynamic tribute to the character of Seattle.   Portland has "Keep Portland Weird" signs.  Seattle needs no such signs. Photo: Morf Morford

Got gum? If you do, save some for Seattle’s infamous “Gum wall.”
The Gum wall is a popular tourist destination and a dynamic tribute to the character of Seattle.
Portland has “Keep Portland Weird” signs.
Seattle needs no such signs. Photo: Morf Morford

(1*)    I worked for over six years with Tacoma’s Rescue Mission. I can assure you that if you had the childhood, the trauma or the physical pain of most of my clients there, you too would be homeless, an addict or worse.

(2*)    You see it here

(3*)    https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2019/03/18/39630856/komos-seattle-is-dying-news-special-is-killing-me

(4*)    https://www.realchangenews.org/2019/04/03/lawmakers-hear-experts-after-komo-special?

(5*)https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2019/04/seattle_is_dying_because_liberalism_is_killing_it.html   This article was published on April 1st, so it may be parody..

(6*)    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/court-pours-cold-dose-of-reality-on-seattles-hot-homelessness-debate/?

(7*)    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_crime_rate

(8*)    https://www.crestviewrecovery.com/rehab-blog/most-drug-infested-cities/