Tacoma and The New Urban Crisis


A makeshift home near City services Photo by Morf Morford

A makeshift home close to City services
Photo by Morf Morford

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

It seems that every city has clusters of homeless camps with masses of tarps, tents and makeshift shelters. Everyone hates these collections of disconnected people. I’d guess that those who inhabit them hate them more than those of us who drive by, and probably far more than the city officials who come up with strategies to move, clear out or attempt to provide services for those people.

If you have seen any of the surveys, many of the homeless are veterans, too many are children and a huge percentage have mental health issues. If they didn’t start out with drug or alcohol problems, eviction, dislocation and the hygiene and safety issues wrapped around homelessness would lead almost any of us to escape from the shame and hopelessness any way that we could if we were in that situation.

Every city has this same problem, yet almost every city sees it as unique to them. If every city has the same problem, it is all too obvious that homelessness is a problem far larger than any one city’s solution.

Tiny houses, housing vouchers, provision of essential services and drug and alcohol interventions are more like rescue operations; they are not solutions. And they don’t address the conditions that created homelessness on such a scale.

Two homes near Tacoma's 6th Avenue Photo by Morf Morford

Two homes near Tacoma’s 6th Avenue
Photo by Morf Morford

Yes, we’ve always had homeless people – but never so many – and never so public. There is something fundamentally different now about our economy and our accessibility to housing.

In previous years housing was seen as shelter – not so much a right in the legal sense as a basic, affordable aspect of human dignity and decency – especially for families – of any income level. Now of course, housing is seen by everyone, from builders to homeowners to policy makers and financial advisors as an investment. Everyone expects a “return” on their real estate investment.

As prices inevitably go up, more and more people are priced out of the market. Older not-so-profitable houses and apartments are torn down and replaced with housing units with a far higher rate of return. And everyone wins – at least everyone who can afford to play the game sees a return on their investment.

And more and more renters and low-income people end up evicted with nowhere to go. Most of them can’t afford to go far, so we see them in our streets, our parks and our public spaces. We might even see some familiar faces there – people from our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools.

Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” has a new book that addresses and defines these challenges that seem to paralyze every urban center – and are even worse in those cities that are focal points for technology. His premise is that the middle class is imploding and the “new” economy has some major winners – and far more losers.

It’s much like the original gold rush in the 1840s – even in some of the same cities. As in the 1840s, fortunes are being made, but for every one who strikes it rich, a hundred find themselves priced out, evicted or scraping by on a (near) minimum wage.

Florida’s thesis is that we are losing something central to the historical identity of America – our balance of a thriving middle class and a tiny minority of wealthy and an equally tiny minority of poor with a healthy consumer and tax base is shifting to an inherently unequal, near Feudal state. Florida uses the term “winner-take-all” to define this emerging economic philosophy.

“The New Urban Crisis” was completed before the 2016 election. Florida, like many, assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected and would address the momentum of this increasing inequality.

The election of Donald Trump, though unexpected, makes sense in retrospect. Trump is the walking personification and ideal apostle for what could be called the economic philosophy of the early 21st Century. This philosophy could be summed up by the classic board game Monopoly; one player wins while everyone else loses.

Mr. Trump touts “winning” as an organizing theme of his new and developing administration. His “winning,” as in the game, presumes many “losers.”

Any student of history learns that a consistent pattern is that parallel (though usually opposing) forces often emerge concurrently. Hitler, Churchill, FDR, Mussolini, Tito and Stalin each defined and embodied their national priorities and philosophies.

You could make the case that the “winner-take-all” philosophy is the guiding theme of ISIS, Kim Jong-un and many more. This would be the living out of the assumption that one reigning party or philosophy precludes all others – in fact the sacrifice of the poor, weak or otherwise “undesirable” is key to its success – if not confirmation of its inherent superiority.

Kim Jong-un impoverishes and oppresses his own people in the name of progress expressed through the development and threat of nuclear annihilation. ISIS embraces chaos, death and destruction in support of its prevailing, supposedly “holy” cause. Terrorism is the perfect vehicle for its peculiar understanding of “winner-take-all.”

You don’t need to be a historian to realize that this belief system is inherently destructive, if not suicidal. And it is not a game; people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake – as are our cities and civilizations.

There are those who question shelter as a basic human right. There are even those who question eating as a basic human right (http://thehill.com/homenews/house/335580-gop-rep-avoids-saying-whether-every-american-is-entitled-to-eat) and even access to water is up for grabs (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-right-clean-fresh-water/)

Every philosophy runs its course. Some build empires, others leave the world in ashes and some do both. Justifying starvation, injustice and slavery as the “cost” of “winning” seems like a return to the ugliest aspects of the darkest times in human history. Most of us never imagined we would see such things ever again.

Candidate Trump told us that we would “win” so much that we would get tired of it. I don’t know about anyone else, but the idea of  “winning” at the expense of the earth, the future and those unwilling or unable to defend themselves doesn’t feel like “winning” to me.