Tackling Homelessness, Seattle Style

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

As has been reported in this space many times, the vexing problem of homelessness is a national disgrace but, so say the experts, it’s also a pretty tough problem to solve. Despite a recent survey by the Zillow Group implying there is a direct correlation between homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, most knowing authorities say it is a multitude of different reasons as to why individuals become homeless – and that no one cure fits all.

Indeed, as studies show, homelessness is not just a consequence of unaffordable housing but is, instead, a multi-faceted condition that researchers Alice Baum and Donald Burnes, who wrote a definitive book on homelessness in the early 1990s, say homelessness is a disengagement from ordinary society – from family, friends, neighborhood, church and community.

“Poor people who have family ties, teen-aged mothers who have support systems, mentally ill individuals who are able to maintain social and family relationships, alcoholics who are still connected to their friends and jobs, even drug addicts who manage to remain part of their community do not become homeless,” Baum and Burnes wrote. “Homelessness occurs when people no longer have relationships; they have drifted into isolation, often running away from the support networks they could count on in the past.”

Now, out of Seattle comes a thoughtful, well-crafted essay about both the sources of the homeless problem there as well as possible solutions – all of which is food for thought as California pushes through the issue. Chris Rufo is the author of the piece. He’s also a candidate for city council (“the Council”) seat representing the 6th District and, full disclosure, an elementary-school pal of my oldest son, who happens to be a resident of Seattle. Incidentally, my son has nothing to do with the Rufo campaign and he votes in a different Council district.

While the homeless paper is clearly meant for the campaign – Rufo takes on the both the Council as a whole as well as individual incumbents, including his opponent – it does contain lessons for California policy makers. For example, he has particularly sharp words for Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a self-described socialist who Rufo, I’m sure, disagrees with on almost everything. But, Sawant’s advocacy for one side of the homeless debate is universal: she authored a tax on Seattle businesses to deal with the City’s growing homeless problem, and says the dramatic rise in homelessness is due to increasingly unaffordable housing and the unreasonable rent hikes imposed by greedy landlords.

Armed with mountains of evidence to the contrary – including a recent study by King County which revealed only six percent of homeless individuals said they were living on the street because they couldn’t afford an increase in rent – Rufo says homelessness is profoundly more complicated. Indeed, the County report also points to a wide range of mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, addiction and job loss as greater contributors to becoming homeless.

Rufo also dispels several myths about being homeless, including:
* • MYTH: the homeless are working full-time but can’t get ahead (REALITY: County data show only seven-and-half percent are working full time);
* • MYTH: The homeless are “our neighbors” and native to the area (REALITY: According to City data more than 51 percent came from out of state); and
* • MYTH: The homeless want help, but there aren’t enough services (REALITY: According to County data 63 percent rejected stays in shelters).

He writes:

The central problem with these myths is not that they’re simply anti-factual,
but are an example of what sociologists call pathological altruism . . . in which attempts to promote the welfare of others which instead result in unanticipated harm. The City’s campaign of unlimited compassion has devolved into permissiveness, enablement, crime and disorder. Public complaints about homeless encampments . . . are a veritable parade of horrors: theft, drugs, fighting, rape, murder, prostitution, assaults, needles and feces.

Rufo also criticizes the City’s permissive policies such as dropping thousands of misdemeanor cases, like illegal camping, and directing police officers not to arrest homeless individuals for “minor” offenses, such as theft, destruction of property and drug crimes. (Many of these same policies have been tried in California.) Also, the City failed in a recent attempt to replace dozens of outdoor encampments by building publicly subsidized “tiny-house villages”. Result: police reported a 221 percent increase in crimes and public disturbances.

“The increase in street disorder is largely a function of the fact that heroin, crack, and meth possession has been largely legalized in the City over the past several years,” says top Seattle crime adviser Scott Lindsay. “The unintended consequence of that social policy effort has been to make Seattle a much more attractive place to buy and sell hardcore drugs.”

Finally, Rufo warns of a group he calls “The Addiction Evangelicals” – which is anxious to find a home in California – and its policy of “harm reduction” that has zeroed in on the homeless and is promoting a social agenda that endorses drug dependence. Recently, this group presented the Council with a plan to make certain areas of the City okay for shooting up heroin. But, Rufo investigated:

When I visited Vancouver, BC, and drove down Hastings Street, where
the Insite facility (famous for its “safe injection sites”, now being promoted in the City of Seattle) is housed, it was an apocalyptic vision of Seattle to come – a public health nightmare with hundreds of addicts lining the sidewalks, yelling into the sky and shooting up behind the dumpsters.

Unfortunately, the siren song of “harm reduction” combined with the state’s recent marijuana legalization has made Seattle a magnet for migrants on drugs. Again, over half of the City’s homeless population has relocated to Seattle for the narcotics and the services. Their interests were recently buoyed when a judge disqualified a widely supported ballot initiative to outlaw safe injection sites saying that “public health policy is not subject to veto by citizen initiative.”

The Council has commissioned a committee to develop and enact another 10-year plan – the first attempt failed – to end homelessness. But, most observers see it, like the one before it, going nowhere after the Chairman deemed the root causes of homelessness to be a combination of racism, wage inequity, climate change, housing costs, public transportation, sanctuary cities, the child-welfare system, brain injuries and mental-health and addiction services.

Rufo, among other things, recommends the following as a near-term solution to the problem of homelessness:
* • Immediately build emergency shelters containing 2,000 beds;
* • Utilizing teams of volunteers, remove the homeless from street living;
* • Consider a state policy for “re-institutionalizing” dangerously mentally ill;
* • Provide on-site addiction, mental health, and medical services;
* • Facilitate the provision of these services by qualified non-profits; and
* • Building more market-rate housing.

These aren’t considered a solution to homelessness, but an immediate response to the problem that’s growing in urban areas like Seattle. He says if the Council “can summon the political will, it can implement these: a series of emergency measures that will dramatically reduce the social disorder associated with street homelessness.” Rufo (rightly) goes on to say homelessness is a problem you don’t solve, you simply contain it, and he urges leaders to return “a policy of realism. We must acknowledge that compassion without limits is a road to ruin.”

It should come as no surprise that raising doubts about the City’s policies, Rufo has been criticized – by everyone, including intelligent people – as being a racist, lacking compassion or empathy and promoting systematic inequality. Of course, in this overheated political environment, he’s soon to be called a lot worse.

For a complete version of the Rufo essay, please go here.

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