Dying Seattle, Part Two
One observation made by Jim and Deborah Fallows in their 2017 book, Our Towns, A Ten Thousand Mile Journey into the Heart of America, has haunted me.
After visiting scores of American cities and towns the Fallows observed that to the extent local debates mirrored the framework and polarization of national politics, a municipality was likely to be in trouble.
Where, on the other hand, people worked on their problems without framing the issues in terms of the nation’s polarization and culture wars, a town or city tended to be making progress and prospering.
I thought of the Fallow’s observation as I’ve watched the response to Eric Johnson’s KOMO video, “Seattle Is Dying.” Critics were quick to impose the national political framing, noting that KOMO is owned by Sinclair Media, which has supported Trump. Conclusion: “Seattle Is Dying” is right-wing propaganda.
Johnson addresses this charge among others in his recent response to critiques of his program.
In addition to the Sinclair attribution, Johnson’s critics have also claimed that he offered stereotypical and degrading portraits of the homeless with no evidence that he had actually talked to such people.
So it is noteworthy that Johnson’s response begins by describing an evening sitting with six people addicted to heroin in a North Seattle motel room. “I liked every one of them . . . and of course they broke my heart,” says Johnson of the six. He goes on to describe the terrible sadness he and his family have experienced when one of their own has been enslaved by the same addiction.
Crucial in this follow-up piece from Johnson is his claim that we aren’t facing a homelessness problem but a drug addiction problem.
Again, many of his critics deplored his apparent simplification of homelessness as only about the victims of drug addiction. Johnson’s response? That was his focus — that portion of the homeless population. Other of his programs had taken a broader view. It is with this group that current responses are not only ineffective, but are failing to confront reality.
“After ‘Seattle is Dying’ aired, some brought up the other “faces” of homelessness. Not all homeless are addicted to drugs, some of you said.
“And do you know what? I couldn’t agree more. Spot on.
“Those suffering from addiction are only a subset of homelessness. A desperate, destructive subset that happens to be ruining our city.”
Nor is Johnson advocating a simply punitive approach, as some have asserted.
He argues for a two-step of “enforcement and intervention.” Many of those he interviewed in a successful Rhode Island intervention and treatment program said that their arrest was a blessing. They would not have gotten into treatment on their own. If you’ve spent any time with people who are suffering from an addiction, you know how true this is.
The critique lodged against Johnson of “lumping all the homeless as drug-addicted,” might be turned around. Lumping all sorts of situations and causations under the umbrella of “homelessness” may be a hindrance rather than a help.
I’ve long felt that Seattle is actually doing a pretty good job with those who are homeless because of a job loss or a that medical emergency or being priced out of the rental market. Not perfect, but good. There are many effective programs and services. People have worked hard at this. But addiction to heroin and meth is a different challenge altogether. Which is Johnson’s point.
One critique I haven’t heard of Johnson’s piece that I would offer would be aimed at all of us voting citizens.
Have we voted for, pressed officeholders and candidates to fund programs that treat addiction and mental illness? Or have we thought “somebody should do something,” but “don’t raise my taxes.” At this point, so much money is being directed to “homelessness” that voters are likely to be skeptical. That challenge must be faced and voter confidence won but for specific and serious responses that do not enable but address addiction and other pathologies.
Tyrone Beeson of the Seattle Times offered a more nuanced response to Johnson’s piece than some. Yet he still felt the need to defend Seattle as a compassionate place. It is as if our municipal self-image is more important than dealing with the challenges before us.
Our self-image, whether we are truly “compassionate” or not, really isn’t the issue. Compassion needs to be clear-eyed and effective.
In Christian circles there’s an expression, “sloppy agape.” Agape is one of the Greek words for “love.” “Sloppy agape” denotes love that is sentimental, unleavened by wisdom and discernment, love that is emotive but ineffective.
Johnson may be suggesting that at least some of our compassion is “sloppy agape.”