Heretical Thoughts on Homelessness
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described the sign of a “first-rate intelligence” as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
If Fitzgerald was right, we have seemed short on first-rate intelligence when it comes to homelessness in Seattle.
One idea, firmly held by many, is that homeless people are victims of poverty and injustice. Or a more nuanced statement, the increase of homelessness in Seattle is due to the sky-rocketing cost of housing.
The real culprits are corporate giants like Amazon, with blame to go around for greedy developers and landlords. The solution, and the job of the city, is to provide more support services, more shelters, and more low-cost housing.
The other idea is that is that the homeless are neer-do-wells, drug addicts and petty criminals.
In this view, famously liberal Seattle is enabling bad behavior by its tolerance of street camps, hand-outs and growing expenditure for homeless services. Such a view was stated, with considerable passion, at a recent Town Hall meeting in Ballard.
These two ideas are opposed. And, as it happens, both are true, or at least have elements of the truth to them.
Some years ago I served a congregation in Honolulu where we were stuck on the horns of a similar polarity. At any given time, the church had two to three dozen people living on its grounds.
A fair number of the congregation saw our homeless residents as free-spirits, the 60’s living on. Others saw them as bums and bad actors. Into that breach I foolishly stepped.
After slamming up on my own limits, I enlisted the help of a team of social workers and grad students from a community healthy clinic to survey our homeless population and get an outside read on the situation. They reported that virtually all of the homeless living at the church were addicted (drugs or alcohol). Many were dually-diagnosed, that is, they were mentally ill and addicted. They told us we were mostly enabling them, that is, allowing them to maintain their current situation. Maybe not getting worse, but definitely not getting any better either.
I reported this to the congregation and said it appeared to me that we had a choice. Either we could really commit to being a homeless shelter, in which case let’s get serious about that and staff up for it. Or we face up to the fact that with a full-time pre-school and Sunday School, this was creating a health and safety hazard, as well as placing a huge burden on a very small church staff, who weren’t equipped for this population.
We made a change. We discouraged people from camping on church ground, and added occasional security patrols. And we moved our human and financial resources to support an actual homeless shelter located a couple miles away with services for the mentally ill and addicted.
What was interesting to me was the way the homeless on the grounds of that church were proxies, so to speak, in the congregation’s own conflict and confusion about its direction. Polarized in two positions, we weren’t very good at holding opposing ideas. But we got better.
I suspect something similar has been going on in Seattle. That is, that the homeless become characters in our own drama and in our debate about Seattle’s identity and future. Meanwhile, we may not see very clearly or deal very effectively with the reality that is actually before us.
Seattle has functioned as an enabler by allowing homeless encampments. We’re also been an enabler to some dubious and ineffective organizations that get city funding for homeless services. Not all of the 450 grants the city manages are going to outfits that are doing a good job.
And, yes, it is also true that the economy here is hot and a part of that is that housing costs are nuts.
So, how about a policy that is both compassionate and realistic? Support those organizations that are successful in helping people at the margins make real progress. But don’t allow people to camp here, there and everywhere. Don’t allow what we have in our neighborhood, encampments that are bicycle chop shops, littered with trash and needles.
In a recent Crosscut article Jon Carlson argued that what we often hear, that homelessness is on the rise everywhere and that all existing services in Seattle are maxed out, is not true. According to Carlson, (who is, yes, one of the six remaining Republicans in Seattle), the Salvation Army Adult Recovery Center in downtown (he is a Board member there) has a third of its beds vacant and available.
My plea would be that instead of seeing the homeless as characters in our own drama, we try to look at the situation clearly and realistically, as that team of social workers helped us do some years ago in Honolulu.
Well, maybe that’s happening. Today the City Council voted for a compromise measure on the jobs tax and homelessness. A good sign.