What's Tony Thinking

Is Seattle Dying?


On March 16 KOMO, Channel 4, in Seattle broadcast Eric Johnson’s program, “Seattle Is Dying,” about homelessness in Seattle.

I became aware of the broadcast last week when I tuned in KUOW’s Week in Review program. KUOW host, Bill Radke, judged the “Seattle Is Dying” topic so hot that he pushed it ahead of the arguably hotter Boeing/ 737 Max story on the program.

Two of his three panelists dismissed the KOMO show as “propaganda,” while one tried to say that the show did allow some unheard voices a hearing. Dismissing the broadcast as propaganda was made easier because of  the association of KOMO’s ownership, Sinclair Media, with pro-Trump views. But there’s no evidence that the parent company had a hand in it.

Subsequent reaction has been damning and dismissive.

While it is fair to say that “Seattle Is Dying” sensationalizes the issue and isn’t exactly nuanced, I think it a big mistake for Seattle leaders and homeless advocates to smugly dismiss it.

With a lot of footage of tent encampments and of lost souls on Seattle streets, Johnson had two points. One, that the quality of life in Seattle is being eroded. And second, allowing people to live on the streets and in encampments isn’t a compassionate response.

Critics have accused Johnson of simply promoting a “tough on crime,” “lock ’em up and throw away the key approach.” I didn’t hear that. Rather, “Seattle Is Dying” advocated a two-fold approach: enforcement and intervention. Arrest those who break the law but route them to the treatment (intervention) they need.

Critics also faulted “Seattle Is Dying” for simplifying a complex issue.  All the homeless, it implied, were either drug addicted or mentally ill. It is true that the profile of homelessness is more complex.

But the charge of over-simplification might also be directed toward homeless advocates and some city leaders. Here the oversimplification is one that interprets all who are homeless as victims, whether of capitalism, Amazon, greedy landlords, the police or general human heartlessness.

Seeing everything through the victim/ oppressor lens, and granting moral high-ground to victims, isn’t exactly nuanced or particularly helpful either.

I’ve had some involvement with the homeless population in Seattle over the years. I’ve worked in soup kitchens, volunteered in shelters, and served on the board of a low-income housing provider. As a downtown pastor I engaged with homeless people often, at the church and on the streets. I understand that the issues are complex with no quick or easy fixes.

That said, my sense is that homelessness in Seattle has changed in the last decade. A larger percentage of the homeless are drug-addicted people, who live on the fringes of the city, engage in criminal activity and who have made a life-style of it. This correlates with the wider use of heroin and meth in the population and in Seattle.

I suspect that many Seattle residents may have looked upon illegal tent encampments as something that surely must be temporary and a stop-gap while the city is coming to grips with the problem. As such there has been a certain tolerance for the encampments.

But now, after years of such encampments and no sign that they are going away, frustrated citizens are beginning to suspect that this isn’t temporary but permanent. “Seattle Is Dying” gave voice to those who are saying, “That’s not okay. That’s not how we want our city to be.”

This is where the first half of Johnson’s proposal comes in. Enforce the laws. Laws about trespassing, civil disorder, public defecation, and drug possession and sales. Police have been instructed to “look the other way” on such offenses because incarceration is seen as an expensive non-solution.

That may be true. At least if incarceration is the end-game. Johnson’s recommendation was two-pronged, “enforcement and intervention.” He focused at length on a Rhode Island program that links the two as a possible alternative.

Twenty years ago an approach to community policing known as “Broken Windows” was popular. The theory was that tolerating low-levels of disorder and anti-social behavior — littering, broken-windows, run-down buildings, aggressive pan-handling and public urination, etc. — created an atmosphere that made more serious criminal activity more likely. It would seem that this theory has been given a lab test in Seattle and been proven true.

It doesn’t seem wise for any city to not enforce its own laws or to permit criminal behavior. That can’t help but produce confusion and cynicism in the population, as well as being demoralizing to those charged with enforcement, i.e. the police.

Police frustration was another big theme of Johnson’s profile. The sentiment that sees all the homeless as victims also tends to see all police as racist bullies who employ excessive force. Again, these are dangerous over simplifications. Seattle is already having trouble recruiting and retaining police. Despite a new pay package, that is likely to get worse.

One factor Johnson did not emphasize, but is reported by police is that a very high percentage of those living in camps and on the streets are armed. While being armed for self-protection may be understandable, it means that any incident on the street is potentially life-threatening.  Dealing with someone super-charged on meth who is armed is very tough and very dangerous.

There are programs and agencies serving the homeless in Seattle that are effective and doing great work. Civic leaders argue that these do not get enough attention, which is certainly true.

But so long as encampments on private and city property, with associated trash, needles, unsanitary conditions and criminality persist the citizens of Seattle are likely to feel endangered and frustrated. “Seattle Is Dying” gave voice to those frustrations.

I don’t think Seattle is dying, but dismissing this broadcast as “propaganda” from the unenlightened or an expression of those lacking in human compassion is neither fair nor wise.

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