Seattle Has to Find a Middle Way
Nine people gathered on the outdoor deck of our small condo building on a recent evening. We celebrated birthdays, an anniversary and a retirement as we shared drinks, appetizers and conversation.
If such a gathering has been rendered unusual by the pandemic, it was a usual Seattle gathering in other respects — namely in the subjects of conversation. Someone remarked on a recent home sale in the neighborhood. “I can’t believe that!,” exclaimed another, stunned at the price (how high it was).
Then someone else mentioned the recent volunteer work project behind our building and adjacent to the City of Seattle’s Burke-Gilman bike trail. Over 130 large black bags of garbage, plus an array of items too large to bag, had been pulled from an abandoned homeless encampment hidden in the small trees and bushes alongside the trail. It was a small encampment, but the amount of accumulated garbage was astonishing.
Then a woman, who is both fit and street-smart, said that she no longer feels comfortable walking after dusk in the neighborhood. And another neighbor reported an early morning run-in with someone who appeared to be looking for items to steal by peering into vehicles, rattling car and building doors.
Seattle today: soaring home prices, sprawling homeless encampments, and anxiety about personal safety. And one other factor: no one seemed very optimistic about the capacity of the city’s leaders or government to deal with it all.
Seattle has to find a middle way on these issues. Addressing the complex needs of the ill and indigent while, at the same time, responding to significant — and legitimate — anxiety about crime and personal safety. This conundrum is, of course, nothing new. Homelessness was declared an “emergency” in Seattle six years ago. Several years before that there had been the “Ten Year Campaign to End Homelessness.” Homelessness has only grown, at least in part because housing costs have too. And as in other parts of the country, crime rates rose rapidly in 2020. That trend appears to be continuing in 2021.
But there’s that other factor in the mix. Lack of confidence in Seattle government and its leaders. To judge from my group of nine, public confidence in city government is vanishingly low. While individual programs provide inspiring examples of hope and change, most do not feel city is on the right track.
A part of the problem may be competing, irreconcilable, narratives. Not long ago I wrote about the three different political languages operative in American society today. Each has a different idea about what’s going on and the nature of the issues — and threats — before us.
One of those languages, “Progressive,” is a narrative in which everyone is either an oppressor or oppressed. According to this language, which is employed by at least several members of the City Council, the homeless are “oppressed.” There’s some truth in that. Some who end up in homeless camps are often victims of inadequate health care coverage or unemployment. But the oppressed/ oppressor framework is blind to actual bad actors, to criminals and scam artists among “the oppressed.”
Another language, the “Conservative” one, sees things through a framework of civilization and threats to it. The threats come from the lawless, the “barbarians.” There’s truth in that one too. There really are, at all levels of society, bad actors, criminals and scam artists. But that doesn’t account for the majority of the ill or the indigent, or for those who are “one paycheck from homelessness.”
The third language, Libertarian, sees coercion, usually by the government, as the big threat. It, however, seems less in play in these debates.
Can Seattle leaders find a middle way between the two narrative constructions, Progressive and Conservative? Are nuance and complex thinking possible in today’s public and civic spaces? And, even more challenging, can complex thinking about such issues get translated into public policy?
Mark Twain famously remarked, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Everyone in Seattle talks about housing prices and homelessness. While it isn’t true that “no one is doing anything about it,” few seem confident that Seattle city government is up to the challenge.