What's Tony Thinking

They’re Not Treating This Like an Emergency


My friend and former City Council member, Sally Bagshaw, called my attention to Danny Westneat’s Sunday column about the efforts of a bunch of people to do something about homelessness in downtown Seattle and how they have been frustrated at every turn.

Westneat focuses on two folks, Ruth Benfield and John Pehrson, who have had a lot of experience in actually getting stuff done in the course of their lives. They live at the downtown retirement community, the Mirabella, at  Fairview and Denny. Led by the two, Mirabella residents actually wanted a tiny-house village for people who are homeless to be their neighbors.

They wanted it enough that they raised $143,000 at the Mirabella to get the village going. They identified a nearby vacant lot that could be used. They were willing to volunteer to support the village once established.

No dice. You’ve heard of a “can-do” culture or mentality? What Pherson and Banfield encountered was “cannot do.” ”

Says Benfield, 76: ‘We could have already sheltered people all through last winter. We’re not experts, so we had only two questions: ‘How do we get this done? How do we help?’ The city slow-walked their response until it all went nowhere.”

I was particularly struck by the observation of 95 year-old Pehrson.

“Most of 2021 and now the first part of 2022 has been wasted,” Pehrson said. “I know what it’s like to have an emergency at work — we’d have a stand-up meeting about it every day. I mean everybody would be standing. They’re not acting like this is a crisis.”

It was six years ago, during the administration of then Mayor Ed Murray, that homelessness in Seattle was declared an “emergency.” The situation seems only to have gotten worse. Maybe the City and County and now the new Regional Homelessness Authority folks all need to stand, and keep standing, until that changes? Besides standing is supposed to be better for you than sitting.

Why has this problem, one that has pre-occupied and vexed Seattle residents for far more than six years now, not been impacted positively and in a way that is visible? The people of Seattle have said it is issue # 1 in recent elections. Taxpayer money has been allocated in every growing sums. Federal funds have arrived. Many Seattlites have pitched in, or tried to do so, like the residents of Mirabella.

Solving homelessness ain’t easy. I’ve had some first-hand experience in the field and with the population. I served on the Board of a low-income housing provider. I’ve built tiny homes. As the pastor of a downtown church I’ve spent time interacting with people who are homeless and trying to help. This is a complicated, multi-faceted problem, but progress can be made. It really can.

I can think of several reasons for the lack of progress in responding to this “crisis” or “emergency.” For some time it has been noted that there are a plethora of agencies, programs and NGO’s working on homelessness. My guess is that while all are earnest and some are effective, there have been a lot of fiefdoms created. Another way to put it would be — there are a lot of competing interests and players vying for influence and resources, while  also protecting their turf.

There’s a darker possibility, one suggested by the phrase some have come to use, “The Homelessness Industrial Complex.” There’s a pay-off from the pain. Maybe several different kinds of pay-offs. Funding and influence, but also being, or at least seen to be being “on the side of the angels.”

I’m thinking of the Woody Allen joke about the guy who goes to see a shrink and says, “Doc, we got a problem. My brother-in-law thinks he’s a chicken. He goes around scratching, building nests, making chicken noises. It’s driving us all nuts.” The shrink says, “Sounds like a simple neurosis. Bring him in. I think we can cure him.” To which the man says, “Oh no, Doc, we can’t do that. We need the eggs.”

The right goal here is to work yourself out of a job, to not need the eggs. Which is different than most other enterprises where the idea is to stay in business and even grow it. But maybe this has become a societal neurosis that produces too many eggs for us to want to solve it?

Reason two is related. An issue like this requires a combination of carrot and stick, of positive incentives and actual sanctions, whether you’re dealing with people who are homeless, agencies in the field, or Seattle citizens. Have we incentivized getting people off the streets or have we incentivized setting up camp there? What are the carrots (incentives) at work here? Moreover, we seem reluctant to employ any sanctions. Even the ones we have, like laws against shoplifting or trespass, now go unenforced.

Reason three is that we’re in process with the outcome as yet unknown. All the competing interests and players led to the idea of a new Regional Homelessness Authority, which now exists. Will this body succeed in doing the coordination of interests and players in order to get results? Or will it be just another layer of bureaucracy, requiring another bunch of meetings? My guess is that it will only prove the former, and not the latter, if there is someone running the thing who has the authority and guts to kick some butt, shake things up and act like this is the emergency we say it is.

Someone, that is, who is standing up on this job and insists that anyone who isn’t needs to find another line of work. But Seattle, at least in the public and NGO sectors, seems averse to leaders having  authority and support, or to living with the inevitable rocking of the boat that comes when you do.


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