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At Home Thinking About Homeless In Seattle
May 26, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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Why is 10,000 homeless not a real emergency?

Before moving to Seattle I lived for about two decades in rural northern California. Homeless people were rare. People certainly drifted through the area, often looking for a job in the marijuana industry. Regular homeless people were easily helped by local volunteer groups. So I did not prioritize the homelessness issue. Compared to overpopulation, ecological destruction, and social injustice more generally, it did not rate. I did read that homelessness was becoming a big problem in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Moving to Seattle, my (step) son did not want me and my wife to buy the condominium we did. He said it was in a bad area. It is across from a public housing project, in what used to be a working class neighborhood, next to a mid-sized, run-down, apartment complex. My son complained of the crime and street people in his own neighborhood too, about a mile away from us. But the price was right, our new home just needed some fixing up. I spent a lot of time and energy getting everything repaired, and there are still many less urgent fixes and improvements on my To Do list.

I like to walk, and walking around here one starts to see homeless people. I know from experience that it is not easy to identify homeless people in the day time. Some people acting crazy, or dressed in ancient clothes, actually have apartments or even houses. Some homeless people are good at keeping up appearances. And lots of ordinary people wear backpacks to work or college in Seattle instead of taking briefcases, so a backpack in itself is not much of a clue. But after dark, seeing people sleeping in the streets, usually under store overhangs, you know some people are homeless. There are tents in places too. Note that my northern Seattle neighborhood has a relatively low homeless population. Homeless people are much more concentrated in central and south Seattle.

Meanwhile I became active in the local Democratic Party. Those of you who know me know that was not an easy step for me. I stopped thinking of myself as a Democrat after McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in 1972. But the local dems are very progressive, and I was impressed by the quality of many of them. We know our own area is safe for Democrats, so we worked to help in swing districts in Washington State. The results were very good. And as to homelessness, with the state legislature now having a Democratic majority, much more money was allocated to help with that in the new budget. However, nothing like what would be needed to house the current 10,000 homeless in Seattle, or the new people who join that number when they can't afford rent.

I also started paying attention to a couple of neighborhood groups. Occasionally the local homeless would come up as a topic. There was a report of a particularly bad camp set up a few block's from my son's house. Bad means drug-infested and destructive to the neighborhood. Someone was going speak at a meeting about it, so I went to the meeting.

There are many kinds of homeless people. Some are loners. Some like company. Some are old people priced out of their old neighborhoods. Many have drug or alcohol problems. Some lost their rent at a local casino. Some lost a job and could not cover their rent with unemployment payments. Some are criminals. A surprising number have jobs. Many live in RVs they park where they can. Many stay in shelters, but the shelters don't accommodate pets and have other rules (reasonable ones, for the most part) that keep people away. Escpecially in winter the shelters can be full.

And I learned some of the tents and RVs in homeless camps belong to drug dealers who actually live in apartments. Courts have ruled a warrant is needed to enter a homeless person's tent. Drug dealers figured that out and take advantage of it in their cat and mouse games with police. But in addition, in its wisdom King County (Seattle is its county seat) will not prosecute small amounts of drugs, not even heroin or meth.

Then I started going to local homeless task force meetings, and thinking about what could be done. I watched the farce played out at City Hall with the Head Tax, which was supposed to go to homeless services.

I learned that Seattle has a $6 billion annual budget. A lot already goes to welfare services, but of course a lot does not.

I watched incumbent politicians of the City and County, progressive Democrats all, blame everyone but themselves for the mess. Progressive Incumbents Do Not Like Challengers [May 15, 2019]

I have been thinking about steps to be taken. The problem is complex, because of the nature of the homeless themselves, and their relation to rents and normal living. Also because of the interlocking local, state, and national bureaucracies, politics, and other interest groups' claims on tax dollars.

I am thinking, among other things, of getting a resolution passed by the local Democrats. It is a way of saying what we want politicians to do. So I looked at older resolutions. And what did I find? Passed in 2016 by the 46th legislative district democrats, and apparently other democratic groups: End Homelessness In Washington.

Lest you think that is a joke, a homelessness emergency was declared. Yet in the passing years the number of homeless people has risen.

So why are there more homeless people now than then? My leftist friends blame the usual enemies: landlords and capitalists.

There is plenty of blame to go around, so I am going to start by blaming myself. I am a good political organizer. I should do more. I applaud those giving first aid, like the people who provide food and emergency shelter in winter. I admit to borrowing a phrase from Ann Sattler, who is challenging the incumbent for City Council District 5. We need to put whatever it takes into the effort, to act like we are triaging people in a natural disaster. We need better mass shelters with more services. We need more low-cost apartments built (the huge construction boom in Seattle of late created lots of $2,000 or more per month apartments, now with high vacancy rates). We need to fight the zoning laws battle yet again, turning more single-family home neighborhoods into apartment blocks. And most of all, we need to provide drug rehabilitation, and at the same time start enforcing the drug laws again. We can divert those arrested into rehab. We need to build and staff more rehab centers.

All that will cost a lot of money. Given the already high tax rate on residences and businesses, the money will have to come out of other city programs. This should be temporary, but for as long as it takes. I have no problem diverting money from sidewalks and convention centers and feel-good projects to homelessness. When the crisis is over, we can go back to building new sidewalks and paying artists to paint orcas on them. [There is a lot of money wasted in Seattle, I just want to convey the general idea.]

Also, laws should be passed so that any junkie should be able to walk into any hospital in Seattle and get a fix. With the fix should come an offer of rehabilitation services (not necessarily a the hospital). Junkies, homeless or not, stealing to get the money for a fix (mostly shoplifting), has become a major problem in Seattle. Junkies are sick people. Their suffering when they can't get a fix is real. Do this and the illegal drug business will dry up quickly. The progam would likely pay for itself in the long run by stopping the spread of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV, which are very expensive to treat.

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