Friday, December 28, 2018

Homeless in Seattle

Christopher Rufo’s City Journal essay on homelessness in Seattle counts as one of the most comprehensive analyses of the problem. Seattle resident Rufo was running for City Council, but apparently was harassed into dropping out of the race.

He begins by offering a picture of the extent of the problem, and of the amount that the city is spending to pretend to solve it:

Seattle is under siege. Over the past five years, the Emerald City has seen an explosion of homelessness, crime, and addiction. In its 2017 point-in-time count of the homeless, King County social-services agency All Home found 11,643 people sleeping in tents, cars, and emergency shelters. Property crime has risen to a rate two and a half times higher than Los Angeles’s and four times higher than New York City’s. Cleanup crews pick up tens of thousands of dirty needles from city streets and parks every year.

At the same time, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman, and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened, with more addiction, more crime, and more tent encampments in residential neighborhoods. By any measure, the city’s efforts are not working.

The fault, Rufo continues, lies with the ideological power centers that pretend to have the solution to the problem. They are, socialists, compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex and the addiction evangelists. Ironically, they have a stake in not solving the problem. If there were no homelessness they would be out of business:

While most of the debate has focused on tactical policy questions (Build more shelters? Open supervised injection sites?), the real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges, or in the corridors of City Hall but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists. Together, they have dominated the local policy discussion, diverted hundreds of millions of dollars toward favored projects, and converted many well-intentioned voters to the politics of unlimited compassion. If we want to break through the failed status quo on homelessness in places like Seattle—and in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, too—we must first map the ideological battlefield, identify the flaws in our current policies, and rethink our assumptions.

He begins with the socialists… who argue that the fault lies with capitalism, especially with large companies like Amazon and Microsoft. Big business pays big salaries and big salaries increase the rent. Ergo, more and more people cannot afford the rent. They camp out on the streets:

Socialist Alternative city councilwoman Kshama Sawant claims that the city’s homelessness crisis is the inevitable result of the Amazon boom, greedy landlords, and rapidly increasing rents. As she told Street Roots News: “The explosion of the homelessness crisis is a symptom of how deeply dysfunctional capitalism is and also how much worse living standards have gotten with the last several decades.” The capitalists of Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Boeing, in her Marxian optic, generate enormous wealth for themselves, drive up housing prices, and push the working class toward poverty and despair—and, too often, onto the streets.

Is it true? Rufo responds:

According to King County’s point-in-time study, only 6 percent of homeless people surveyed cited “could not afford rent increase” as the precipitating cause of their situation, pointing instead to a wide range of other problems—domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction, and job loss—as bigger factors. Further, while the Zillow study did find correlation between rising rents and homelessness in four major markets—Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.—it also found that homelessness decreased despite rising rents in Houston, Tampa, Chicago, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Diego, Portland, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Riverside. Rent increases are a real burden for the working poor, but the evidence suggests that higher rents alone don’t push people onto the streets.

The compassion brigades are promoting their own narrative and their own virtue:

The compassion brigades are the moral crusaders of homelessness policy, the activists who put signs on their lawns that read: “In this house, we believe black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal,” and so on. They see compassion as the highest virtue; all else must be subordinated to it....

[Councilman Mike] O’Brien and his supporters have constructed an elaborate political vocabulary about the homeless, elevating three key myths to the status of conventional wisdom. The first is that many of the homeless are holding down jobs but can’t get ahead. “I’ve got thousands of homeless people that actually are working and just can’t afford housing,” O’Brien told the Denver Post. But according to King County’s own survey data, only 7.5 percent of the homeless report working full-time, despite record-low unemployment, record job growth, and a record-high $15 Seattle minimum wage. The reality, obvious to anyone who spends any time in tent cities or emergency shelters, is that 80 percent of the homeless suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and 30 percent suffer from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Emphasize the last point. Of course, the homeless cannot hold down jobs … because most of them are addicts or are suffering from severe mental illness. Councilman O’Brien believes that the problem lies in the lack of services. And yet, the drug addicted and mentally ill homeless routinely reject the services offered:

O’Brien and his allies argue that the street homeless want help but that there aren’t enough services. Once again, county data contradict their claims: 63 percent of the street homeless refuse shelter when offered it by the city’s Navigation Teams, claiming that “there are too many rules” (39.5 percent) or that “they are too crowded” (32.6 percent). The recent story about a woman’s “tent mansion” near the city’s Space Needle vividly illustrated how a contingent among the homeless chooses to live in the streets. “We don’t want to change our lifestyle to fit their requirements,” the woman told newscasters for a KIRO7 report, explaining how she and her boyfriend moved from West Virginia to Seattle for the “liberal vibe,” repeatedly refusing shelter. “We intend to stay here. This is the solution to the homeless problem. We want autonomy, right here.”

And, compassion has turned into enablement, crime and disorder:

The city’s compassion campaign has devolved into permissiveness, enablement, crime, and disorder. Public complaints about homeless encampments from the first three months of this year are an array of horrors: theft, drugs, fighting, rape, murder, explosions, prostitution, assaults, needles, and feces. Yet prosecutors have dropped thousands of misdemeanor cases, and police officers are directed not to arrest people for “homelessness-related” offenses, including theft, destruction of property, and drug crimes. As Scott Lindsay, the city’s former top crime advisor, reported to former mayor Ed Murray: “The increase in street disorder is largely a function of the fact that heroin, crack, and meth possession has been largely legalized in the city over the past several years. The unintended consequence of that social policy effort has been to make Seattle a much more attractive place to buy and sell hard-core drugs.”

It is virtue signalling… and it does not care whether its policies work:

Nothing is apparently more important to the activists than their public display of compassion—certainly not the growing number of depraved incidents at homeless encampments or involving homeless people, including a mass shooting, a human immolation, a vicious rape, and a series of stabbings. They shout down anyone who questions their narrative.

Someone is profiting from the problem. Rufo points to what he calls the homeless industrial complex:

With more than $1 billion spent on homelessness in Seattle every year, one should keep in mind Vladimir Lenin’s famous question: Who stands to gain? In the world of Seattle homelessness, the big “winners” are social-services providers like the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which constitute what I call the city’s homeless-industrial complex….

The deeper problem is that social policies have created a system of perverse incentives. The social-services organizations get paid more when the problem gets worse. When their policy ideas fail to deliver results, they repackage them, write a proposal using the latest buzzwords, and return for more funding. Homelessness might rise or fall, but the leaders of the homeless-industrial complex always get paid.

And then we have those who support addiction as a lifestyle choice… one that we ought all to respect and to pay for-- because it promotes counterculture values and rejects bourgeois conformity:

What I call the addiction evangelists make up the final cohort of the city’s homelessness power center. Their number includes the rebellious Ave Rats—the homeless crowd on University Avenue—as well as gutter punks and opioid migrants. In a sense, the addiction evangelists are the intellectual heirs of the 1960s counterculture: whereas the beats and hippies rejected bourgeois values but largely confined their efforts to culture—music, literature, photography, and poetry—the addiction evangelists have a more audacious goal: to capture political power and elevate addicts and street people into a protected class. They don’t want society simply to accept their choices; they want society to pay for them.

In some places, providing safe places where addicts can shoot up seems have had a positive effect… up to a point. And yet, when Rufo traveled to Vancouver, Canada to see how things were working out there, he saw a different situation. Among other things, such policies attract large numbers of addicts… and they are not always the best people:

Harm reduction has had notable success in countries like Portugal and Switzerland, but in North America, where national drug policy remains staunchly prohibitionist, cities that practice the policy have become magnets for addiction, crime, and social disorder. During the debate on public-injection sites last year, the addiction evangelists often pointed to Vancouver, which has operated the Insite supervised-consumption facility for over ten years. While Insite provides clean needles and administers naloxone injections for overdoses, the evidence from a longitudinal study of the Downtown Eastside neighborhood shows that the injection site and concentration of social services have substantially increased the number of opioid migrants moving to the city. According to the study, between 2006 and 2016, the number of homeless individuals from outside Vancouver rose from 17 percent to 52 percent of the total homeless population. “Migration into urban regions with a high concentration of services may not necessarily lead to effective pathways to recovery,” the study concludes….

When I visited Vancouver and drove down Hastings Street, where the Insite facility is located, it looked like an apocalyptic future vision of Seattle—a public-health nightmare, with hundreds of addicts lining the sidewalks, yelling, and shooting up behind Dumpsters.

The addiction evangelists have created a similar situation:

In Seattle, the influx has already begun. According to survey data, approximately 9.5 percent of the city’s homeless say that they came “for legal marijuana,” 15.4 percent came “to access homeless services,” and 15.7 percent were “traveling or visiting” the region and decided that it was a good place to set up camp. As the city builds out its addiction infrastructure and focuses social services in the downtown core, the problem will intensify. Even King County’s former homelessness czar admits that the city’s policies have a “magnet effect.”

The problem, Rufo concludes, likes in disaffiliation, broken social ties, people who have no connection to community, who are suffering from anomie:

… the reality is that homelessness is a product of disaffiliation. For the past 70 years, sociologists, political scientists, and theologians have documented the slow atomization of society. As family and community bonds weaken, our most vulnerable citizens fall victim to the addiction, mental illness, isolation, poverty, and despair that almost always precipitate the final slide into homelessness.

He concludes:

The best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together.

The unfortunate thing is: it’s a lot easier said than done.


Jay Dee said...

$100,000 for every homeless person. I dare call this organic fertilizer. Where the money is going is into the pockets of bureaucrats, their unions and the politicians who voted for more money. I'd be surprised if even 5% makes it to the people in need.

Ares Olympus said...

I'm not sure if it is fair to characterize Seattle as socialist. At least the state of Washington has no state income taxes, while the depend on property taxes and sales taxes are least progressive. Wealthier people spend a much smaller fraction of their income on sales taxes since they can put most of it into investments, and again, generate more income that isn't taxed.

If legalized marijuana is a measure of socialism, I guess they're in. It is surprising people are attracted to a city for access to marijuana that can be legally taxed, and they're willing to be homeless for this luxury.

Paul said...

I used to live in San Francisco, and one of the things that contributed to my moving out was the growing homeless problem, and the associated crime and filth. What I read about it was very similar to this piece. In fact, you could change the name of the city (and the tech companies) and it would read almost the same. I think that the phrase "homeless-industrial complex" is great. It sums up what I think is happening in San Francisco where the politicians are obsessed with the homeless and the poor, since that virtue signaling is what gets them re-elected by their SJWish constituents. Like the average country giving foreign aid, they don't care how the money is spent, just that they can point to the headline number to show how much they are doing. The city won't even follow its own rules on building housing, since they don't actually care if any housing is built (that doesn't get them elected) but only how many BMR (below-market-rate) units are built so they can brag about how much they are "doing" for the poor. So part of the problem is the electorate is getting what they want, feeling good that something is being done (even if it isn't).

I've developed a new way of talking to people about problems like this, since you will never persuade someone who feels good that something is being done, that it is the wrong thing. That new way of talking is to say "what if you were an evil mayor of Seattle, and you wanted to attract as many homeless people to the city, and have as many as possible of them be drug addicts, what would you do?". If the person really thinks about it, then a lot of what they come up with is exactly the current policy being implemented. You can take the same approach to being the "evil housing czar for San Francisco " or the "evil wage setter for pretty much anywhere with high youth unemployment." Or "the evil black-lives matter leader who really wanted to kill as many blacks as possible."

trigger warning said...

(1) Seattle was not "characterized" as socialist. In fact, the socialist blamed capitalism.
(2) There is a distinction between Seattle and Washington state. In America, municipalities are often politically distinct from the state, as in Austin, Texas.
(3) No one suggested legalized weed was a "measure" of anything, much less socialism. Less than 10% report legal weed as a reason to camp out in Seattle.
(4) "perverse incentives" ≠ "socialism"

Stick with the technical work at Mitty Consulting, Ares.
pocketa, pocketa, pocketa...

Frankly, I'm delighted these folks are crapping and discarding needles on Seattle streets. And not in the city where I live.

Peter B said...

The problem is a lack of services. The missing service is the state mental hospitals. The reason that we don't have them is complex, but the pivotal factor was a barrage of "civil rights" lawsuits initiated by Bruce Ennis, an activist ACLU lawyer under the influence of psychiatrist R. D. Laing's theories. Laing believed that because diagnosis of mental illness did not follow a traditional medical model (in this he was sort of correct) you couldn't really say that there was such a thing as mental illness at all and that since there was no scientific diagnosis, the "mentally ill" should not be institutionalized. He also opposed the prescription of medications such as antipsychotics, again because if you have no diagnosis you shouldn't prescribe powerful drugs.

Every state's mental hospitals – and the commitment process – had seen abuses; in some states the abuse was chronic and criminal. Reform minded politicians became stalking horses for Ennis's ultimate plan, which was to radically curtail and ideally eliminate involuntary commitment to mental hospitals.

States tried to find a way out of these potentially ruinous lawsuits. Getting out of the mental hospital business would do it, but it would leave the patients in the lurch. Progressive psychiatrists had a solution: giving psychiatric medications in clinics in the community. The result was the closure of the hospitals and the deinstitutionalization of their patients, many of whom became homeless.

The ACLU also supported patients' (including those not competent to care for themselves) rights to refuse to take prescribed medications, and many of these individuals were too disorganized to take the meds even if the drugs hadn't been accompanied by extremely unpleasant side effects.

The net result of all these factors is in the streets and parks of our cities.

Sam L. said...

tw, the same goes for Portland (and some of the rest of the Willamette Valley), but there are more voters there than in the rest of the state.

The "homeless-industrial complex" is a marvelously apt phrase.

" He concludes:

The best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together.

The unfortunate thing is: it’s a lot easier said than done." It would also crimp the inflow of tax money, which is their life-blood.