by Kayla Blau
By now, you’ve probably seen or at least heard about KOMO 4’s “Seattle Is Dying” documentary — it gained more than 4 million views online alone. The hour-long documentary is plagued with sensationalized claims, like “We don’t have homeless crisis, we have a drug crisis” (in one of the most expensive rental markets in America), and a menacing soundtrack that rivals Law & Order: SVU.
The only thing scarier than the soundtrack is the fact that the average Seattlelite, and even local politicians, are buying the propaganda fed by the documentary. The film plays upon the frustrations of crime, trash from encampments, and open drug use in our city and makes multiple egregious claims about misled “solutions” such as forced drug treatment and locking up folks living outside on McNeil Island, a prison that currently houses sex offenders in Pierce County.
These “solutions” disregard decades of evidence-based research proving that forced treatment doesn’t work and incarceration actually makes crime outcomes worse. The general public believes these claims because they promise one thing: getting these what the film calls “wretched souls” out of the average Seattlelite’s eyesight.
I understand the valid concerns about drug use, public safety, and homelessness; I don’t want the kids living at the shelter I work at to find any more needles behind their playground either. But a one-sided story and erroneous assertions don’t work towards sustainable solutions.
As a social worker with over a decade of experience working with folks living in transition, I take offense to the wildly oversimplified claims Johnson makes with no valid analysis of the root causes of homelessness, nor a thorough understanding of the current systems and interventions in place to respond and prevent homelessness in Seattle (he didn’t interview a single service provider, and seemingly cherry-picked folks living outside that claim “100 percent of people living outside are on drugs”).
I will give him credit for making an extremely persuasive film though, and have struggled in conversation with folks who accepted his neoliberal solutions. I am in no way claiming we don’t have an opioid crisis in our region. We do, and we have an affordable housing crisis. But I refuse to accept the narrative that if we simply locked houseless folks up and forced treatment upon them, homelessness would be solved. For this reason, I’ve created the following guide for how to respond to some of the problematic claims presented in “Seattle is Dying.”
“We don’t have a homeless crisis, we have a drug crisis”
Anyone who makes less than $70,000 per year and has tried to find an apartment in Seattle knows that our housing and rental market is out of reach for low and middle wage workers. We live in a city with no rent control, a city where almost half its residents are rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Single parents in Seattle are forced to work two to three jobs to live in the city, and even that is a stretch for low-wage workers. I’ve worked with single mothers making over $3,500 per month who still cannot find affordable housing for their families.
We cannot talk about homelessness without acknowledging rent prices have exploded in our region over the past five years. We cannot claim we “don’t have a homeless crisis” when we have more than 11,000 people living on the streets, many of whom are children or unaccompanied teens. In 2017 there were over 4,000 homeless students in Seattle Public Schools. We cannot simply pretend economics doesn’t play a role in homelessness because it’s more convenient to point to drug addiction.
According to a survey by All Home King County, people experiencing homelessness listed most often cited job loss as their reason for being homeless, not drug addiction. While factors like economics, housing, racism, mental health, and substance abuse contribute to homelessness, the common denominator is poverty.
These are the real causes of homelessness in our community. Rent in Seattle has grown by 43 percent since 2009.
According to a recent McKinsey report, there is a direct correlation between the rise in rents and the rise in homelessness. Rent increases on low-wage workers lead to evictions, which make it almost impossible to find a landlord to rent to them. Poor people of color face even more discrimination while trying to find affordable housing. It is an injustice to paint the complex web of homelessness, lack of mental health services, poverty, drug use, and skyrocketing rent prices as “a drug crisis.”
“People Flock to Seattle for Services”
Another false claim in the film is that drug users are flocking to Seattle for free services. This is statistically inaccurate; 83 percent of respondents said they became homeless in King County. Only 3 percent said they came here seeking services. Further, 80 percent of people experiencing homelessness said more affordable housing and rental assistance was key in ending their homelessness. Even for the small amount that do come to Seattle to receive services, Seattle prides itself on being a welcoming place for all people; we cannot pick and choose who we welcome into our city simply based on their socioeconomic status.
“People Living Outside Don’t Want Housing”
This is not true for the hundreds of families I’ve worked with as a social worker, and to erase their realities is a violent injustice. Among those surveyed by All Home King County, 98 percent said they would move into safe and affordable housing if it were offered. At the domestic violence shelter I work at, we are always at capacity and receive anywhere from 5 to 20 calls a day from parents fleeing domestic violence. In fact, rent increases are one of the main reasons women stay in abusive relationships; they simply cannot afford rent on their own, especially not in expensive cities like ours.
Further, most shelters for single adults are segregated by sex and don’t allow pets, so some families don’t access them because they don’t want to be separated from their loved ones.
There are almost no formal LGBTQ-specific shelters in the city, so many queer folks don’t access shelters out of fear of discrimination. Undocumented immigrants and refugees or folks with warrants often don’t access shelters out of fear of incarceration. Some shelters require valid identification, which is difficult to obtain when you are poor and houseless. Other folks simply don’t see the point in staying at a one-night or 30-day time-limited shelter with strict rules and unfamiliar personalities, just to be kicked back out onto the streets. Poor and unsheltered people have a right to decide where they feel safe staying, just like the rest of us.
“The Answer Is Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)”
“Seattle Is Dying” points to Rhode Island’s Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program as a solution, claiming we should incarcerate houseless folks on McNeil Island and force drug treatment upon them. Had Johnson interviewed service providers, he would have found Seattle already does have MAT options, and we have for more than 46 years. MAT essentially trades drugs for drugs, opiods for Big Pharma.
The folks I’ve worked with that have utilized MAT still experienced severe side effects to their daily doses of drugs such as Suboxone and Methadone; it’s another addiction. While MAT has been a lifesaver for many, it won’t end the opioid crisis. Trading opiods for Big Pharma may make wealthy city-dwellers more comfortable, but it does nothing to address the root causes of drug addiction, poverty, racism, and homelessness.
Seattle already does have interventions that are working and even saving money, such as Downtown Emergency Services Coalition (DESC)’s low-barrier housing program, 1811 Eastlake, which provides housing to people experiencing homelessness who are also dependent on alcohol. As Aurora Commons reported, “the annual average cost to the City of Seattle for homeless chronic alcoholics who are the heaviest users of publicly-funded crisis services” was $86,062 per person, per year. After only one year of being housed, the residents’ alcohol use decreased and the average cost to house the participants in the program was $13,440. That is a savings of $72,622 per person.”
Low-barrier housing works, affordable housing works, increased shelter and transitional housing options work. We must look at evidence-based solutions created by folks on the ground and folks experiencing homelessness versus sensationalized claims made by wealthy white men.
Incarceration is the Answer to Homelessness
First of all, many of the statistics provided in “Seattle is Dying” regarding lack of prosecution and incarceration are sorely inaccurate. Johnson claimed Seattle does not prosecute drug offenses, but never reached out to the Seattle City Attorney for clarity. The City Attorney’s office has zero prosecutorial jurisdiction over felonies, which all drug crimes are under Washington law (before it was legalized, marijuana possession was a misdemeanor). Johnson also claims property thefts are not prosecuted in Seattle, when in fact theft is the City Attorney’s office single most prosecuted misdemeanor crime.
More importantly, the Prison-Industrial Complex will not solve homelessness, nor drug addiction, nor mental health issues. Since the War on Drugs and mass closure of mental health treatment centers in the 1980s, our prison population has increased by almost 700 percent. However, countless evidence-based reports such as this one from the National Institute of Justice, prove incarceration does not reduce crime nor change behavior.
According to experts at Harvard Medical School, involuntary treatment is a misguided response to the opioid crisis. We know that mental health issues and substance abuse are complex social problems that require person-centered solutions; About 1 in 3 people experiencing homelessness in our community struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, and more than half report having a mental health condition that is disabling to the extent that it prevents them from holding employment or living in stable housing. Even still, isolating folks through incarceration is never an effective solution. In fact, incarceration often makes mental health issues worse.
How can we claim locking people in cages is the best solution when Washington is ranked second to last in the nation for mental health treatment options? Even if a person struggling with mental health wants to access treatment, they are met with long waiting lists for mental health hospitals, a grave lack of accessible community-based services, and bureaucratic barriers. Our state’s largest mental health hospital recently lost its certification from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and faced severe funding loss due to cruel treatment. Our prisons are overflowing with people with severe mental health issues due to the shortage of treatment options. We cannot blame people for having mental health crisis when our state offers little accessible treatment, especially for poor and/or unsheltered folks in crisis.
So, What Should We Be Focusing On Then?
We need to fix our regressive tax system and invest in mental health services, effective, community-based treatment options, more low-barrier shelters and transitional housing programs, rent control, and pass more mandates for affordable housing. We need to make affordable housing accessible for all income levels.
While Johnson insinuates 100 percent of people living outside are addicted to drugs, I’d argue that 100 percent of people living outside have experienced complex trauma. The Adverse Traumatic Experiences Study (ACES) proves that people whom experienced complex trauma in childhood are more likely to experience negative physical and mental health outcomes, addiction, and/or disabilities. Trauma is the core wound. Without addressing trauma, we are on a failing hamster wheel of expensive responses to homelessness and drug addiction.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to increase connection in our communities to heal from trauma. According to the classic Trauma and Recovery by leading trauma expert Judith Herman, “recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” We cannot isolate, arrest, nor incarcerate our way out of homelessness and drug addiction, even our own police chief knows that. People turn to drug use when their reality is too difficult to bear — when they work two jobs and still can’t afford a roof over their kids’ heads, or when they feel alone and are isolated from family and friends. We need to build up a society where housing and quality mental health care are accessible for people of all income levels. It is only through community-centered connection, equitable policy changes, and through person-specific interventions that we can untangle the web of homelessness in Seattle.
Kayla Blau holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Washington. She has worked with families experiencing homelessness, children in the foster care and juvenile justice system, and families living in poverty for over 10 years. She is a regular contributor to the South Seattle Emerald, and has contributed to Crosscut, the Seattle Globalist, and Real Change.