OPINION: We Can’t Win the Fight for the Soul of Seattle From the Sidelines

by Ryan Calkins 

KOMO’s Eric Johnson released his Fight for the Soul of Seattle, a follow-on to his earlier Seattle is Dying. For 90 minutes, Johnson alternates between his narration of scenes of people in crisis on our streets and interviews with people who support his overall thesis that drugs — and our laissez-faire approach to addressing their impact on the residents of Seattle — are the problem. 

As I watched, I was moved by the plight of those who are clearly in distress. Scenes of people eking out survival under the freeway or in a park. People in the throes of addiction, having exhausted every option, running the daily gauntlet that heroin, meth, and other hard drugs force them to endure. We are introduced to two people who have managed to escape the cycle of addiction: an extraordinary woman who is about to graduate from the University of Washington at the top of her class despite decades on the streets after she fled a childhood of abuse and neglect and a man in San Francisco who became addicted to painkillers after surgery and then spiraled into crisis. 

The impression after the first half hour is of a city that is inhospitable, dangerous, and sliding into chaos.

Johnson then lays out his case for how we got here. Recently retired Judge Ed McKenna explains that the unwillingness of City Attorney Pete Holmes and other prosecutors to pursue charges or request tough penalties for the crimes that stem from addiction (shoplifting, car prowls, assaults) means that the worst offenders cycle in and out of jail, inevitably resulting in needless harm and even death. Scott Lindsay — a former public safety adviser to Mayor Ed Murray and architect of the erstwhile Navigation Team of social workers and police officers that cleared homeless encampments — encourages the return to the carrot and stick approach: the threat of incarceration in order to induce people into treatment, job training, and other services. 

Lindsay co-produced the program.

In Johnson’s view, law enforcement has been neutered, and the city council — especially the Women of Color on the council — are at best naïve and at worst complicit. Conspicuously absent are any systemic factors such as deinstitutionalization without support or the chronic lack of beds in mental health facilities in our state. His singular nod to our affordable housing crisis is to minimize its contribution to homelessness.

Fight for the Soul of Seattle concludes with Johnson’s solution: a tough-love, involuntary commitment facility where addicts get detox, treatment, and at least six months of supportive housing to break the cycle of use/sobriety/relapse. He has blueprints showing the layout in a sylvan setting and is frank about the cost (astronomical).

Predictably, the response to Fight for the Soul of Seattle has come down along two sides. The voice of lesser Seattle and the suburbs applauds Johnson’s no-nonsense, clear-eyed analysis of what happens when bleeding hearts take over city leadership. 

This is willful ignorance. 

The problem of highly addictive illicit drugs isn’t confined to urban areas — it’s a nationwide problem. The man in San Francisco who spiraled into addiction was from a suburb an hour south of San Francisco but ended up there to support his habit. In this sense, our cities aren’t the origin of the problem, but they are the repository for many of its consequences. Unfortunately, that fact doesn’t support Johnson’s conclusion that Seattle is dying. 

On the other hand, the political left views Johnson as a tool of Sinclair (the corporate owners of KOMO), pressing the conservative narrative of urban decay under progressive leadership. In fact, segments of both his original Seattle is Dying and Fight have been aired on national conservative media outlets. Crosscut’s Katie Wilson describes it as “the worst kind of poverty porn, calculated to arouse and exploit disgust rather than sympathy.”

Seattle isn’t dying. But it also isn’t thriving. Instead, we lack civic leadership and good faith engagement. Our city is an extreme example of the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.” During a period of extraordinary overall economic growth in our city and region, prosperity has not been shared. Virtually all the new wealth has accrued to the wealthiest, the homeowners, the fortunate. Meanwhile, wage growth has not kept pace with housing prices, and our regressive tax systems, fettered by anti-tax initiative runner Tim Eyman, have systematically depleted the capacity for city leaders to pay for essential services. 

The failure that Fight for the Soul of Seattle documents doesn’t belong to the current crop of city councilmembers or even the mayor. The failure belongs to our region’s wealthy, who have abdicated their civic duty, and our corporate neighbors who have fought against paying their share. Sure, they have endowed enormous foundations that dole out billions in charity each year, but these are just another symptom of our failing. When huge swaths of our society are reliant on charities for basic needs such as food, shelter, clothes, and even medical care, we have failed. As someone intimately familiar with nonprofits and government, let me assure you that no amount of charitable giving will make up for a failed state. 

None of this is news to the caseworkers who engage in the thankless, gritty labor of meeting those in crisis where they are. Johnson would have discovered this had he taken time to talk with people at Downtown Emergency Services Center, the service organization he vilifies in the documentary. The truth is, we are already paying for this crisis in the form of emergency room visits, incarceration, and the enormous opportunity cost of lives lost. 

Even Johnson seems to understand this. His solution is a vision of a comprehensive, humane alternative to incarceration that treats the issue as a public health problem and not a criminal justice problem. Where he misses the mark is where so many do: focusing on symptoms while ignoring root causes.

Any solution is going to be very expensive — and enduring. Some three to four thousand people in our region are experiencing chronic homelessness, mostly attributable to behavioral health diagnoses. These diagnoses don’t always have cures, but there are treatments that can ameliorate them. An honest reckoning would account for ongoing care for many of these individuals. King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan have initiated a regional response to the homelessness crisis, recognizing that a segment of the population in crisis in Seattle comes from neighboring cities and towns, but the rollout has been hamstrung by anemic funding, a lack of internal leadership, and resistance from suburban city councilmembers. 

The solution to this crisis is a stable source of funding for comprehensive public health and housing solutions for those with severe behavioral health issues. One local funding source, the Mental Health and Drug Dependency sales tax, has been hard hit by declining revenues due to the coronavirus. We need funding that isn’t dependent on the wild swings of sales tax revenues or too easily cut from annual budgets. 

Nor can we hold our breath waiting for a solution from the federal government or the state. It’s well past time for a change in attitude among our wealthy neighbors. Instead of fighting every effort to raise progressive revenue, they ought to be the first in line at public comment to support these initiatives, bankrolling the campaigns supporting levies, and backing candidates who pledge to make our tax system more just. The late Bill Gates Sr. was a traitor to his class in this regard, championing the last statewide initiative to institute a progressive income tax. 

This generation of our community’s aristocracy would be wise to turn off KOMO News, step away from Facebook, and instead, follow his example. To ask what they can do to help, rather than point the finger at everyone who isn’t doing enough. To whom much is given, much will be required — and so far, we’ve required very little. 

Ryan Calkins is a commissioner at the Port of Seattle. In addition he is a coach and consultant at Ventures, a charitable organization that supports low-income entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses in the Puget Sound area. For more than a decade, Ryan ran an import and distribution company in Seattle that was recognized for its industry-leading sustainability initiatives. In 2007, he formed Seattle Microfinance Organization (SeaMo) a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to capital for entrepreneurs with limited economic resources. Ryan began his career in Central and South America, working for disaster relief and human rights nonprofits. He can be reached on Twitter here.

The featured image is attributed to Ian Sane under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.