Photo depicting homeless people and homeless peoples things in downtown Seattle, Washington.

OPINION: Seattle Doesn’t Have a ‘Trash’ Problem, It Has an Equity Problem

by Elizabeth Kirk


When Mayor Harrell campaigned on “cleaning up the city” — I hope that he didn’t mean sweeping people and problems under the rug. 

I’m so tired of reading about Seattle’s trash, when what residents are really complaining about is the existence of homelessness. Trash is not the problem, instead it’s just one of the many unpleasant aesthetic consequences of poverty and unprecedented inequality. 

Take a minute to imagine not having access to a trash can. Actually imagine it. In fact, go look in your trash can. There’s that cup of yogurt, water bottle, worn-out pair of shoes, shampoo bottle, or old newspaper. Now imagine you also don’t have regular access to a toilet, compost bin, or a car to transport old furniture to the dump like the estimated 11,751 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle right now. So yeah, no kidding, Seattle has a lot of public trash. 

But it’s cheap to say that Seattle has a trash problem or even to say Seattle has a homelessness problem. Seattle has an inequality problem, a privilege problem, a NIMBY problem, and an obsession with funding cheap aesthetic solutions instead of tackling root causes. And while yes, of course, we want less trash, I hope that Seattle’s new mayor and his administration will focus first on the goals of compassion, equity, and dignity. 

To this end, Mayor Harrell should tackle root causes of homelessness and wealth inequality: Economic growth, lack of housing units, and an overwhelmed social safety net. The City webpage on homelessness, not updated since 2018, continues to cite mental health disorders, drug addiction, and violence as underlying causes for people to be living without housing. But experts continue to show that these issues are contributing factors at best, and more likely just scapegoats. Increasing access to those services alone doesn’t reduce homelessness. 

A Seattle study by McKinsey puts it plainly, “People point to alcohol abuse and, in the case of veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder, as possible root causes. In fact, the majority are not addicts, and very few people cite substance abuse as a root cause of homelessness.” Instead, McKinsey writes, “Economic growth in the region is a leading cause of homelessness. While the region is racking up impressive numbers in terms of job creation and economic growth, its housing growth has not kept pace. The gap between housing supply and demand has driven up prices to the point where the poorest simply can no longer afford housing without public support.”

But building affordable housing takes time, and rebuilding a gutted social safety net costs money. Seattle can’t eliminate homelessness overnight, nor in a single campaign cycle, which is never attractive to politicians. 

On the campaign trail, Harrell expressed support for Charter Amendment Measure 29, notoriously known as Compassion Seattle, which would have increased the number and rate of encampment sweeps. Now in office, the mayor should change course entirely. Instead, Harrell must implement options for reducing the harm by slowing the rate of encampment sweeps and increasing transparency about where unhoused individuals can find alternative shelter. The City should also prioritize help with moving to safe locations, provide free access to storage, and prevent the loss of personal property during sweeps. 

Continuing to underfund solutions and ignore our unhoused neighbors has tragic consequences, including dramatic rates of early deaths, as reported by one University of Washington study, and the local organization Homeless Death Counts

As citizens, instead of focusing on aesthetics, we should focus on creating an inclusive city. We should contact mutual aid groups assisting our unhoused neighbors, donate to shelters and tiny house villages, like Rosie’s near UW, and vote for inclusionary zoning measures that make Seattle affordable to all. We must do better to create a Seattle that prioritizes and centers people, not eyesores. 

And if you still can’t move past the trash issue, organize to go pick it up — adopting a street is free.


The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.


Elizabeth Kirk is a second-year Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Washington, where she studies urban policy, social justice, and poverty reduction.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Linda Parton/Shutterstock.com

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