The law forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges
July 5, 2018 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Chris McGreal in The Guardian blames Amazon for Seattle's endemic homelessness problem (Is Bezos holding Seattle hostage?); Dae Shik Kim Hawkins in The Atlantic (An App for Ejecting the Homeless) examines the intersection of the issue with technology via the city's mobile reporting app; Charles Mudede at The Stranger has opinions about the city government's action and lack thereof (The City of Seattle Appears to Dislike The Atlantic Story on Our City's Homeless Crisis and Anti-Homeless App).

Meanwhile David Cole also on the Slog excoriates the Seattle Times editorial board with multiple links to people who use data to talk about the city's housing crisis.
posted by bq (50 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
The amount of energy I spend daily reading about homelessness complaints in my Seattle neighborhood social media...

The Guardian story is the best summary of this mess I've read.

Now to go and cry.
posted by k8t at 9:56 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]


Thank you for this article!
posted by jbenben at 10:15 PM on July 5


oh geez is this thread about to turn into /r/seattlewa

or /r/seattle (it's a long story)

There sure are a lot of homeless in Seattle and there sure are more of them than when I moved here, and the rent sure ain't getting any lower. That's all I'm saying.
posted by egypturnash at 10:18 PM on July 5 [8 favorites]




Thank you for this post. I am intimately involved with the Seattle homeless population professionally, and am affected by the issue because, like many residents near the city center, I am surrounded by homeless encampments. I had read the Atlantic article previously and our neighborhood listservs are basically “grar! More tent cities discovered! I called the police and nothing happened!” Importantly, the people complaining the loudest about homelessness are not the new money immigrants, but the long term residents and homeowners that are upset that their once safe and tidy neighborhood has changed so much and they are mostly angry at the city for not enforcing vagrancy laws.

The issue is not that’s there’s not enough shelter beds. Shelters are awful places and there will always be those who prefer to camp outside than be housed in close quarters with the seriously mentally ill, alcoholic, and drug abusing. The issue is that there is an enormous lack of long term housing available to low wage earners and the long term disabled in this city. Waiting lists for durable public housing are years long and you can get kicked off the list for any number of minor reasons. Neighboring counties have a tiny fraction of the budget that King County has to address homelessness and are doing even less to address housing so Seattle is a magnet for homeless people and now has to deal with a regional problem with only local funds. And then there is the issue of a total lack of an effective mental health safety net ( not really a total lack, but woefully inadequate to the problem) so we have a huge number of unstably housed people that are completely unable to self advocate and navigate a system in which they need to compete for limited resources.

And don’t even get me started on the number of gay and gender queer refugees, as well as persistently mentally ill people, moving here from Mississippi and Alabama looking for a progressive environment where they can get medical care and social support when staying in the deep red south would be a death sentence. We are essentially subsidizing the regressive politics of places that have decided not to meet the needs of the citizenry. Which we are happy to do, because fuck conservatives.

Amazon, on balance, I think has been good for the city. Like Microsoft and Boeing before it, they have brought a huge amount of cash and jobs to the city and they have helped create big infrastructure improvements when it suits them.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t give one shit about the wealth disparity and homelessness it’s caused. We don’t need 200 new emergency shelter beds. We need a way to create 50,000 affordable long term housing units and a way to greatly expand the medical and mental health safety net. And I’m not a business person, but I suspect Amazon could do this overnight and barely affect its stock price. Do they have an obligation to do this? Probably not. But I’d like to believe that corporations have the capacity to not be evil and wouldn’t it be great if Amazon was not only a wildly profitable company, but also a company that made the city in which its skilled employees live and raise their children a better place?

And also unfortunately, their power is now greater than that of the city government as evidenced by their ability to block the city’s first real attempt to tackle this problem with the employment tax.

I have felt that for a long time, the response to homelessness needs to be regionalized. It makes no sense that Seattle sends millions of dollars to Eastern Washington via sales tax to build their roads and fight their fires while Yakima and Pullman sends their homeless people looking for work and housing and health care, all of which are funded not at the state level (ok some health care is state funded) but at the county level.

Wealth inequality and weak local government. It’s a bitch and I don’t see the homeless crisis doing anything but getting a lot worse.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:59 PM on July 5 [111 favorites]


The people who lose are renters and the people who grew up in Seattle and came of age anytime in the last decade or so.

Those cushy paying jobs go to people from all over the world - they don't preferentially go to people just because they were born here. So you want to live where you grew up, where you have family and a support network? You're out of luck, capitalism says Amazon deserves your home town more than you. And if you're moving between houses in the area, the "money" you have is all theoretical. Sure you sell your house for more, but it costs just as much more to buy it. You only really get to cash out if you up and leave the state.

So yeah, there's every reason for people who live around, have lived around here, and want to continue to live around here to resent the heck out of the tech industry.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:59 PM on July 5 [14 favorites]


[Several comments removed. "Hey, I think this is wrong / missing something" is a totally okay way to approach a post critically, but when you wrap it up in aggressive or arch or sarcastic framing you are basically picking a fight at the start of the thread and that sucks. Please cool off and try again more constructively if you want to contribute to this thread, or just skip it if you don't feel that's accomplishable.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:02 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]


Slarty Bartfast: I have felt that for a long time, the response to homelessness needs to be regionalized.

I think the mayor of Seattle, regardless of who holds the office, and the King County Executive both agree with you. However, they're having a massive headwind against actually doing this because the other cities and counties in the region are strongly opposed. Why? Those governments and their residents have found it far more cost effective to export the problem to Seattle (usually by arresting a homeless person for "vagrancy" and then dropping them off at the King County jail in downtown and oh-so-conveniently not being there when the person is released from booking). As a happy aside, they get to spend all of that money on quality-of-life amenities—and can look down on Seattle for being "dirty and crime-ridden"— while also trying to lure away the residents and businesses that make up Seattle's tax base.

I also think, right or wrong, that's where a lot of the angst is coming from. People look at Bellevue and Shoreline and Redmond and Kirkland and they say "how come they get to have clean parks with no tents and no trash and no bums wandering around begging for change and no street kids with three dogs crapping on the beach...and we don't?" To be totally clear, I do not agree with that assessment, but I know a whole lot of people who have that perception and it's spreading. All we hear from our local news on the topic is "oh, there goes Seattle, passing another tax to give away to the homeless from all across the country who also, we might add, burned down an overpass last night," so it's hard to separate that background noise from the actual reality.

On top of it all, Amazon hasn't yet learned that having the public on your side means ginning up goodwill among the public. Instead, Amazon has taken the stance that it pays its employees well and it pays the taxes required of it and that it should be lauded for having its offices in the city core instead of a far-flung suburb to which people would drive and sprawl housing around (I pretty much agree with that last point). But it doesn't act like an involved citizen and, as we saw on the head tax debate, slings its weight around solely to benefit it. I wouldn't be surprised if this HQ2 business winds up being like a sports stadium; "give us what we want or we'll just move to Kansas City."
posted by fireoyster at 11:50 PM on July 5 [27 favorites]


The point for WA residents is that we have a damn stupid tax system. A progressive income tax would go a hell of a lot further but trying to convince people of this is as close to impossible as you can get in a West Coast state. The head tax was a terrible idea. Not because of Amazon but because of other businesses it would apply to like large restaurant concerns or manufacturing businesses. It was a tax on gross profits, like our damn stupid B&O tax and as such harms smaller margin businesses without any relief. I hew pretty left, economically, and am in no way opposed to a good progressive taxation system. Washington State however has the worst tax system in the country for low and middle income folks. We need to amend the State Constitution. Sadly there is insufficient support for that goal.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 2:00 AM on July 6 [13 favorites]


"Do they have an obligation to do this? Probably not."

I mean, sure legally no. But I would say that collectively we ought to start thinking that yes we all have a responsibility to do what we are able to help those in need. In my opinion, that is what an ethical community does as individuals and in groups.
posted by xarnop at 4:22 AM on July 6 [11 favorites]


I know that this isn't really about architecture, but I had never heard of the greenhouses before. As I was reading the Guardian article, I though, "ugh, 'Bezos' Balls'? Why do people have to give everything a childish nickname?" Then I got to the picture.

They look like something from a David Cronenberg adaptation of a Chuck Tingle novel.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:26 AM on July 6 [12 favorites]


I rather like them, but if never refer to them as anything other than Jeff’s Big Balls.
posted by Artw at 5:40 AM on July 6 [4 favorites]


Washington State however has the worst tax system in the country for low and middle income folks. We need to amend the State Constitution. Sadly there is insufficient support for that goal.

It really is sad because the potential really exists here to create a democratic socialist utopia. Progressive politics, relative wealth, a diversified economy that still includes a profitable industrial and lower skills sectors (fisheries, manufacturing, tourism). I completely agree that it would be better for everyone, including the wealthy, if there was a fair income tax that supported a sustainable economically diverse population. Most Seattlities are well read, open minded, and good at thinking about the big picture right up until the point they are asked to live next to a big new condo complex or pay a few more bucks for something that won’t directly benefit them. It’s such a disconnect between appreciating the quality of urban life they enjoy and realizing what it takes to sustain that quality of life.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:26 AM on July 6 [4 favorites]


"I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

I have such utter contempt for people who support "no income tax" or flat income taxes. To theoyster's ooint about companies acting as involved citizens, well, making them pay real and fair taxes to their communities (including the income taxes on their employees) would help with that. Because it creates infrastructure to offset the burdens they create on the communities they're in.
posted by crush at 6:39 AM on July 6 [10 favorites]


Different coast, but similar problem. (Portland ME, not OR)

One of the interesting comments there comes from a very capable representative:

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, “This population is not the problem,” Ray said. “I want to make sure we work hard to separate those issues. Homelessness is not criminality.”

...But the thing is that homelessness falls into the nexus of all sorts of illegalities. It's a trap.

I mean, sure legally no. But...an ethical community does [have a responsibility to care for homeless]

I think one of the jarring things that the 21st century makes plain is that ethics is losing the conflict with pragmatism (and it is a capitalist pragmatism, be assured). You see it across almost every policy issue: race, education, health, privacy, property, etc..

When property = rights and money = speech, having an ethical majority means very little in terms of consequences. We'll suffer what we must with the most fragile suffering the most.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:25 AM on July 6 [7 favorites]


We need a way to create 50,000 affordable long term housing units and a way to greatly expand the medical and mental health safety net. And I’m not a business person,

People get really close to the core issue and then veer away at the last minute to blame the wrong people, or wish for miracles.

The problem is, and always has been zoning. The city and most of its population is irrationally obsessed with single family homes. If Amazon suddenly decided it wanted to build 50k housing units for millions of dollars, they couldn't because the land simply doesn't exist, and every neighborhood council in the city would dig in to block it.

The best example of this is the attempt to build just under 300 units at fort lawton in a parking lot at a former military base in a affluent Seattle neighborhood. The land is free, and the project supported by grants, but the neighborhood is still trying to sue to block it, anything to save precious neighborhood character ( no poors, no POCs) and or parking.
posted by vincentmeanie at 7:28 AM on July 6 [20 favorites]


There is a tool I have found useful in trying to understand important social and political and economic issues: ask "compared to what?" The homelessness problem is wrenching in Seattle but also in Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego... i.e. every major West Coast City (as well as many others around the U.S.). I do volunteer work with the homeless every week, and there are myriad causes for the atrocious growth of the problem. It is important to advocate (and offer service) locally, which includes pushing local governments and corporations to do the right things, but it is also important to examine and understand the larger forces and players (opiates, national economy & health care politics, etc.), which likely make it impossible for any one metro area to "solve" the problem.
posted by PhineasGage at 7:34 AM on July 6 [2 favorites]


We don’t need 200 new emergency shelter beds. We need a way to create 50,000 affordable long term housing units and a way to greatly expand the medical and mental health safety net.

Here in Oakland the push is for building tiny house villages. Better than sleeping in a tent surrounded by garbage, but Jesus. How much better would it be to fund and build a subsidized apartment building! With plumbing and power and in some locations onsite social work and nursing staff! The resistance to actual action on this is one of liberalism's ugliest blind spots. Shelter beds won't solve this. Tiny houses won't solve this. There is a housing shortage and the worst income inequality we've had in generations. We need to build. We need to subsidize housing and social services at scale and a health care (including mental health and substance dependence) system that's accessible for everyone. And we need a way to pay for it. We can not solve this without paying more taxes and ditching single family zoning. That is glaringly obvious to anyone who looks at the numbers. This one is not just on the right wing, it's on all of us to own it and fix it. We can't just keep our lives the way they are if we actually care about this.
posted by latkes at 7:37 AM on July 6 [10 favorites]


Or just seize all those empty "investment" condos and redistribute them.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:09 AM on July 6 [7 favorites]


@latkes oh we have tiny house villages in Seattle too. One of them is a 10 minute walk from me. Those that oppose these argue that it is a sanctioned area for all of the bad stuff associated with homeless encampments... Drugs, theft, trash, etc.
Also it happens to be on the walk to a brand new middle school.
I know that my neighborhood social media hates the one here. I also know (personally) that a few long time residents are unable to sell their home/property for what it was worth a few years ago because of it.

It is a mess.
posted by k8t at 8:14 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Another interesting dimensions, at least where I am in North Seattle, is developers buying up old homes, tearing them down, and putting in 3 or 4 townhouses. I'm all for more housing but I'm not sure this is the way to do it.
posted by k8t at 8:16 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


I know Seattle and Oakland are different but 4 townhomes house more people than one bungalow. The market will not solve this but keeping the status quo is unconscionable.
posted by latkes at 8:21 AM on July 6 [8 favorites]


Surely the answer is in electing local/state representatives who will formulate and pass laws to address the concerns shared by the population. While I can see the value in trying to reach out to the corporations directly it seems to shift the responsibility from the voters to the board members.
posted by asra at 9:20 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


The problem is, and always has been...

... multiple. There's very little to be gained by fixating on a single cause to the exclusion of others.
posted by klanawa at 9:36 AM on July 6 [4 favorites]


I just think ultimately electing smart politicians is useless until we take money out of politics. Amazon and Microsoft have so much more sway than we do, no matter how many of us shout loudly. But along with that, we need a serious PR campaign in support of raising taxes at the state level. As long as the majority hate taxes, we'll never have adequate services.
posted by latkes at 9:36 AM on July 6


Amazon and Microsoft have so much more sway than we do

On the one hand, corporate control of politics is a huge thing. OTOH, I think this dissonance really needs to be resolved.

Economic growth and especially large employers are not the problem. It's entirely about the willingness for a large number of property owners to allow denser cities.

Denser cities, you say? What about NYC? That place is a rent-seeking shit show, amirite?

No, you are not right. For a long time NYC has housed 20-50x (ish) as many people as Seattle and done it in a way where a huge spectrum of income types have been able to call it home.

Is it now very expensive in certain parts, largely because it's a global investment sink. If you think this has anything to do with general urban planning and homelessness you are fooled.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:47 AM on July 6 [2 favorites]


I question if even regionalizing the problem is going to help on anything other than a short-term basis. As long as people are free to move around (and they are, within the country at least), if one area provides a substantially better support system than another, over time people in need of that support are probably going to move there. That's not to say that's a bad thing, but it can put a hell of a strain on any area's limited resources.

And people may not even migrate there of their own volition. There are lots of stories of cities, principally in the 70s and 80s, using bus tickets to San Francisco or LA as a solution to their local homelessness or vagrancy problems. (This still happens, though now the net flow of one-way bus tickets goes the other direction.) But it raises the question: if you built 50,000 housing units in Seattle, or anywhere else, how do you keep other cities from just externalizing their own homelessness problems, and shuffling people into the now-empty underpasses and tent cities?

The homelessness problem in the US is a lot more than 50k people, certainly, and even if most people are rooted to a particular place by virtue of family connections or other support systems, if even a few percent of people are willing to move in search of the possibility of affordable housing, it's probably more than a single city—even a fairly rich city like Seattle—is going to be willing to take on.

I'm not sure what the best way is to get around that, given the lack of ability to do anything at the Federal level, and prohibitions on restricting movement (which is how other countries have dealt with urban overcrowding and homelessness—you just don't allow more people move to an area than there is housing). But I do think it's why you see such a vast disconnect between what residents of a city claim to want, and what they actually do via their elected representatives and government apparatus. We have a situation where no city can afford to actually solve homelessness, because if they do there's a risk they might end up on a treadmill where they have to solve it at greater and greater scale.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:59 AM on July 6 [5 favorites]


As someone witnessing this exact phenomenon first hand in San Francisco and the peninsula, the problem cannot simply be one of tax law, as perverse as Washington states appears to be. We are, of course, geographically contained in a way that makes housing a difficult proposition, but the thing is, there is little to no development for housing going on even in the lots that have nothing on them. They are either more office towers -- an insane zoning decision at this stage -- or they sit undeveloped and in legal limbo as city councils from neighboring areas that are violently resistant to any change that might result in the "poor" (read: not white) people changing the "character" do everything in their power to torpedo housing projects.

I have my anger for the tech industry, don't get me wrong. I think it's a little *too* easy to blame them for problems we are creating for ourself, though.
posted by cj_ at 10:35 AM on July 6


I feel like blaming Amazon is like blaming water for running downhill.
posted by bq at 10:44 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Slarty Bartfast, thank you for that comment. I lived in Seattle on and off for about a decade and never had that nuanced understanding of the homeless problem.

My feelings about the homeless population were colored by being street harassed constantly and followed by mentally ill men on more than one occasion, and worrying all the time about being killed or raped. As if homeless people, especially women identified, weren't far more likely to be the victim than I was — I know this. After my roommate's girlfriend was raped by a homeless guy we saw frequently as she walked from the bus in the daytime, a block away from our house, I stopped taking public transit and eventually bought a car after five years without one.

I moved away from Seattle because I realized I could never afford a home there (even making 90k/year), because the gayborhood started having increasing hate crimes and because I made the mistake of joining Nextdoor and subsequently started hating every NIMBY, racist piece of shit around me more than I could stomach. I really ache for Seattle sometimes and read this stuff with interest.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:45 AM on July 6 [5 favorites]


Is there another country that has successfully handled homelessness as a social issue? How did they do it?
posted by Selena777 at 11:08 AM on July 6


The idea that homeless folks are moving to West coast cities is not supported by evidence. Most homeless folks are from the place they are homeless or have lived there for decades. Annual and biannual homeless surveys show this again and again, despite anecdotes to the contrary.
posted by latkes at 12:28 PM on July 6 [5 favorites]


Most homeless folks are from the place they are homeless or have lived there for decades.

By a survey completed by homeless people, 30% of homeless people in Seattle are moving to Seattle while homeless somewhere else, and 50% have lived in Seattle for less than five years. Your statement is, strictly speaking, true (50% is not a majority), but moving to Seattle to access Seattle's services is demonstrably a thing. Given Seattle spends ~$200M/year on homelessness, that means Seattle is subsidizing other cities by about $60M/year.
posted by saeculorum at 12:39 PM on July 6 [7 favorites]


(and, by the way, in case anyone is paying attention, that implies Seattle is paying $30,854/year per homeless person in Seattle - it'd actually be cheaper for Seattle to simply flat out buy my house at market price right now to house just one person)
posted by saeculorum at 12:46 PM on July 6


I do doubt the contention that people who are homeless are moving to Seattle from Alabama and Mississippi in any numbers. Atlanta sure is a lot closer, and we have plenty of services and plenty of homeless people from Alabama and Mississippi.

(And as Atlanta fervently chases Amazon2, these articles just help support the preference of the average person in Atlanta that we not get it. Our housing shortage and rich/poor divide are both pretty bad already.)
posted by hydropsyche at 1:50 PM on July 6 [4 favorites]


saeculorum - A lot of Seattle's funds to combat homelessness are focused on prevention, so the math of dividing funding by the size of the homeless population doesn't necessarily work. That said, yes, we are spending a lot of money.

I worry that the city council is approaching a point where they lose their mandate to raise and spend further tax money on the homeless problem. Whether true or not, the sentiment is growing that the city is wasting money, not solving the problem, and allowing property crimes blamed on homeless addicts to go unpunished. It has definitely given traction to that old conservative chestnut that all government spending is wasteful and/or corrupt, even among a surprising number of otherwise progressive homeowners who now feel unsafe. It's frustrating because these people will tell you all about how much of a failure the city's homeless initiatives are, but, if pressed, it turns out they're basing opinions entirely on ranty conservative media and what they read on nextdoor, and they don't actually have any fucking idea what the city is doing or how accountability is tracked (hint: it's pretty transparent and all available on the web!)

It's a big PR problem, and it definitely contributed to the defeat of the head tax.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:30 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


The 2018 King County Homeless Point in Time Count says 65% of homeless folks have lived there five years or more and 83% of respondents said they were living in King County the most recent time they became homeless.

It's not the absolutely must rigerous study. But it gives us a pretty good picture. This is consistent with qualitative and quantitative studies of homeless people around the US and Canada. Speaking generally, homeless people are homeless where they're from.

Having said that, surrounding counties must do their part too; displacement is real. And single family wealthy suburbs are unjust. Also the State. Again, we have to pay for housing and health care somehow. The State level seems like the most efficient way to produce money and regulate how it is spent.
posted by latkes at 2:34 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


qxntpqbbbqxl: I worry that the city council is approaching a point where they lose their mandate to raise and spend further tax money on the homeless problem.

I'll go one step farther and say that I think the city council has already lost that mandate. It capitulated so hard on Amazon's bullying that I'm pretty sure it'll take another election cycle for the council to have any political will to try anything new. The chorus we heard before about how vagrants are "ruining the city" has been getting very loud over the past two or three months. Even the TV stations—and not just KIRO—are getting into it, running pieces on how conventions are "starting to consider other places than Seattle" due to "rising crime and a feeling of being unsafe by attendees."

At this point, I don't think there's much we can do to stop that sentiment. Drug addiction and homelessness out in public are visible, prevalent, and easy to point to. People can take the easy way out and simply demand "no more tents, no more encampments, no more lax enforcement" and, eventually it seems, the council will fold even if that would be inhumane and counterproductive.

What's most frustrating is I think, at least insofar as the head tax, I think this is a situation of the council's and mayor's own making.

Mayor McGinn was trying to put some kind of order to the system but the political pushback from walking away from long-time groups like SHARE and LIHI and UGM was too much for him to tackle on top of all of the other things on which he spent political capital. Mayor Murray, so far as I can tell, sat amiably by and tried to wait for a "regional solution" that never happened because he didn't push for it and just tried to make it someone else's problem, just like the Eastside does to Seattle. Mayor Durkan has made good statements about accountability and metrics but then, for some reason that her office never really articulated, got behind the council push to raise the head tax but did so before having anything to point to as a success. So it was super easy for Amazon and Dick Spady's progeny to paint the council and mayor as inept and "more of the same."

I dunno, maybe I'm just being too bleak. It just seems to me, with my limited involvement in social services, that far too many people are looking at either how Seattle was or how it was sold to them as being and thinking that "those damn homeless vagrants" are interfering with that view, so that's the "problem" that people want solved...not the problem that their fellow humans are out on the streets.
posted by fireoyster at 2:52 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


Dude, my kid’s preschool found human waste and discarded needles on the (fenced) playground. Now in my view this issue would be best solved by providing safe injection sites and housing-first public spending, but my politics don’t make that not a problem for me.
posted by bq at 3:31 PM on July 6 [5 favorites]


I *HOPE* West Coast metro governments are in contact with each other and discussing what has worked (and what hasn't) to address this crisis. Here are a few articles about the complicated, changing, still-critical situation in San Francisco...
posted by PhineasGage at 3:41 PM on July 6


It's frustrating because these people will tell you all about how much of a failure the city's homeless initiatives are, but, [...] they don't actually have any fucking idea what the city is doing or how accountability is tracked

Yes, it is on the web, because the city funded two studies on it. Both came to the same conclusion:
  • Focus Strategies: " our analysis reveals that the pace of change is slow and resources continue to be invested in interventions that have limited results. We believe homelessness in King County can be dramatically reduced using existing resources and even given the significant unaffordability of the current housing market"
  • Barbara Poppe (based on Focus Strategies study): "Seattle/King County has sufficient emergency shelter capacity to shelter all unsheltered family households within one year by combining three initiatives: (1) eliminating low and moderately performing Transitional Housing (TH) projects and repurposing those resources to more effective uses; (2) reaching recommended system and program performance targets; and (3) implementing a well functioning coordinated entry and diversion system."
What has the city done in response? A year later, the city decided it should finally start competitively bidding it's funding (after not doing so for ten years!) - by making a whopping 12% of a $30M contract contingent on performance.

Instead of actually changing any program (so far as I can tell), half a year later, the city passed a head tax to kinda, sorta, fund homelessness - by "expressing the City Council’s intent" - without actually committing to spend money in any particular way with any particular guarantee of performance.

You could image that doesn't make people in Seattle happy.
posted by saeculorum at 3:49 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


Is there another country that has successfully handled homelessness as a social issue? How did they do it?
posted by Selena777


Maybe Singapore, with over 80% of its population living in public housing. They tend to treat housing as a basic human need which should be controlled and provided by the government rather than something to be left to the private market. There are people who slip through the cracks but the numbers are relatively small, it was something of a scandal when there arose estimates of several hundred homeless people in the entire country (5.6 mil).

For a rough comparison, median household income in Singapore is about SGD 105k which is about USD 80k. US median household income is about USD 60k, but a fairer comparison would be median household income in Seattle itself, would be about USD 80k, so it's equivalent to Singapore.

The difference is that due to very limited land (it's a cramped island) an apartment in Singapore costs between $1 mil to $10 mil, while a house tends to be $3 mil to $20 mil, and they also tend to be leasehold (reversion to government ownership after 99 years). Oh, also it costs about $100k per year to own a car due to punitive taxes to prevent congestion of what little limited road network it has and the government invests making their public transport good and usable.
posted by xdvesper at 4:45 PM on July 6 [5 favorites]


It boggles my mind that so many people still think our societal problems can be solved with minor adjustments to capitalism.
posted by scose at 1:22 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Ah crap I meant to say it costs $100k to purchase a car, not that it costs $100k per year. Also Eduardo Saverin (Facebook co-founder) converted citizenship from American to Singaporean for the lower taxes, so it's not like Singapore is a socialist welfare state either.
posted by xdvesper at 8:49 AM on July 7


I mean, also in Singapore it's almost impossible to move out into public housing unless you're married. If we do move into a dense, progressive, publically housed future we may need to rethink our models of housing in general. I don't think government-mandated roommates would at all work but maybe constructing single-occupant housing in large numbers along with family homes could do the trick.
posted by storytam at 12:27 PM on July 7


Single occupant housing is extremely inefficient though. Once you build out the bathrooms, living, dining, pantry, laundry, garage... adding just one extra bedroom doubles the living capacity at virtually no cost. It's ok if you can afford it I guess, but it's very clearly a luxury good the way I guess business class is in airlines if you want more room for yourself.
posted by xdvesper at 9:44 PM on July 7


Hmm, in Asia people don't necessarily have all that space: usually it's a single room with bathroom (shower, no bath) and kitchenette. Laundry is handled via communal laundromat.
posted by storytam at 11:27 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


Is there another country that has successfully handled homelessness as a social issue? How did they do it?

I had never seen homeless people until I came to America. The (developed western) country I came from did it by having a proper social safety net and universal healthcare (including mental).

Unfortunately much like vaccines, it has been a victim of its own success; my generation grew up with little understanding of how greatly the safety net contributed to empowering us and benefited the economy, too many of us assumed our success was the result of our own grit and hard work, resented the specter of the "free ride", and for much of the last two decades have been undermining the safety net. Now homelessness has become a problem there too.

But regarding your question, homelessness is a solved issue. All it requires is for society to give a damn, and be organized about it. (eg a society-wide tax-based safety-net with no holes and no strings attached; organized and effective. Whereas a labyrinth of charities is a garbage fire of ineffectiveness that too many people prefer because of the warm-fuzzies)

Having lived in both societies, the thing that stands out to me is how the vast value for money (from paying for a strong safety net) is immensely more than just helping everyone; everyone includes yourself in so many non-obvious ways. It doesn't occur to people in the USA that taking a romantic stroll through the parks at night could be a thing, because here the parks are either populated by people with nowhere to go, or locked down and policed because of same; bad places at night. If you want to try to start your dream business, regular people have the freedom to be an entrepreneur, rather than being trapped in a crappy job by a need for health insurance or a danger of falling into homelessness. When you've had no experience of public facilities being excellent and ubiquitous, you don't know how much more pleasant some aspects of life can be. Plus cities don't stink of shit and puddles are always just water. If you're in a low wage job and want to upskill, you can. Both you, the economy, and everyone else benefits when you become a higher earner. No-one wins if you're trapped living paycheck-to-paycheck.

The culture of assuming the worst in your fellow citizens - that people are just out to get handouts they didn't "earn"; this is poison to society and self. When everyone lifts each other up, everyone wins.
posted by anonymisc at 3:11 PM on July 8 [8 favorites]


If we do move into a dense, progressive, publically housed future we may need to rethink our models of housing in general. I don't think government-mandated roommates would at all work

Have dorms. Single rooms are tiny; shared bathrooms and showers; dorm manager on every floor who doesn't regulate activity like a college dorm monitor, but manages maintenance and facilitates meetings so people can establish and teach each other dorm rules. Some rules could be user-made ("no loud music on weeknights") and some could be local regulations ("no furniture on the fire escape"). In a socialist-collective dorm, the floor manager is elected by the tenants, probably with some oversight from the city.

Multi-person rooms get more amenities; if you agree to a roommate, you get more space; sign up for a quad-person arrangement and you get 2 bedrooms, instead of a studio, and a bathroom just for the four of you. Find a pack of 7 other people you can live with, and you get a houselike unit with 4 bedrooms and a kitchen of its own, either gov't subsidized or at a price that 6 minimum-wage incomes can afford, because it's assumed that 2 of those people are likely to be children.

... Or some other option. It's not hard to come up with ways to house large numbers of people affordably; it's hard to come up with ways to do so that don't run into NIMBYism. We don't need radical public housing projects (although they might be the best option) - to get started, we just need a removal of zoning laws designed to promote 50's white suburbanism as the only acceptable form of neighborhood.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:05 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Let's not ignore the fact that Singapore is both a sovereign nation and an island (well, technically an archipelago). They have control over migration and immigration in a way that a city or even a US state can never have, so the solutions they have found are likely beyond the reach of a state or local government.

I have very little doubt that if Seattle had the sort of control over its borders and demographics that Singapore does, they could make a lot more progress on the homelessness problem. That involves jus sanguinis citizenship, mandatory military/national service (which discourages naturalization), and a two-tiered system with a large population of non-citizen foreign workers, the lower tiers of whom companies are required to pay extra taxes on. (Also, if you try to sneak in, they can beat you with a cane.) But the net result is that they can balance migration against their perceived ability to offer social services; when they solve the problem, they are doing it for 5 million or so people — the same order of magnitude as a large US metro area — not hundreds of millions.

That's the benefit of tackling social problems at the nation-state level; there are a lot more levers, for better or for worse, to pull than a municipal government or even a regional one has.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:36 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


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