Documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo believes "ruinous compassion" is perpetuating the homeless crisis in Seattle.
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Documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo believes "ruinous compassion" is perpetuating the homeless crisis in Seattle.
Credit: Sasha Komatsubara

'Homelessness is now a billion-dollar industry,’ says this Seattle conservative

Documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo was briefly a contender for Seattle City Council in District 6, before dropping out of the race following threats that were lodged against his family.

He’s back now, with a paper called “The Politics of Ruinous Compassion: How Seattle’s Homelessness Policy Perpetuates the Crisis—And How to Fix It.”

Rufo spoke with KUOW's Ross Reynolds about his views on Seattle's approach to the homelessness crisis.

Chris Rufo, Ruinous Compassion

Documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo was briefly a contender for Seattle City Council in District 6, before dropping out of the race following threats that were lodged against his family. He’s back now, with a paper called “The Politics of Ruinous Compassion: How Seattle’s Homelessness Policy Perpetuates the Crisis—And How to Fix It.”

Interview highlights have been lightly edited for clarity.

What do you mean that ‘ruinous compassion' is perpetuating the homeless crisis?

I think we’ve made a fundamental mistake in how we’re measuring our homelessness policy ... We’re measuring it by how much money we are spending, and how do we feel about what we’re doing, rather than looking at the hard numbers and the fact that homelessness is getting worse year over year. According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, we’re now spending a billion dollars a year in King County to solve this problem

What do you suppose we do to fix this?

I think you have to listen to the public. Some recent Elway polling showed something that I think will be astonishing to a lot of people in Seattle: 55 percent of Seattle residents and voters support a zero tolerance policy on homeless encampments.

I think that’s some of the work we have to do — we have to be realistic with what’s happening, we have to adjust the spending so we’re doing things that work, and we have to empower law enforcement and other people to do their jobs and get people off the streets and into treatment and housing.

Couldn’t it be that measures are working to get people out of homelessness, but there are deeper problems such as mental health issues and the opioid drug crisis that are overwhelming our efforts?

Sure, I hear that argument a lot, but it actually doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny and the data. Over the last 10 years, homelessness is actually down 16.7 percent nationwide.

Over the last five years here in Seattle, the number of people on the streets is up 131 percent. You have to really take into account that we’re spending a lot of money but we’re not achieving results, and I don’t think that there’s been a 131 percent increase in mental illness over the last five years.

We’re doing something very specifically with our policy regime here in Seattle that is exacerbating the problem, and yet, our elected officials and our policy elites have been willfully blind to the fact that their policies aren’t working. We have record numbers of crime, our property crime rate is now 86 percent higher than Chicago, 250 percent higher than L.A. and 400 percent higher than New York City.

[Editor's note: The method for counting homeless people changed two years ago, and the numbers have risen as the counters have expanded their reach.]

Crosscut reporter David Kroman wrote an article that cited Seattle Police Department data. In 2018, SPD booked homeless people into jail more than 3200 times. That means one in five bookings last year was of a homeless person, even though homeless people make up only once percent of the population.

Why are we jailing people experiencing homelessness in disproportionate numbers compared to their numbers in the population?

I don’t think it’s disproportionate compared to the number of crimes that have been committed.

Anyone who drives through the streets of Seattle can see very clearly that we’re not enforcing the law on public camping, public drug consumption, and many low level property crimes. I think everyone in the city is feeling it, and it’s time we start addressing the reality.

What are you looking for to demonstrate that we are enforcing laws against people experiencing homelessness?

We measure success by how many people we’re getting off the streets, into housing, into treatment, and into mental healthcare.

If that’s really the metric we’re looking at, and if that’s the metric we’re saying is important as a community, we’re failing. Over the last five years, the number of people on the streets of Seattle has increased 131 percent despite record spending.

I don’t think that the solution is to just jail the homeless. I think the solution is to create real programs, real incentives, and real law enforcement to back up and enforce these programs that get people off the streets.

You’ve talked about how activists for people experiencing homelessness are weaponizing values of tolerance, diversity, and compassion as tools to destroy people. What do you mean by that?

There's this sense that the people who are running homeless policy in Seattle have the moral high ground, and they’re using compassion to guilt and shame and persuade people that we need to keep spending money on the same programs with the same people — and that someday we’re going to achieve different outcomes.

But if you look under the surface, you’ll find that homelessness is now a billion dollar industry in King County. Many of the same people who are essentially using rhetoric of compassion, if you actually look at the financial filings, and they’re making — in some cases — up to 200 thousand dollars a year with no accountable and no demonstrable results.

Have you ever worked with homeless people?

In my capacity as a documentary filmmaker I have. I am also participating in some charitable efforts with the homeless.

One of the smartest things I’ve heard in all my research and all my time spent working with the homeless is from a gentleman at the Union Gospel Mission. This gentleman spent more than 10 years on the streets as a homeless addict, cleaned up his life, and is now working as an outreach coordinator at the Union Gospel Mission, one of the most successful programs in Seattle.

He said, ‘Chris, there are 6,000 people on the streets of Seattle. I know 3,000 of them by name, and I know their stories. The problem in Seattle is not a resource issue. It’s a relational issue. The biggest problem is broken relationships.’

We have to address homelessness as a human problem. We have to understand why that leads people to get on the streets, rebuild those human bonds and relationships that can truly change people’s lives, and transform this city into what it should be.

Produced for the web by Brie Ripley