Ross Reynolds moderates 'That's Debatable: The Homelessness Crisis is Killing Seattle' on Tuesday, October 29, 2019, at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle. 
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Ross Reynolds moderates 'That's Debatable: The Homelessness Crisis is Killing Seattle' on Tuesday, October 29, 2019, at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Is the homeless crisis really killing Seattle?

This was the proposition: The homelessness crisis is killing Seattle.

With the City Council election just a week away, a couple hundred people heard a panel debate Tuesday night in a KUOW event called That's Debatable at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.

The "yes" panelists: Mellina White, author of The Seattle Conservative blog; Sergio Garcia, a police officer who ran for the council this year and former council candidate.

The "no" panelists: Ashley Archibald, staff reporter at Real Change, and LaMont Green, co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of people who are formerly or currently homeless working with local governments and philanthropies.

Here are abridged portions of their opening statements:

White: “Seattle is dying because we have lost our moral compass. We have decided through whom we elect into office, through not challenging the status quo. And, yes, by not stopping and acknowledging the human being who is living and oftentimes suffering on the street, that this is all OK, this is acceptable.

"According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, we spend more than 1 billion dollars a year on the homelessness crisis. That is more than $80,000 for every man, woman and child living on the streets. Yet, we have only seen a small decrease in the number of people living on the streets in the past year. More importantly, we have not achieved any real progress in cases of mental illness or addiction. We allow others in our community to suffer.

"You've probably heard the narrative that this is a housing problem. The companies like Amazon are driving up the rent and pushing people out. But the fact is that by framing this problem as a housing crisis ignores the addiction and mental illness crisis that we are facing in our city. We ignore the fact that a small number of people have taken advantage of our local policies by committing assault, theft and drug dealing without facing any real consequences. It ignores the fact that while we continue to argue about how to find money to find permanent housing for thousands of individuals, we also allow them to continue to suffer on our streets indefinitely.”

Garcia: “After my nine hour shift at work, I go home every day heartbroken seeing the contradiction of what we stand for. Needle components, bicycles, tents, human waste, drug paraphernalia, shopping carts, all sorts of plastic objects and everything else you can imagine in our waterways and green spaces around encampments and throughout the entire city. Reading about how our oysters in the Sound are testing positive for opioids, our storm drains are showing 300 times the acceptable level of hazardous waste, and witnessing our trees and vegetation get cut and destroyed to make room for tents and mountains of trash. Taking endless police reports from both housed and unhoused women, members of our LGBTQ community and people of color who get sexually harassed, assaulted and terrorized by homeless people who are just as vulnerable as their victims due to their drug addiction and/or mental illness.”

Archibald: “If something is killing Seattle, it is deeper or structural forces. And those forces could very well be impacting you. People who own their homes are not safe. Your property taxes went up sixteen point nine percent last year, according to the assessor's office. Who’s income has gone up that much? Not many of the younger people who grew up here. Not the families that are economically displaced out of their homes by property taxes and forced into cheaper cities to the south. The gains that people tout when they talk about Seattle — the massive economic production, the behemoth companies that move here, the number of cranes in the skies — those are not gains that are felt by most people who live here. I am certainly not feeling them. The Real Change vendors I work with every day are not feeling them. The homelessness crisis that prosperous urban areas face is the result of decades of policy failure and a massive disinvestment in public housing at the federal level, resulting in an increasing number of people who desperately need help affording basic housing.”

Green: “We tend to forget the dark history of segregation, Jim Crow and redlining, we also tend to forget the war on drugs, gentrification, Reagonomics, and other racialized policies, and continued budget cuts to social safety nets that have accumulated to the despair and injustices we call the homelessness crisis. When we examine the data, it points us to what is truly killing not only Seattle but our nation for which the homelessness crisis is but a symptom of a much larger disease. The disease that is killing Seattle and our nation is Structural Racism and Systemic Oppression packaged neatly in neo-liberal budgets, policies, programs, and procedures that favor the rich and exploit the poor.”

A loss of a job was the number one reason for homelessness people cited in the annual Point in Time Count in 2019.
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A loss of a job was the number one reason for homelessness people cited in the annual Point in Time Count in 2019.
Credit: KUOW graphic, data from 2019 King County Point in Time count


The panelists debate whether Seattle has the resources or solutions to combat the homelessness crisis:

White: “We're not finding any solutions, so we're continuing to see year after year after year things getting worse and not just that, but also we're not working together to find solutions. Our city leaders aren't even on the same page as to what is causing the homelessness crisis. So to me, it's very difficult to be able to find solutions if you're arguing about that. What we need to do is really completely reevaluate how we're spending our funding.”

Green: “The city of Seattle is spending approximately $90 million on a $400 million problem. And so we were not spending enough funds on this solution. And a lot of people will criticize the homelessness system. But in 2016, the homelessness system housed 5,000 people in one year. And each year they've been increasing that by a thousand. Last year, the homelessness system housed 7,000 individuals. And this is all in the context of housing affordability issues. From 2010 to 2013, Seattle grew by 130,000 residents, but only 48,000 new units came online and very few of that was affordable. There are several communities that have effectively ended homelessness. But we need more resources. We need housing. We know that Housing First works. We know that when you house people and you give them the supportive services they need, they recover.”

Garcia: “How many people do you run into Seattle who had said, well, I was a victim of a natural disaster? I'm still homeless, right. Or not, because somebody who is a victim of a natural disaster would take a house in a heartbeat and would take the services in a heartbeat. Chances are they probably didn't have a drug addiction and or mental illness.

"I don't necessarily think it's strictly a housing crisis. So we've housed 7,000 people. How many people remained housed? I see it all the time where we go to calls through great programs who manage to put people in a house underneath a roof. This person still has mental illness and this person still has a drug addiction. So now we're getting calls where this person is inviting other homeless people and they're shooting up in the hallways. They're confronting their neighbors. They're destroying property. We've set this person up for failure. And this person gets arrested. They lose their housing. We've set them back 10 years."

Archibald: "First of all, I just I really feel like I need to put that billion-dollar figure in context. That was a figure that came out of the Puget Sound Business Journal. They looked at the entire Puget Sound region, certainly not just Seattle. And that doesn't just include homelessness services or housing. That actually is the emergency response as well. So, yeah, it costs that much, but we aren't actually putting that money toward things that function.

"There's a woman from Plymouth Housing. She testified in front of the state Legislature and she said, guys, I can house someone for one year for the amount of money that you spend on them for three months in jail. That is a staggering figure. And we know because of David Kroman's reporting in Crosscut that one fifth of the people who were booked into jail here are homeless and they just keep cycling through. So absolutely, these figures are staggering. But we're spending them in the wrong way because there are programs that do help. LEAD is incredible. But their case managers are completely overburdened. They're supposed to have 25 people on their caseloads. They have more almost double that right now. I would dispute that we don't have solutions. We absolutely do. We are not funding them enough."

Read a Tweet thread from the debate.


'Civilized discussion' on homelessness

KUOW reporter Kate Walters talks to Morning Edition host Angela King about the That's Debatable event on Seattle's homelessness crisis.


KUOW reporter Kate Walters was also there and told Morning Edition host Angela King about the event.

Angela King: What did you hear?

Kate Walters: I heard a civilized discussion that was a little tense at times.

There were two people on either side of this question. The argument from the side that agree with that statement - that this crisis is killing Seattle - argued that Seattle has lost its moral compass on this issue.

The other side said this idea that the homelessness crisis is killing Seattle is a false narrative and dog-whistle politics. They said it's important to look at root causes.

What are the main things that each side wanted people to focus on?

On one side, there was a focus on getting people to think about the systemic issues that have helped create this crisis. There was also a focus on the need for more resources and more housing to be able to solve it.

And they said people who are homeless should not be blamed, they should be brought to the table to help create solutions.

On the other side, there was a focus on the need for more accountability in spending and the need to enforce the city's laws. They said this is not a housing crisis, it's a drug crisis. And they said yes, more housing and services and compassion are needed, but they also said that people shouldn't have to sacrifice their safety and peace of mind.

Is anybody thinking differently about things this morning?

The audience was polled on this topic before the discussion and after. At the beginning, the majority of people — roughly three-quarters — said they don't think the homelessness crisis is killing Seattle. At the end, the results remained largely unchanged.

So that suggests there's still work to do to find common ground.

Of course, people are actively registering their opinions on this topic through the City Council elections.