Homelessness: Finding solutions

Dee Wilson comments on John Talton's column in The Seattle Times

I read with interest your Sunday, December 13 column, "A Profound Emergency Awaits Seattle's Next Mayor,"  in which your comments reflect a widespread alarm that Seattle's political leaders have created such an unfriendly business climate that large wealthy corporations may leave the city and county. You assert "but regaining Seattle's strong economy should be, more than ever, the chief job of the mayor," presumably by repealing the "JumpStart" payroll tax and by cracking down on misdemeanors, especially shoplifting, presumably by putting shoplifters in jail, or (absurdly) fining them. If I have misstated your proposed solutions, please let me know; ditto for other alternatives that are not discussed in your article.  You should also propose alternative approaches to combating homelessness, given that the major goal of the "JumpStart" tax is to fund homelessness programs and low income housing. What would be a pro business approach to homelessness that does not involve attempts to drive homeless persons out of King County, or filling jails with severely poor people who are detracting from the quality of urban living? 

 

Seattle, like other "Superstar" cities, is in a bind. An economic boom has already increased income inequality, and made housing in the city and county unaffordable for many thousands of unmarried adults and families. Another economic boom will inevitably exacerbate the housing crisis by raising the cost of housing and cost of living in general, and increase the San Francisco path the city is currently following. On the other hand, if the worst fears of pro-business groups are realized, and Seattle devolves into economic decline on the model of Detroit ( unlikely but not impossible) homelessness would increase due to rising unemployment. What to do? The usual answer is "same old same old" with large but still inadequate investments in emergency services, and some low income housing for the most functional among the homeless, but an intractable homelessness problem involving the chronically mentally ill and drug addicts that ruins some neighborhoods, and detracts from the quality of life for affluent citizens of the city and county. 

 

You already understand that no amount of liberal programs that depend on case finding and relieving immediate suffering are going to make much of a dent in homelessness. This is one of the major lessons of recent decades in West Coast cities.  Hopefully, you also understand that pro- business groups have no viable solutions to homelessness other than enforcing laws that would greatly increase the jail population; or (worse) harass homeless people into leaving the county, i.e., the Boise model. Furthermore, most pro- business spokespersons do not accept a shred of responsibility for the conditions that have led to an increase in homelessness; that's the responsibility of government and philanthropy in their view.  Furthermore, there is strong opposition to tax reform at the state level among all social classes in Washington. Nevertheless, tax reform will have to occur for the state to deal with homelessness more effectively. 

 

I used to believe that homelessness was an insoluble "wicked" problem for which neither liberals or conservatives, or homelessness advocates, had an answer. I was mistaken.  Homelessness is an intractable challenge in a society that is willing to allow any degree of income inequality, including allowing 5% of adults in King County to survive on incomes less than half the federal poverty standard, i.e., $11,000 -12,000 per year. There is no set of public investments that can serve as a "workaround" for severe poverty in "Superstar" cities. There is no solution to increased rates of shoplifting in a pandemic in which one- fifth of families are food insecure. Lots of petty crime is guaranteed when the alternative is going hungry for thousands of low income adults. Pro- business groups can and should lobby the federal government to fund coronavirus relief, and to increase the percentage of persons eligible for food stamps; and some enlightened business leaders are already doing this.   

 

It is also time to adopt policies that will eliminate severe poverty ( not poverty per se) in the U.S. This can be done, and the payoffs for communities and for business would be immense. What is not ok is to advance a pro-business agenda that includes low corporate taxes and low taxes on the wealthy as well, as a means of keeping businesses and billionaires in the state. That's ruinous social policy both for this state and nationally.              

John Talton responds

You obviously put much thought into your email and I thank you for that.

Seattle has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and the unsheltered population is worse than ever. The Council proposes more of the same. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It's a racket to reward their friends among the social-service providers. We're not helping the people in need.

 

As for the causes of the situation, "homelessness" is a set of discrete conditions that require different responses. I don't believe "solutions" are possible, but constructive responses certainly are. I'm not opposed to a basic universal basic income. We also need more effective mental-health treatment. Allowing camping in the parks etc. is unacceptable.

 

As for the economic issues, I'll let the column speak for itself.

Dee Wilson counters

I agree that homelessness requires different responses for different groups of homeless persons; the distinction between episodic homelessness and chronic homelessness is especially important. It's also possible to develop preventative approaches for specific high risk populations such as youth aging out of foster care, and adolescent runners.  I also agree that doing more of the same in Seattle and other West Coast cities is asking for the same lousy results. The perspective that I'm attempting to communicate is that homelessness in boom economies has a structural dimension related to income inequality that can never be addressed by focusing on needy individuals. Structural problems call for structural solutions. Until policymakers understand this idea, there will never be a large reduction in chronic homelessness, regardless of how much money governments spend on emergency services.