Seattle is addicted to bad narratives about homelessness

At the root of the crisis is not substance abuse, but a broken economy.

Homeless tent encampment

Tents and structures seen at a homeless encampment near S Dearborn Street in Seattle's International District, Feb. 25, 2019 (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

As I’ve written before, treating symptoms without accurately diagnosing the underlying cause cannot result in a cure. This is why attempts to end homelessness in Seattle haven’t worked; they focus on the symptoms and do almost nothing to address the causes. Like errant gardeners mowing down dandelions, our politicians whack away at the issue of homelessness and its accompanying symptoms without exterminating the root causes, then are shocked when 10 years go by and the number of people without homes blossoms into one adjacent neighborhood after another.

A Seattle Times article from last year about homeless encampments in Ballard is filled with references to drugs, alcohol and crime, even though data show 79% of people who are homeless have none of those issues. At a community meeting in Magnolia to address the conversion of Fort Lawton property into affordable housing, one speaker imagined ominously “the heartbreak of addicts with knives wandering around in Discovery Park.” Yet another was quoted by KING 5: “I'm a father of two. I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, and my first instinct as a parent is to protect them. And when I'm told criminals, drug addicts, sex offenders may be living within a mile-and-a-half of my home, it concerns me.” Apparently neither of these commenters is aware of the volume of police activity involving their existing, well-housed neighbors. As of Aug. 27, Seattle’s Police Department Calls for Service Dashboard showed 3,278 calls for service in Magnolia, including 21 sex offenses, 124 domestic disturbances, seven child abuse/neglect/abandonment calls, 263 fight/noise complaints, four weapons violations, 51 crisis/suicide calls and 16 narcotics violations.

Every attempt to address homelessness devolves into a discussion about alcohol and drug addiction, yet The Seattle Times has reported that fewer than 50% of people without homes are addicts. The 2018 report from King County’s annual one-night count of homeless people shows 21% of those interviewed self-reported substance abuse as the cause of their homelessness. I’ve worked with drug and alcohol abusers with high-level positions in banking, retail, law enforcement, nonprofits and public service who lived in fancy houses with manicured lawns.

When I read my neighbors’ comments on about how to deal with a drug-addicted woman living in her car in one of our local parks, I think about those who lost their homes and jobs in the 2008 economic meltdown and were without resources when the boom began in 2011. I think about people, like me, who lost their jobs, were deemed too old to be hired into new ones and, unlike me, had no connections or external resources to fall back on. I think about the people who are working multiple jobs and still can’t make enough money to rent a home. I think about the people I know in their 40s and 50s who are living in the modern-day equivalent of rooming houses.

Editor's noteThis is the first of a two-part series on homelessness. Read part two here.

Sarah Allen Benton’s “Understanding the High Functioning Alcoholic” dispels the widely-presumed correlation between addiction and homelessness and raises some questions in my mind: What percentage of people without homes develop substance abuse problems after becoming homeless? Why are some substance abusers homeless while others are not? What, then, is the difference between an alcoholic or drug addict with a home and one without?

This seems like a simple logic problem to me. If you remove the factor of substance abuse the only difference remaining is one has a home and the other doesn’t. Something, somewhere in the process of having a home is working for one set of people but not for the other.

The 2018 Point-in-Time report gives us some hints. It shows 25% cite the loss of a job as the impetus to their homelessness, 11% cite eviction and 9% cite illness or medical problems. Two-percent cite foreclosure, a number undoubtedly higher in the decade between 2008 and 2018.

Whether owning or renting a home, one must have a reliable income high enough to cover housing costs. A review of residential rental costs in Seattle from 2006 to 2017, including utilities, shows a rise in the median from $1,017 a month to $1,443, from 17% of gross income to 21%. Total annual median rent went from $12,204 to $17,316. A 2006 renter would have needed a salary of $72,256 to make the median rent. The 2017 renter needs $102,522, an increase of $30,266.

While many of the tech newcomers to the region may earn that kind of salary, no one I know who was living here before 2006 saw that kind of jump over those 11 years. In fact, quite the opposite. The 2008 economic crash froze salaries. Layoffs were common. Washington Mutual’s closure left thousands of local employees out of work. The Economic Policy Institute reported 2.6 million jobs lost throughout the country in 2008. The U.S. Department of Labor reported a loss of 46,306 jobs between March 2008 and March 2009 in King County alone. People who managed to keep their jobs saw an average $1 increase in their weekly wage.

This same period devastated homeownership in Seattle. A 2010 Puget Sound Business Journal article reported our region as the national leader in foreclosure increases. One in 710 households in Puget Sound faced foreclosure. U.S. Census records show Seattle/Bellevue homeowner vacancy rates increased from a low of 1.9% in 2008 to a high of 3.2%, nearly double, in 2010. This is the rate of increase in housing for sale in the region. The Seattle Times reported a 60% increase in King County foreclosures in 2009. Much is written about why people lost their homes. What I know is people who had no problem paying their mortgage one month were hit with untenable increases when the surge in interest rates activated a rise in adjustable rate mortgages.

Foreclosures destroyed credit ratings, making former homeowners no longer eligible for loans or, in many cases, rentals. The glut of housing on the market invited investors who gobbled up houses at prices far below what homeowners were evicted for owing. Those investors turned many of the houses into rentals.

Then the influx of tech workers began. According to the Washington State Office of Financial Management, King County added 247,600 people from 2011 through 2018. Seattle’s own housing statistics show a high jump in rates of building permit applications. Ballard and my neighborhood in West Seattle were filled with construction cranes as homes were bulldozed and replaced by multistory condominiums, townhouses and apartment buildings. Already crowded Capitol Hill saw the systematic purchase and renovation of decades-old buildings. All of this resulted in the displacement of longtime residents who either could no longer afford the upscale rents or pay increased taxes on astronomical property values. Take the story of Jack and Barbara Evans, for example.

Jack Evans and his wife, Barbara, founded PoetsWest, a comprehensive network of West Coast poets, and hosted a monthly, recorded poetry reading at the Green Lake public library that is syndicated and broadcast throughout the country. They moved into their Capitol Hill apartment in 1987. The owner lived in one of the 200 units and intentionally built community among the building’s residents. In recent years, as they navigated their 80s, the Evanses maintained a very active life with a broad circle of friends and remained involved in local and national social and political issues.

In 2016, Barbara was fighting an aggressive form of cancer. The building owner died and corporate investors swooped in. The new owners gave residents six months’ notice to move out so the building could be renovated. If they wanted to return, the rents would be double their current rates.

Living on a fixed income, the Evanses had to find new housing. Rents throughout Seattle, especially on Capitol Hill, had skyrocketed. Their only option was to uproot themselves from their vast local community of social, emotional and medical support to move in with their daughter in Olympia. Barbara would lose her battle with cancer in October 2018.

I continue to wonder what happened to the other longtime residents of that apartment building. What if the Evanses had been childless or their daughter didn’t have space for them? What if they were estranged from their daughter? What if they were an aging gay couple estranged from both their families? What if they were people of color facing 21st century housing discrimination? What if they lost their savings in the crash of 2008?

A seamstress, her mortgage broker husband and their two children. Several couples going through the breakup of long-term relationships. A nurse. The middle-aged couple who owned their home and two nearby rental houses. A woman, with a 4-year old child, who lost her job shortly after moving to Seattle. A floral delivery worker. A painter. These are a few of the people I’ve known who faced homelessness. They are not alcoholics or drug addicts. They are people who suffered as a result of political and economic decisions they had no part in.

We must no longer allow politicians, policy influencers and the media to get away with the laziness of conflating substance abuse and homelessness. Homelessness is the visible symptom of a winner-take-all economic system that allows exploitation of many for the benefit of the few, based on the belief that wealth is defined by the accumulation of things, the resulting conditions be damned. The roadside tents, RVs along side streets and people sleeping in doorways are our societal dandelions. Cut off these symptoms any way you want; they will not only regrow, they’ll multiply. To change the outcome, change the roots: salaries too low for home affordability and housing costs too high to be affordable. This Labor Day is an excellent time to ask whether employers in our region are paying their lowest-paid employees enough to afford basic shelter

I cannot imagine the stress within a family that has lost a home. I would feel immense frustration, shame, futility, anger, fear and sadness. It must take deep courage to wake every morning knowing no one cares whether or not you exist. It takes enormous strength to show up as present in a world that simply hates the very sight of you.

This nation, this region, once put men on the moon, once liberated Europe and Asia from fascism. Those efforts took the commitment to be about more than our individual affluence and sense of comfort. They required the sure knowledge that success depended on the willingness to sacrifice, to be uncomfortable, to care about needs beyond our own. My ancestors gave up many dreams on this land to ensure my existence. I have succeeded beyond their imaginings. Surely I can sacrifice a bit to create a living environment for others. Surely you, who have so much, are obliged to do no less.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lola E. Peters

Lola E. Peters

Lola E. Peters is a contributing columnist covering politics, culture and social justice.