Homeless in Seattle

By diderot

A local problem requires a wider solution

May 15, 2018

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rguing about the homeless encampments in Seattle quickly brings out the worst in people.  Polar-opposite opinions are easily fired: on one hand, “raze the camps, throw the druggies and nut jobs in jail and let them rot”; on the other, “every life is equally precious, and therefore every type of comfort must be provided for every life.”  If these positions seem extreme to you, chances are you don’t live in Seattle.

Consider the following examples:

· The drug abuser who refuses treatment or a shelter bed, instead choosing to panhandle, while sleeping and freely toileting on public property.

· A young single suddenly laid off from a decent job…with nothing saved for his rainy day.

· A mentally-ill veteran, suffering PTSD from service in Iraq.

· An 85-year-old woman, living alone, evicted from an apartment whose rent increase cannot be squared with her fixed income. 

· A young mother and two young children fleeing a husband whose idea of fun is physical abuse.

Thinking of each equally as a ‘homeless’ person causes reconsideration of either polar position above.  And getting bogged down in who ‘deserves’ help only moves the dialogue away from a meaningful and lasting solution.

The iconic image of homelessness in any city is the tent encampment.  Drive past, and most citizens feel either pity or disgust—or a combination of both.  Walk past, and most find their step quickening.  No one wants this. Can’t we do something?


here will always be temporary dislocations.  But in the 1970’s, chronic homelessness was non-existent.  Nationally, there was a surplus of affordable housing.  Ronald Reagan changed all that…and primarily under Republicans, it’s gotten worse ever since—even with supportive rhetoric from Bush II.  In the meantime, the strategy of treating homelessness has generally moved from the sentiment that, “we’ve got to help these people with their problems” to the more focused, “we’ve got to find these people housing”.  In other words, first put a roof over their heads…then worry about any treatments required.  And this approach is backed by economics: the cost of providing services/cleanup/law enforcement/incarceration is generally from two to three times more expensive than providing a real dwelling. 

So, this is the background to Seattle’s controversial ‘head tax’ on every employee in a company with annual revenues in excess of $20 million.  The city already spends more than $60m annually on homelessness, and still the tents increase.  Thus, critics logically ask, “why should we believe that almost doubling that outlay will make things any better?”  Trust in all forms of local government here…with very good reason…is in very short supply.  Which is ironic, because more recently Seattle has actually demonstrated more effective results with its homeless spending.  This was the result of attaching performance benchmarks to funding distributions.  Who knew?

Some simply think that taxing the big companies is ‘fair’—the greedy corporatists, led by Amazon, deserve to pay up!  After Amazon protested, the always-helpful Bernie Sanders weighed in from 3,000 miles away, “this is what corporate power and oligarchy is all about."  (Sanders’ deep understanding of Seattle somehow omitted the fact that Amazon is a key funder of Mary’s Place, a shelter and day care center for homeless women.)

But there’s no discounting the impact that Amazon and its tech brethren has had on housing costs in Seattle.  Rents have soared.  Where a couple of years ago there were seven separate city neighborhoods where a family of four could afford rent if they made between $52,000 and $79,000…today there is none.  Many of the city’s homeless hold full time jobs.


he fact is, this is not a Seattle problem—it’s a national one.  California has one-eighth of the country’s population—and one quarter of its homeless.  Governor Jerry Brown, Jr. supports a $2 billion levy to address the epidemic in his state.  Across the country, 600,000 are homeless on any given night, and 100,000 of those are deemed chronic. But local funding efforts seem doomed to resemble the dog chasing its tail. 

Thus, the only effective solution is a national one.  And there’s a proposal that actually makes sense.  By modifying—not eliminating—the federal tax deduction for mortgage interest, an estimated $20 billion could be devoted to providing housing to anyone who needs it.  It would be applied only to homes above a certain value…and to the vacation properties of the idle rich…so it would simply constitute transferring a tax subsidy from the rich to the not-so-rich.    

Of course, it would take a brave national leader, immune from corporate and lobbying influence, to spearhead such a bold initiative. 

Can you hear me, Bernie?