Republicans are using the topics of homelessness, drugs, and crime as bludgeons to scare suburban and exurban voters away from the Democratic Party. The tactic is likely to work, to some extent. The film “Seattle is Dying” makes a powerful case that, at least for the minority of low-functioning, high-crime homeless people highlighted in the film, Seattle’s approaches to the problem are failing.
Republican candidates can run on a platform you can summarize like this: “We don’t want Seattle’s failed policies in our communities! Coddling criminals, publicly-financing safe injection sites for heroin, building low-barrier homeless shelters in our neighborhoods. No way!”
Of course, what we have now are homeless people and unsafe heroin injection sites all over the place.
In this article, I want to concentrate on two controversial questions, involving crime and the location of homeless facilities, respectively.
I’m a progressive and I know that incarceration is not a solution to homelessness in general. But shouldn’t the “prolific repeat offenders” highlighted in the film “Seattle is Dying” and mentioned in this article be incarcerated? It is not compassionate, to the offenders or to the public at large, to leave such people on the streets. I asked King Country Executive Dow Constantine that question — making sure to say that the question is about the small minority of criminal homeless people. He dodged my question and said that we can’t solve homelessness by criminalizing it. Do you see why that’s a dodge? Some of the people arrested had been released scores of times.
One possible partial answer to my question about incarcerating the criminal homeless is this:
The repeat offenders you are talking about are addicted to drugs and need to steal in order to pay for their habit and in order to eat. It’s not a crime to be sick with addiction. Putting them in jail won’t solve the problem in the long run and is very expensive. As for the sort of incarceration and forced treatment done in Rhode Island and reported in Seattle is Dying, few addicts recover via forced drug treatment. Even the addicts interviewed in the film said they would likely need to be using (opiate-based) treatment for the rest of their lives: methadone, suboxone,or vivitrol, for example. Are you willing to pay for forced incarceration and rehabilitation?
As for the issue of where to build shelters, face the facts. Seattle is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. The public is being asked to pay money to house and care for homeless people. I am quite willing to do that! But the homeless people are being given a gift. Why, then, is it too much to ask that the money be spent wisely and that the shelters and homes be built where the cost of land is low — i.e., away from Seattle? If the shelters and homes are built away from the city, then many more of them can be built, and they can be larger in size.
A reasonable response to that question is:
Come on, admit it: you just don’t want a homeless shelter in your neighborhood! You’re engaging in NIMBYism.
Furthermore, as a community, we find it immoral to promote inequality and segregation. Homeless people are not second-class citizens; most of them just fell out of the middle class and need a helping hand.
Finally, in order to transition back into the middle class, homeless people need jobs. Likewise, there is a need for low-wage workers in the Seattle area. If the homeless shelters are built far from Seattle, the residents will have no jobs or will have to commute into the city.
Perhaps the homeless shelters and homes can be built along bus lines. On the other hand, land doesn’t get cheap til you get pretty far from Seattle. Another fact is: many of the homeless are too sick to work. There is no need for such people to be near the city.
In short, my position is that (1) yes, the repeat offender criminal homeless should be incarcerated and treated until they can rejoin society, and (2) the community needs to engage in a serious discussion about whether it’s ethical and wise to locate some homeless shelters and homes away from Seattle, where land is cheaper; a mixture of in-city and far-from-city locations might work best.
Some progressives may accuse me of being heartless for raising these difficult questions.