A Reflection on KOMO's Seattle is Dying

Last month when KOMO 4 aired Seattle is Dying, it became a story that quickly spread across the city. References proliferated online, in my email, and in conversations before I even had a chance to see it. The title, the tone of the narration, and the music gives one a sense of fear and foreboding. Within the first minute of the video, the journalist establishes his premise: Seattle is “a beautiful jewel that has been violated…[by]…lost souls who wander our streets, untethered to home or family, or reality, chasing a drug which in turn chases them.” Dying is suggesting that Seattle doesn’t have a homelessness problem, we have a drug problem.

The danger with the message in Dying is that it blames the issue on our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness (using drugs or not), those who have the least amount of power to change our broken system. It perpetuates disdain and fear for our neighbors who are forced to sleep outside that only makes their lives more unbearable and more unsafe. It is clear that the message in Dying struck a nerve; the people in this city and surrounding areas are desperate for homelessness to be solved. But blaming the people suffering the most isn’t a solution.

First and foremost, Seattle has a housing crisis. Seattle’s homelessness crisis is mirrored in other cities that have experienced the same kind of exponential growth. Real Change nailed it in their response to Dying: “Four years ago, Seattle ranked sixth in the nation on the GINI Index, a measure of income inequality. But in 2017, we went to the top of the list, in a dead heat with San Francisco for most unequal city in America. Seattle is not “dying.” Seattle is splitting. …The prosperity at the top makes the anguish in the streets all the more galling.”[1]

Seattle has experienced a 12% average fair market rent (FMR) increase every year since 2014. According to a McKinsey study commissioned by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce “…homelessness has risen in line with the fair-market rent (FMR).”[2] There is simply not enough housing for people who can’t keep up with Seattle’s high rents and high skilled jobs. Eighty-three percent of people experiencing homelessness who were surveyed by the Point in Time count in 2018 said the last place they were housed before they became homeless was King County.[3] The majority of the people living outside were already here when they became homeless, but to get back into housing they are required to do a housing assessment. The waiting list has been frozen for 4 months so no matter who fills out the housing assessment, they can’t even go on a waiting list.  

We also know from both history and research that jailing people with mental health or substance use disorders does not solve homelessness, especially when there is no actual housing to bridge people to when they get out of jail or prison. We have 40 years of evidence that turning people who use drugs into criminals does not solve addiction. In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs.[4] Incarceration has increased by almost 700% since the war on drugs was declared, while our US population has only increased by 51%.[5] Opioid use and deaths, instead of decreasing after the war on drugs was declared, spiked until it became a crisis.

We need more resources for people who are experiencing homelessness and using drugs. In some states people can get into treatment in a matter of hours. Though Seattle is working towards a “treatment on demand” model, due to staffing shortages attributed to lack of funding it can still take weeks, or even months. Seattle is Dying concluded the answer to homelessness is medication-assisted treatment (MAT). We have had MAT in Seattle for over 46 years thanks to organizations like Evergreen Treatment Services (ETS) . MAT is the use of medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders and prevent opioid overdose.[6] Aurora Commons is one of many organizations connecting people to this treatment. The Commons has been working with Harborview, ETS, and Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC) to bring MAT access to our unhoused neighbors on site, every week. The challenge with MAT is that when someone is connected to the medication and still sleeping outside in the same community with the same barriers to care, the instability of daily survival makes staying in treatment exponentially more challenging. As with all things, the issue is complicated. 

The good news is we have a seen a model in Seattle that effectively addresses this complex issue. In 2005, Downtown Emergency Services Coalition (DESC) started a low-barrier housing program called 1811 Eastlake. DESC partnered with the Addictive Behaviors Research Center of the University of Washington to evaluate the program.[7] What they discovered was that the annual average cost to the City of Seattle for “homeless chronic alcoholics who are the heaviest users of publicly-funded crisis services” was $86,062 per person, per year.[8][9] After only one year of being housed, the residents’ alcohol use decreased and the average cost to house the participants in the program was $13,440.[10] That is a savings of $72,622 per person. With only 75 people in the program, that adds up to a yearly savings of five million dollars. Read more about the program here. Imagine what this city would look like if we saved money AND housed people.

People who have access to resources, people who can afford to live in the Emerald City are the ones who are best equipped to change the realities of people experiencing homelessness. If the journalist from the KOMO piece had used his voice to call for more housing, for greater prison reform and for more rapid access to treatment and MAT, we would have cheered his efforts. The power to change a city cannot rest on the people who are suffering needlessly without shelter. It lies with us. We have to see this crisis as a community-wide problem and stop putting blame and stirring up hate for people who don’t have power and privilege - that’s how people get killed. It begins with fear and dehumanizing our neighbors and ends with violence. In October, our unhoused friend and neighbor Danny was shot and killed by a housed person who called him a nuisance. This city was not outraged. Perpetuating a hateful response to people who use drugs and are unsheltered is dangerous, changes nothing, and serves no one’s interest.

We have spent a lot of time at Aurora Commons pleading with our community to believe that all lives are precious. That our neighbors include all of the people in our communities who reside there, housed or unhoused. We have created an incredible community of people who are behind this mission. Thank you. Our response to homelessness in our neighborhood is connection, community, and relationships. We provide our unsheltered neighbors a safe space and help them bridge to vital resources to increase their stability, safety, and health.  The result of this investment translates into lives changed, including our own. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Teresa. Community and a corresponding network of care, combined with enough housing options for people to survive in this growing city, is the solution.

And, to our friends and neighbors experiencing homelessness, who may or may not use drugs, who sleep outside: you are not “wretched souls.” You are not a nuisance. You are our neighbors. You matter. You are worthy. You have value. We believe in you and we love you.

There have been many great responses to Dying, here are some links:

[1] https://www.realchangenews.org/2019/03/27/seattle-splitting-not-dying

[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-cities/the-economics-of-homelessness-in-seattle-and-king-county

[3] https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/do-homeless-people-come-to-seattle-for-help/

[4] https://www.vera.org/publications/price-of-prisons-what-incarceration-costs-taxpayers

[5] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jul/10/cory-booker/how-war-drugs-affected-incarceration-rates/

[6] https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/treatment

[7] https://www.desc.org/what-we-do/housing/1811-eastlake/

[8] https://www.desc.org/what-we-do/housing/1811-eastlake/

[9] https://www.desc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DESC_1811_JAMA_info.pdf

[10] https://www.desc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DESC_1811_JAMA_info.pdf