Homelessness is an emergency in Seattle, despite heavy funding to address it. The roots aren’t all economic, yet changes in the economy are a fundamental cause of people lacking shelter.

Share story

One curious aspect of the “state of emergency” over homelessness declared last week by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine is that the problem has been declining nationally.

The issue is emotional and the data contentious. However, the most recent Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that chronic homelessness among individuals fell 30 percent nationally from 2007 to 2014. The number of homeless veterans dropped 33 percent between 2009 and last year.

This is not to declare victory thanks to federal efforts under both President George W. Bush and President Obama, merely to provide some context. And this national progress could be lost if Congress fails to fund the programs that have helped reduce these numbers.

Here, a count last winter found 3,772 people without shelter in King County, including more than 2,800 in Seattle. That marked a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

Most Read Stories

Save over 90% on select subscriptions.

“Homeless” is also a murky term. It encompasses a spectrum from hard-core street people to working individuals and families that lost their homes because of a financial stumble. The mentally ill and substance abusers can be homeless. So are low-wage workers living out of their cars. Some are briefly without shelter, others chronically so. Each circumstance requires different responses.

It would also be easier if homelessness were an economic morality play, especially in Seattle. The problem is increasing here at the same time a historic boom is making the city less affordable.

Understanding the economic roots of the problem is important.

Hobos famously rode the rails in the first decades of the 20th century, especially in the Great Depression. Any city of size had its skid row, where vagrancy laws consigned men down on their luck. Most lived in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, usually seedy but affordable.

Things changed in the 1980s. The population seemed to increase, becoming much more visible and included more women and children. The homeless slept in parks and downtown doorways, camped out in libraries and other public spaces.

Theories for the “new homelessness” were not lacking. Critics of President Reagan saw the problem as emblematic of cruel social and economic policies.

Conservatives blamed government for undermining the work ethic and the loss of common standards of behavior, as well as deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and courts striking down vagrancy laws. Some also noted the destruction of nuclear families and small communities that once provided aid to individuals at risk of ending up on the streets.

Meanwhile, most suburbs used a combination of zoning and such soft coercion as free rides to the central city to concentrate the unsheltered population there. These center cities provided services where the suburbs deliberately did not. They also had public spaces where everyone could congregate.

One economic cause seemed clear: SRO lodgings lost as a result of urban renewal, and the shuttering of hotels that failed to meet more stringent municipal codes. Among the spurs was the 1970 Ozark Hotel fire in Seattle that killed 20 people.

Many economists argued that those at the bottom of society were priced out of even the least expensive housing, “choosing” homelessness so they could afford other items.

In 1996, Brendan O’Flaherty wrote the influential book, “Making Room.” Examining six cities in North America and Europe, his was the most exhaustive economic examination yet of the roots of homelessness.

Of particular note to Seattle’s situation, O’Flaherty blamed income inequality for the most severe rise in homelessness in individual cities.

Specifically, he wrote, “In cities where poor people get most of their housing from richer people, a smaller middle class means a smaller supply of housing for the poor, and this in turn makes bad housing expensive so that fewer poor people buy into it.”

In other words, demand drives up the cost for even dilapidated housing, pricing out those with the least means.

Seattle now spends more than $40 million, and King County an additional $36 million, on addressing homelessness. It is a generous city, “Free-attle.” Although homeless-advocacy groups bridle at the term, I have heard it used by homeless people many times here.

The uncomfortable, indeed combustible, question is whether Seattle is attracting more people through its heavy funding. Groups that would deny it have an interest in maintaining their grants and funding streams. This is not to proclaim bad faith but merely to note the dynamics that drive all institutions.

And even if it is true, driving out the homeless doesn’t solve the real problem. And it would be morally reprehensible to compassionate Seattleites.

An interesting experiment in Utah gave people houses first rather than trying to treat underlying causes such as substance abuse or mental illness. It is working so far and is less expensive.

To be sure, Utah is unique in the social cohesion and commitment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as the Salt Lake region having an excellent transit system.

I don’t have the answers, and economics doesn’t provide the magic key. It won’t, for example, address the aggressive and violent vagrants that roam downtown.

“Solving” homelessness may be impossible. But intelligent responses are possible. We need to try something different, and money is only part of it.