Is Seattle dying? Nope. It’s booming. Downtown is bustling, day and night. Neighborhoods are filling up with young families.
However, people down on their luck can no longer find inexpensive housing in a skyrocketing real estate market. Tent encampments have sprouted in public spaces all over town.
Seeking support for their plans to deal with homelessness, local politicians and activists point to the children and abused women who have been forced into the streets, as well as the 25% of homeless who told a city survey that losing a job is what took away the roof over their heads. For these people, access to housing is a key step toward a better future.
More difficult to help are the 35% of King County’s homeless who, according to a 2013 Interfaith Task Force report, are mentally ill. These folks too often cycle between the streets, jail and short-term involuntary commitment. They need a lot more than a room somewhere. They need costly, expert help. Many are part of the third of Seattle’s homeless who, in a recent city survey, said they use and abuse meth, heroin and crack.
Then there is the small, but visible, group that prefers life in a tent to life in a shelter with too many rules to follow. Some steal from nearby cars, homes or businesses to fund their drug-driven lifestyle. A few commit violent assaults against retail workers and random innocent people on the street.
Public officials have abdicated their duty to deal with this criminal cohort. Their failure is creating a citizen backlash that could erode support for all homeless programs. Homelessness should not be criminalized. But crime cannot be excused or ignored.
There’s a debate about the nature of the problem: Guess what? It’s all three.
Compassion says we need to offer homeless folks shelter and a chance to rebuild their lives. For the lawbreaking few who spurn that offer, a stark choice might be necessary: