Someone finally asked the homeless what they think of Seattle’s homelessness problem. Their answers suggest the issue has been demagogued — though not always by whom you’d expect.
In Seattle’s unending debate on how best to help the homeless, it’s startling that until recently nobody had gone out and systematically asked for the views of the homeless themselves.
But in November, teams of researchers, some of them formerly homeless, interviewed more than a thousand folks living here on the streets and in shelters.
The headline news was about who the homeless are and where they come from. This survey debunked the myth of “Freeattle” — that hobos flock here for handouts and to take advantage of liberal generosity.
The notion of Freeattle has always been a ludicrous right-wing talking point. Try, say, holing up under the Dearborn Street bridge for a night or two and availing yourself of Seattle’s wondrous freebies. You’ll see what I mean.
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Yes, you can score a soggy Wonder-bread sandwich, a 6-ounce Styrofoam cup of “hot” chocolate and a blanket — if the van full of do-gooders doesn’t run out of blankets first, as happened when I went out with the Union Gospel Mission rescue van recently. Now see if this largesse sustains you through the night, let alone would justify traveling here from out of state.
That doesn’t mean homeless people don’t come here from elsewhere; they do. The survey found only 31 percent of the homeless originally are from Seattle. But that’s remarkably close to the 36 percent of the entire population of Seattle that’s from here, according to the U.S. Census.
The point being, we’re all from somewhere else (except for Ron Judd, but he’s a special case). The homeless came here mostly for the same reasons everybody else did — for a job (33 percent) or to be with family (35 percent). Only 13 percent said they were homeless in another state first. Seventy percent said they first became homeless while living in King County.
I’m sure the Freeattle myth will live on regardless. It’s alluring because it’s easy. But there were two other tougher, more relevant points that didn’t get much attention, points raised by the homeless that ought to inform what the city does going ahead.
One, it seems nobody gets how muddled Seattle’s homelessness aid system is quite like its customers.
As one homeless person is quoted: “You have to go to this lady who has to then evaluate you, and then go to that lady who has to then recommend you. It’s like they eat up more of your time just keeping themselves employed duplicating the same process.”
Ouch. This bureaucracy, which seemed like a good idea at the time, has become so frustrating to some housing providers that they just go around it. Sharon Lee at the Low Income Housing Institute told me last month that of more than 60 people she got out of a camp and into more permanent housing, “they’d all still be homeless” had she followed the government sign-up and evaluation process.
The researchers, from a California company called Applied Survey Research, also said Seattle stands out in one other unexpected way. Namely, in how the homeless here apparently don’t feel like they’re being harassed or criminalized by police.
“Most striking to us was the overall lack of discussion regarding police involvement and the criminalization of homelessness in focus group discussions, compared to our experiences working in other cities across the nation,” they found.
Isn’t that intriguing. We’ve spent the last year in a state of governmental paralysis because of charges that Seattle is in fact harassing and criminalizing the homeless. The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the issue, and City Council members such as Kshama Sawant decried alleged inhumane treatment. Yet among the homeless themselves — who would presumably be the victims of such strong-arm tactics — it doesn’t rate a mention?
The homeless folks interviewed seemed bracingly honest. For instance 35 percent told surveyors they are on heroin, meth or crack. This shows the enormous challenge facing the city. But it also struck me as hopeful — that those in the trenches are willing to be straight about their plight.
We need less demagoguery, both from the right and the left. And more like this, please.