When parishioners came to Mass last Sunday to Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, they found in their bulletins, among the choir and baptism announcements, an unusually pointed, political message from the top.
“It is no secret that — despite all the efforts — our city has shown itself incapable of dealing with the severe problems brought about by chronic homelessness, mental illness, and drug use,” read part of an announcement from Father Michael Ryan, the cathedral’s longtime pastor.
Not exactly pastoral for a pastor’s note, I said to Ryan when he greeted me at St. James, Seattle’s largest Roman Catholic Church. What is going on?
The immediate cause, he explained, was that last week a man came into the church and smashed, with a large rock, a 200-year-old wooden carving of Mary. A suspect arrested a few days later turned out to be a homeless man who sometimes eats at the church’s soup kitchen.
But that followed two other incidents in which the church has paid for its open-door-to-all approach. In the most frightening, a man went right into the church’s soaring sanctuary, again during a busy day, and had a violent fit, smashing to the floor the church’s “Great Cross,” a 15-foot-tall bronze crucifix.
“We just see these types of incidents accelerating now,” the priest said — including in his critique the First Hill neighborhood, where the church sits. “Clearly something is not working in this city.”
There’s enough of a sense of unease that St. James has taken to stationing a uniformed Seattle police officer inside the church during all weekend Masses.
Seattle police data backs up the unease. Crime is up 16 percent overall on First Hill through the first four months of this year compared to last, while volatile street crimes such as robbery and assault have shot up 40 percent. But there’s no way to know from statistics whether any of that is linked to the issues cited, such as homelessness or mental health.
Ryan says that in calling out the city he was really calling for a newfound urgency. He also wanted to let his parishioners know that a central part of their faith is being tested.
“We can’t stop welcoming the outcast, the stranger, the marginalized, or we would cease to be Catholic,” he told me. “The walking wounded — we have to try to keep helping them. But clearly, we need some help, too.”
Or as he put it in his letter: “I ask you to pray that, in the days ahead, we will be able to find the balance we need in order to be not only a welcoming place, but a safe place.”
This is no drive-by critic. The Catholics are the largest nongovernmental providers of social services in the state. St. James runs a winter shelter at the church and serves 40,000 meals a year out of its cathedral kitchen. The parish even has a full-time mental health nurse.
The city’s got to step it up in all of those areas, Ryan suggested — more shelter, more mental health aid, more addiction treatment.
“It’s maybe too big of a question for me,” he said. “I don’t know the answers. But at some point we have to be able to rely on our civic institutions to simply be more effective.”
Yes, but how?
On this big-picture question of what to do, I’ve noticed that the two cities with the most homelessness in America, New York and L.A., have been having a cross-national debate about it.
New York has 78,000 homeless, but what’s remarkable is fewer than 5 percent actually sleep outside, on the streets. While in L.A., 75 percent of its 50,000 homeless sleep unsheltered, in tents and parks and under bridges.
Recently, a doctor in New York wrote an open letter to L.A., arguing that this difference is everything. New York has focused on creating temporary shelter — it has a “right to shelter” law — while L.A. has aimed more at building long-term affordable housing. But the latter is so expensive and takes so long that it can leave the homeless on the streets for years.
“It is simply impossible to provide good treatment to a patient with mental or physical illness” who also is “bedless, living in cardboard boxes or in the subway,” wrote Dr. Marc Siegel in the L. A. Times.
Isn’t that us? About half of Seattle’s homeless population lives outside, in tents and under bridges, where they are “simply impossible” to treat. Our focus, as in L.A., is now mostly to build long-term affordable housing.
Maybe it’s time to revisit this. What’s called “housing first” is a great goal, but the hundreds of encampments suggest it’s also a distant one. How about a more urgent “shelter now” approach, with, as in New York, the ability to move people off the streets?
I don’t know, I don’t have the answers, either. I’m more at sea than the father, as I lack both his experience with the homeless and any heavenly guidance.
But I do know this: It’s a bad sign for Seattle if we’re starting to lose even the Catholics on this issue.