Consultant Barbara Poppe cautions Seattle against spending time on the problems caused by homelessness, instead of the roots of homelessness.
You get an itch, you scratch it, then you try to figure out whether it’s calling your attention to a deeper problem. Sometimes it’s important to treat the itch, but it’s not a good idea to spend so much energy on the symptom that you neglect to address the underlying cause.
Seattle is rubbing cream on a lot of outbreaks right now, and I think the city is earnestly searching for cures to problems we and many other cities face: homelessness, displacement, the effects of race in policing and education, among them. The cure has to be central, though.
That’s why I liked what Barbara Poppe had to say about addressing homelessness last week, and why I think her approach needs repeating when we are dealing with other entrenched problems.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray hired her to help deal with the area’s massive homelessness problem. Poppe gave a detailed report to city officials, and she was quoted in The Seattle Times talking about one of the city’s strategies for reducing the number of people sleeping outdoors. She said, “Encampments are a real distraction from investing in solutions. You can see it takes a lot of energy to get them running, and they don’t solve the problem. You still have people who are visibly homeless living outdoors.”
Poppe was brought to Seattle because she’s been working on the problem of homelessness since the 1980s and ran the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness for five years, ending in 2014.
The encampments are meant as a safe alternative to places like The Jungle, an encampment that grew on its own, not organized by government, where two people were shot to death recently. But no one thinks the city’s encampments are a long-term solution. That shooting created immediate pain that officials are trying to address.
The Legislature is considering spending about $1 million to fence off The Jungle to prevent something like that from happening again. That’s a good sum of money, and of course fences can be cut, so we’re probably talking about a temporary solution to a symptom of homelessness. And homelessness itself is not only a problem, but a symptom of other problems — inadequate affordable housing, income inequality, insufficient mental-health infrastructure and more.
I have mixed feelings about the city-sanctioned encampments because they do some good, but Poppe is right to prefer ramping up long-term fixes.
I know how hard it is to get past an itch. Springlike weather around here brought on my seasonal allergies. I get a moment of relief, and even pleasure, from rubbing my itching eyes, but the instant I stop, the itching gets worse. It’s not a good strategy. It may feel better to see fewer tents on roadsides, but only temporarily, if the harder work of transforming lives is left undone.
Poppe acknowledged that Seattle and King County are serious about addressing homelessness on multiple levels, and there are many success stories here. And she suggested ramping up efforts that are already working here by focusing money and energy on getting people into real housing and helping them deal with the issues that led them to be homeless in the first place.
Prevention ought to be a part of that strategy, too. We’re fortunate to have public officials who know these things, so maybe a credible nudge away from scratching the itch will help them focus on and sell the community on the difficult and costly work of treating primary causes.
When something dramatic like the Jungle shootings makes the news, it can move people to act on a problem. That’s good. It should also start us thinking about where the problem started and what we ought to do to give us deeper relief.
Even if some problems might never go away entirely, we’ll be a healthier community for taking that approach.