Why Virtue Signaling Doesn’t Solve the Problem: Volume IX (Homelessness Issue)

A Sinclair Media Documentary in Seattle Might Not Actually Be a Hate-Fest Against the Poor. It Might Just Be a Solution.

It didn’t always look like this driving into my beloved Seattle. It’s been 15 years since I moved to Chicago. 21 years since I first took this freeway into Seattle to live after graduating college. I still come back to Seattle almost every year, and the uptick in homelessness is noticeable to the point of shock. So what is Seattle doing?

Today, I’m finding my Seattle and Pacific Northwest friends split on an issue you’d wish would lead to some sensible civic unity. I’ve seen it occur regularly in Chicago, too, and this feels like the 8th or 9th time, only a different hand-wringing social issue — or IX if we’re going all “Fall of the Roman Empire” on this. Given the title of the documentary causing the ruckus — “Seattle is Dying”— Roman history intonations may be appropriate.

I have some friends posting on social media Medium articles that smack of a lot of straw-man arguments I’ve seen hundreds of times filled with “don’t the conservatives suck” sentiments for daring to shine an unvarnished light on the homelessness crisis in Seattle. Yes, everyone is supposed to hate on the right-wing Sinclair Media who produced KOMO News’ “Seattle is Dying” documentary — so let’s completely ignore its content. Look away, nothing to see here except bourgeois bigotry. It is currently being Tweeted about negatively and dismissed by the city’s intelligentsia, like The Stranger’s longtime writer Charles Mudede. Indeed, I have other friends who posted Mudede’s column and agree with his Noam Chomsky-infused argument that this is part of a capitalistic America’s continued hate-mongering of the poor. To him, the real criminals are the corporations.

Which, I get. We live in the real-life movie Trump Times: End of Days. (Or is it Trump Days: End of Times with Kirk Cameron starring?) Many of us didn’t relish his victory. But some of us took different insights from his win.

I have other friends who read The Stranger and Medium articles, and they’re absolutely pissed at the obfuscation. They don’t hate the poor, they just want a solution.

“Seattle is Dying” offers solutions throughout, but specifically to this post I want to argue that intervention opportunities are being lost. For a decade, we’ve had a de-decriminalization push on the West Coast, which has been commendable by some metrics (such as lowered marijuana convictions), but also runs parallel to a massive uptick in drug-addicted homelessness, which is disproportionately populated by minority citizens. One solution is said at the 41:53 mark by a Seattle police officer: “Let’s spend millions of dollars on mandatory inpatient treatment programs instead of making excuses for their addiction and/or crimes. The option should be treatment or jail, the cycle has to be intervened on, or it will never end.” That may sound controversial and reactionary to some, but the one-hour documentary explains why that may be one potential direction, just as I do below.

When one Seattle friend I know read the Medium article titled, “Our Local Media Is Broken And Homeless People Are Paying The Price,” she responded: “I could just puke. What I hear from her writing is that she doesn’t like that a lot of people don’t like the homeless/street crime crisis and she’s upset that the media is reflecting that instead of pushing HER agenda. If Seattle is getting a lot of negative attention and the media is reporting on it and it’s resonating with the people, maybe that’s because a majority of the people are in agreement with the reporting!! Ughhjnhhbbbbbbhhhhh.”

The frustration is palpable. She recently moved to the suburb of Bellevue, partly to get away from legitimate fears for her safety and her family’s well-being. She’s even told a story of being verbally dressed down by a friend for daring to speak anything negative about homeless, especially “in front of the children.” (More juicy details on that story at the bottom of this post.)

How did we get so far apart? The KOMO News special says it wants to give Seattle “a fighting chance” and so do I. So does everyone, I believe.

At the heart of the KOMO/Sinclair Media piece, around the 25-minute mark, you understand the problem straight-on. To quote Seattle’s most famed junkie Kurt Cobain in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s a “denial.” A woman living on the Seattle streets named Melissa Burns says drugs is at the center of the homelessness crisis, telling the reporter, “100 percent of the people I have met out here are at some level of addiction.” Then there’s a series of talking heads and politicians calling this a “homeless” crisis repeatedly, and not a single person saying it’s a “drug addiction” crisis. A somber narrator voice comes on and asks: “If we won’t even name the thing that is destroying Seattle, what hope do we have of fixing it?” (Later, a longtime Seattle on-the-street reporter says the same thing: Drug addiction is the problem.)

Coming soon to Seattle from San Francisco? $184,000 a year poop cleaning jobs!

I won’t even get into the local and national media politics, such as whether a one-hour TV news piece is irredeemable simply because it was made by the Sinclair Media. That’s throwing the baby out with the water. The core issue is this: Homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health is at emergency crisis levels in the city of Seattle, and in cities across the West Coast. For example, “poop on the street” and “needles” is a regular discussion point in San Francisco because citizens see — and step over — both every day. Crime and violence is increasing, too. About four years ago in San Francisco, I even saw a girl in headphones randomly punched in the head directly in front of me by a mumbling schizophrenic, and the first thing she started complaining about — which was “worse” than random head smacks — was the human feces on the street. So what are we going to do about it, she wondered? (Her dazed pondering may have been answered in the form of a trendy “poop finding app” and the hiring 10 full-time needle picker-uppers.) My old sociology classes used to talk about criminal justice as a band-aid solution, but I’m pretty sure washing poop or needles off the street epitomizes the concept of a “social band-aid.”

On the face of it, the cities with the most “tolerant” and “humane” approaches have the most people living in the streets, under bridges, and in parks. I saw this in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Eugene, Portland, and Seattle during my Christmas vacation drive through the forested and beautiful West. One could say that’s great — they’re getting services and help. One could also say lop-sided and traditionally liberal “harm reduction” approach is exacerbating the problem and, ironically, causing more harm. It’s hard to say that’s not the case when Washington State suffered a 70% increase in fentanyl deaths from 2017 to 2018.

In today’s reality, cops aren’t busting people for drugs or homelessness. What fills the void is a hands-off approach. Are there social consequences? I believe there are.

Personally, I know of many self-described liberals from San Francisco to Eugene to Seattle who have specific issues with drug addicts and homeless camps that they don’t feel comfortable “publicly airing” for fear of being labeled as “lacking compassion” — or even worse being called a “conservative.” I’m only half-joking, because often the minute anyone colors outside the “socially acceptable” lines on sensitive political issues, they’re labeled the lowest of the low: Republican. Read down the Tweet threads about the KOMO special, and you see more public shaming than actual solutions. (This comment stood out for its utter lack of rationality: “Seattle is actually dying due to this level of exploitation. It’s a city based on extracting money from anyone and anything possible. Its economics are extremely right wing and left economics are scoffed at. It’s essentially social fascism.” No. Wrong. It’s expensive and difficult for the working class to live there, but the median income is actually near the highest in the U.S. and Seattle elects city councils with socialist members, which in turn propose controversial far-left “head taxes” on Amazon and other corporations.)

There’s only one “correct” way to speak about these issues, and it’s the politically correct way. Which typically revolves around finger-pointing at corporations like Amazon — a tactic mimicked recently in New York City — and ignoring any hard solutions that could benefit citizenry.

Forgive me if I don’t think it’s humane to allow people suffering from schizophrenia and living in diseased conditions to continue doing so. Politics and niceties be damned. I think it’s nice for less people to die of drug overdoses.

I’ve lived in Oregon and Seattle, and I understand why this KOMO News story has blown the lid off otherwise tight-lipped discussions. You’re already seeing pieces titled, “6 reasons why KOMO's take on homelessness is the wrong one.” In Portland where the documentary also caused a stir, The Oregonian reported words from Eric Johnson, who I remember from childhood on KGW in Portland as a hungry young reporter. Johnson created the “Seattle is Dying” piece, and he pointed part of a trilogy. (So stop freaking out over episode #3, folks.)

In a post on the KOMO website, Johnson writes: “Seattle Is Dying. It’s a harsh title. Someone on social media even called it a ‘hopeless’ title. I’ll admit to you that I wrestled with the name for some time. Too dramatic, I wondered? Too dark? In the end I went with it because I believe it to be true. I believe that Seattle is dying. Rotting from within.”

Johnson says “Seattle Is Dying” is “really the third in a kind of trilogy.” The first report explored “homelessness from the inside out,” and the second one was about “the hellish existence of heroin addiction.”

“This one,” he writes, “is about everyone else. It’s about citizens who don’t feel safe taking their families into downtown Seattle. It’s about parents who won’t take their children into the public parks they pay for. It’s about filth and degradation all around us. And theft and crime. It’s about people who don’t feel protected anymore, who don’t feel like their voices are being heard.”

Johnson continues: “This program is not about demonizing those who are struggling with addiction and homelessness and mental illness. On the contrary. Instead, it asks the question, ‘Why aren’t we doing more? Why don’t we have the courage to intervene in lives that are, in the face of a grave sickness, reeling out of control?’”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” starring Jack Nicholson (above) won five Oscars. The book, play, and movie also likely led the public to be highly skeptical of institutions that also help people with deep-set mental health issues.

Science writer Alex Berezow was called a “Nazi” by a Seattle City Councilmember for proposing what I think is completely sensible solution, and wrote a nuanced article on the subject. I posted an excerpt of what he wrote below. We’re talking about “involuntary institutionalization.” I don’t see how it can’t be one part of the solution when the documentary featured a list of 100 people who are regularly arrested and then released. Only to be arrested time and time again. San Francisco’s new mayor has proposed legislation — and the governor already has signed a bill — to institutionalize some people against their will, particularly those who are ongoing problems for the city. We’re talking dozens of arrests or mental health holds, in many cases. Homeless and civil rights advocates have predictably pushed back.

I do think the mayoral and city council leadership from San Francisco to Seattle is a huge stumbling block. It’s perpetuated by a cowed public who’s afraid to speak up and say, “No, I don’t hate the homeless or the poor, BUT I think we need to do something to change the status quo.” Unfortunately, people like Charles Mudede of The Stranger watch “Seattle is Dying” and simply hear, “Hatred for the poor.” Others hear the same. I used to love Mudede when I lived in Seattle in the early 2000s — he wrote the police beat — but that argument is completely reductionist and dismissive of the actual problem. Worse, it ignores the fact that people — from police to home owners — actually do care. I saw the KOMO News special and I saw a lot of people concerned about human suffering, not simply NIMBY yuppie callousness.

The “woke” perspective, as John McWhorter once wrote, literally judges people as “problematic” for saying the “wrong” things, like not wanting vagrancy outside their shops and homes — you’re not allowed that feeling, keep it inside! Or for not accepting the status quo reflexive answer of blaming homeless on “gentrification” and “rich tech companies” that displace people — that’s a thought crime! If you logically think that if the people living on the street say they’re on drugs or have mental illness, then it must be because of drugs and mental illness that they’re living on the street — that’s a regressive conservative mindset, try again! That shaming doesn’t help, it just drives resentment. I also believe it’s the same societal and psychological phenomenon that led to a surprising Trump win in 2016. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a version of this outside my usual left-wing echo chamber from a disenchanted American: “You’re not only going to ignore my legitimate concerns [insert immigration, terrorism, rural joblessness, drug addiction, etc.], you’re also going to call me right-wing and a bigot? Or simply talk about “white privilege” all the time. Fine, I’ll go ahead and vote for Trump because it doesn’t matter. You’ll just call me a fascist either way.”

One of the core reasons for the ongoing homeless problem is the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This became culturally iconic in my birth state of Oregon. There are too many people with mental health problems who simply can’t be compelled to seek help like society used to be able to do. As reported by City Journal in 2016 on Portland’s homeless crisis, perceptions gleaned from legendary books like Oregonian author Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the closing of hospitals like Dammasch State Hospital, and the flooding of mentally ill homeless people who can’t help themselves into the street is perpetuating the “unhoused” crisis. Portland city councilman and housing commissioner Dan Saltzman even agrees deinstitutionalization is a primary driver of homelessness: “That did increase the homeless population on the streets of Portland and a lot of other cities. It’s a nationwide problem, and it really pulled the rug out from underneath a lot of people. Community resources were supposed to be put into place when we closed the big institutions, but the second part didn’t happen.”

People see the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and think, “What horror — the institutional power! The evil Nurse Ratched!” In fact, I read the Kesey book and saw the Jack Nicholson movie, and felt the same for years. It’s a common reference point heralding society’s rebels, and promoting anti-establishment principles. Jack Nicholson and his unorthodox mind needed to be free! He didn’t need to be locked up! Same with that silent Native American character (forget his name, but he’s great in the book; actually, he’s probably “problematic” now). Really, it’s not like “Cuckoo’s Nest” anymore at mental hospitals. That was the 1950s. Most importantly, people really need help and it’s not going to be found on the streets independently. Yes, we need to “force” people into seeking help. Or else they die on the streets and exacerbate social problems. Many ex-addicts with mental health problems will attest to this.

And we need to find a way to pay for these things. But I’ll write about that in another post.

Again, from reporter Alex Berezow who was called a Nazi by a Seattle City Councilmember:

This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who lives in Seattle or just about anywhere on the West Coast. Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are all facing similar issues.

The reason, ultimately, is the same everywhere: We no longer provide treatment to drug addicted or mentally ill people who cannot or will not care for themselves. Society has decided that it is more compassionate to allow these unfortunate souls to make their own choices, even if those choices are irrational, self-destructive, and dangerous to the community.

How Did We Get Here? Blame Deinstitutionalization

It’s easy to blame the politicians you love to hate. Conservatives blame progressives, and progressives blame Ronald Reagan and rich people. But as is often the case, reality is far more complicated.

The problem really starts in 1955, when the United States began the process of deinstitutionalization. Effective psychiatric medications meant that not every mentally ill person needed to be institutionalized. Today, millions of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other serious mental illnesses can live somewhat normal lives if they take their medication and have support from friends and family. For these people, deinstitutionalization was a fine policy.

But for millions of others, it was a terrible policy. Those who for whatever reason do not take their medication or do not have a support network often end up on the street. Many become addicted to drugs. To make ends meet, they turn to petty crime, like shoplifting. They are often the victims (not just perpetrators) of violence, and many become sick with medieval diseases, like typhus. They enter into a vicious, downward cycle, which invariably has one end: An early, preventable death.

AND …

The solution, as the documentary suggested, is to reinstate mental health institutions. The goal is not to lock mentally ill patients or drug addicts up forever and throw away the key. Instead, the goal is to give them the support they need to live successfully on their own. The reporter highlighted a program in Providence, Rhode Island that appears to be working well.

I am hopeful that Seattle will see the error in its ways and begin to reverse course. However, I am not hopeful that it will happen with the current Mayor or City Council. When I approached my City Councilmember about involuntary institutionalization, she called me a Nazi.

The first step to solving the homelessness crisis — in Seattle, anyway — is to elect new councilmembers.

Note the spikes from 2014 to 2017. SOURCE: National Institute on Drug Abuse

I agree with the police and old-school criminal justice positions mentioned in “Seattle is Dying.” I think the police actually come off as compassionate. Unless the state can compel people into diversion programs for substance abuse with the threat of jail time, it’s near-impossible to get people to commit to them. I’ve heard this argument even from liberal mouths who see this in their family or community dynamics, but I rarely see this in media. I also don’t see honest contextualization of the criminal justice system. The idea that the War on Drugs is largely driving U.S. incarceration rates is a myth. Nationally, only 1 in 5 people are in prison for drugs, and 1 in 20 are “low-level” drug offenders. Additionally, less than three-tenths of 1% are there for simple possession of marijuana, and 3.6% are there for any drug possession charges. At the same time, as decriminalization policies have taken shape, drug overdose deaths have doubled in the past decade — quadrupled since 1999 — to around 70,000 deaths per year. People talk of lives wasted inside prison walls in the age of so-called Mass Incarceration, but lives outside prison walls are fatally wasted by the tens of thousands every year by drugs and murder.

While it’s often said overall crime rates are relatively stable and at record lows — Seattle has relatively high property crime rates but lower violent crime — the political climate makes it impossible to point out the evidence that may largely be due to an effective American criminal justice system, despite its flaws. Steven Levitt who co-wrote the infamous “Freakanomics” book and hosts a podcast of the same name stated the following after exhaustively researching the topic in a paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives: “Crime fell sharply and unexpectedly in the 1990s. Four factors appear to explain the drop in crime: increased incarceration, more police, the decline of crack, and legalized abortion.” After the murder rate dropped to half of its 1990s levels in 2014, homicides increased by about 20% just two years later.

Indeed, things are different since the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill supported by Bill Clinton, the Democrats, and two-thirds of the Black Caucus. Police, prosecutors, and judges are learning to step back.

As one “good cop” Todd Wiebke who retired because he felt the bureaucracy of the Seattle Police Department became to convoluted said: “The only thing I can equate it to is: We’re running a concentration camp, without barbed wire, up to and including the medical experiment of poisoning these people with drugs. It’s infuriating.”

24% of police reports sent to the city of Seattle did not get filed in 2006. It nearly doubled to 46% in 2016.

The data “Seattle is Dying” presented showed clearly that Seattle is “going soft on crime” for the past decade. In 2016, Johnson reported, “For every 100 police reports, 46 — almost twice as many [as 2006] — did not get filed. Of the remaining 54, one-third were dismissed.” In the end, 18% lead to convictions, and few people really do time. It’s a lie that people are thrown in jail for smoking a little weed, or even doing a little heroin. Seattle police reported that being caught with three grams of heroin, worth a street value of $300, is not even enough to get you arrested.

Robust programs and leadership are needed. Not effete leadership, virtue signaling, and naval-gazing.

One quote from “Seattle is Dying” said it best:

Not by the title, but by each other. I started this post mentioning a mom who moved to Bellevue partially because being accosted in Seattle by mentally ill homeless triggered her “biological” protection mode. I met her online through a mutual friend, and I’ve really appreciated her and her husband’s insights in a social media space where moderate liberals (among others) can let off a little steam. Yes, she was “pissed” about those two articles critical of the KOMO “Seattle is Dying” documentary. I know why. She once shared this story that stood out from just over one year ago about people essentially plugging their ears about the homeless and saying, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

When she and her husband and toddler son moved to Seattle in 2017, she met a mom whose child had play-dates with her baby. This fight occurred when the new “mom friend” told her point-blank she’s not appropriately compassionate towards the homeless and didn’t like how she talked about them, especially “in front of the children.” The dam had broke. This conscientious woman chose to instigate what I can only determine was a “woke” intervention after this Seattle friend shared a legitimately traumatic story of a transient man chasing and threatening her — jogging when she’s jogging, jaywalking when she’s jaywalking — before she finally ditched him by running inside a bar.

She was looking for a little understanding after what sounded like a terrifying experience. Instead, she got a lecture. Then they stopped talking to one another.

Which leads me to this question: Is this how we’re supposed to work together, especially when we’re ostensibly both citizens and humans sharing the same world? In this case, we’re all even in the same political party (Democrat), but when it comes to social problems we can all agree aren’t good for anyone (drug addiction, human deprivation) that manifests behaviors that does affect others (public urination, property crimes, assault) should it matter if you’re Green, Republican, Libertarian or Democrat? OK, sometimes it does when you’re Libertarian — sorry guys — but issues like people living on the streets won’t go away by themselves. When I hear in “Dying in Seattle” the woman who runs the Asian grocery store Uwajimaya mention that they made 599 calls to the police in 19 months for shop-lifting, which led to almost no prosecutions, the insanity of the situation and desperation within the Seattle community is palpable.

The point is: Maybe we can all listen to each other a little more. And not assume everyone is a Republican or “right-winger” if you simply don’t share their most “politically correct” opinion. Because that opinion may only be shared with 8% of America anyway, and we still have Trump as president. We may re-elect him in 2020 unless we learn to working on the same team for common cause.

Are we too far apart? 77% of Americans said that our problems are not so big that we can’t work together.

So let’s start. With compassion. And with actual solutions.

Writer. Researcher. Designer. Human seeking better outcomes. Also searching for relevant facts and logical arguments above expedient or politial narratives.