October 04, 2007
Homeless in Seattle

Last Wednesday afternoon, it was warm and pleasant, so I took the 255 bus over to Seattle to do a quick survey of Seattle's homeless problem.

Before I describe what I saw, let me give those who are not familiar with this area some background.   Unemployment in the metropolitan area is currently very low, just 3.8 percent.  The Seattle suburbs, such as the one I live in, Kirkland, do not, in general, have homeless problems.  (Though local churches and synagogues sometimes import one, temporarily.)  Not that there are no homeless in the suburbs, but there are few of them and, to my knowledge, the homeless do not dominate any public area in the suburbs.  But Seattle does have a homeless problem, a very serious one.

I began my tour at Pioneer Square, where there is a lovely little urban park.  I saw no one using it who was not homeless.  From there I walked to Occidental Square park, where I found an information booth with tourists.   Information booth in Occidental Square Park, 2007  Other than the five people in that picture, everyone else in that park appeared to be homeless.  Interestingly, the homeless men in the park had almost all chosen places to sit or lie that were out of the sight of the information booth.  From Occidental Square I walked north to the City Hall park, which is next to the county courthouse.  It, too, is a lovely little urban park, perfect for lunches and coffee breaks.  Everyone using it when I walked by appeared to be homeless, just as they did when I was on jury duty last year.

A local TV station, KIRO, found many problems at Seattle's fancy new library, so that was the next stop on my tour.  There were a few men in the library who appeared to be homeless, but I did not see any of the problems that were reported last year, though I might have if I had stayed longer.  Or, it may be that the nice weather kept the homeless in the parks and on the streets, and out of the library.   (The building, a creation of Rem Koolhaas, is even sillier than I expected it to be, though I had read a devastating critique that prepared me somewhat.)

From the library I walked north to the Seattle Public Market, a big tourist attraction, and then to Victor Steinbrueck park, which is just north of the market.  That park, which has a superb view of the the Seattle waterfront, had a mix of homeless, tourists, and Seattle residents.  The homeless were mostly on the grass in the center of the park.

homeless in Victor Steinbrueck Park, 2007

While I was there, I should have tested the new (and very expensive) automated toilet.  Automated toilet in Victor Steinbrueck Park, 2007  But there was a line, and I was in a hurry to get home before the rush, so I skipped that part of the investigation.  The toilet may — I repeat may — have improved conditions in the park, which have been quite awful at times.

There were some children in the Victor Steinbrueck Park, unlike the three parks mentioned earlier.   But I think any sensible parent would not have wanted their children to run free there, and I saw no children playing in the park.

To catch the bus home I walked east to the Westlake Park.  This was the only Seattle park that I saw that afternoon that was not dominated by the homeless.  I'm not sure why, perhaps because it does not have the stretches of grass the homeless were using for beds.

These five parks are all downtown parks.  I don't doubt that many, probably most, of the other parks in Seattle do not have the same problems with homeless.  But these downtown parks do, and have had the problems for years.

At this point, let's step back and ask what an unbiased observer, for instance the traditional Martian, would conclude from the evidence so far.  If the Martian was a careful, logical thinker, he (or she, if you prefer) would make tentative conclusions.  He would think that the homeless are concentrated in these few places because there is something there that attracts them, or something in other places that repels them, or both.

In other words, the Martian would think that Seattle is doing something to attract the homeless, or all the rest of King County is doing something to drive them away, or both.  If the Martian preferred simpler answers to more complex, he would probably prefer just the first; he would think it likely that Seattle is doing something to attract the homeless.  And that seems the most likely explanation to me, as well.

One reason I come to that conclusion is that, of the homeless that I saw who were awake and sober, most appeared cheerful, appeared to be enjoying life.  They looked like men who were where they wanted to be, not men who had been driven to a place of last resort.  (And some who were not sober appeared quite cheerful as well.  One in Pioneer Square even came close to offering me a beer, with a smile.)

Now then, let's change observers.  Let's bring in a decent person, say one of those Victorian ladies who really did want to help the poor.  Suppose we tell her what we, and the Martian, have tentatively concluded, that Seattle is attracting the homeless and, though perhaps not intentionally, keeping many of these men (and they are almost all men, as I am sure you know) homeless.  What would this good lady say?  I think she would have something sharp to say, that she would say that Seattle was being, though perhaps not intentionally, extremely cruel to these homeless men.  And I think almost every decent person, every person who cared for the homeless, would have to agree with her.  If, that is, they thought about the consequences of Seattle's policies, and not just the professed intentions.

Some people, having read this far, will object and say that Seattle is doing much to end homelessness, and that the city does not really want to give some of its best downtown parks to the homeless.   Perhaps, but I have a witness on the other side, the mayor of Seattle.   He believes that Pike Place, which includes the Victor Steinbrueck park, is "a great example of an urban neighborhood where people live, work and play".  Since he is not blind, he must be able to see the same things that I did last week, and must approve of them, or at least prefer them to any practical alternative.

That's not a pleasant conclusion, but it fits the evidence that I saw last week, and that anyone else who wants to spend an hour or two walking around downtown Seattle can see as well.

Cross posted at Jim MIller on Politics.

Posted by Jim Miller at October 04, 2007 04:52 PM | Email This
1. Many of the homeless are panhandlers. Panhandlers are freeloaders on society. They provide nothing of value. They depend on the generousity of productive people in order to get money, much of which they use to fund a substance adiction such as alcoholism. I have heard that about 75% of the homeless have some sort of substance adiction.

For panhandling to be a viable lifestyle, there needs to be a certain level of traffic, and that traffic has to be relatively likely to give handouts.

Seattlites are apparently soft-hearted enough to give handouts. They are generally rich enough and numerous enough to support a large homeless population.

The homeless organize themselves at busy I-5 off-ramps to avoid conflicts. They must solve most of their problems themselves because the police only step in if they are bothering a non-homeless person. Otherwise, they are on their own.

The solution is for fewer people to give to homeless people.

If you subsidize something, you get more of it. (And if you tax something, you get less of it.) Our income tax means there is less incentive to work. The panhandling handouts are creating more homelessness.

Many of the homeless have mental illness. But the mentally ill who are peaceful have rights, just like the rest of us. If they chose to live on the street, it is their right. The mentally ill who are peaceful may not be imprisoned in mental institutions, just because they "think differently" than we do.

But we have absolutely no obligation to give panhandlers money, whether they are mentally ill, or not. I suggest that if you want to help the poor, be an entrepreneur and create jobs for low-skilled workers. Or fight to reduce taxation so that the economy will grow and create more jobs for the poor. But whatever you do, don't give food or money to panhandlers. It just allows them to keep living a self-destructive and socially unproductive lifestyle.

Posted by: Bruce Guthrie on October 4, 2007 06:16 PM
The funny thing is, from a distance, that picture of the "homeless" looks no different from one of the fields outside a Microsoft cafeteria in Redmond, or perhaps something near Red Square on the UW campus.

People are people...and you seem to understand that.

To create a situation, as in Seattle, or New York where a simple one bedroom apartment requires an engineering degree to get a job to pay the rent, and then to castigate people for not measuring up...well...you decide.

Posted by: John Bailo on October 4, 2007 06:18 PM
3. Well, I neve thought I would ever be saying this, but I am on the brink of being homeless myself. If things don't improve, I may be forced to move out of my home. I may have to live in my car or truck, which are paid for, thankfully.
It's too expensive to rent an apt. or house. Period. It used to be reasonable, but no more...
I work. I work damn hard, but don't seem to make enough money to make it, and I make $15 per hour. Get it?

I doubt it.

Posted by: Steve on October 4, 2007 07:50 PM
4. Steve,

Aheartfelt hand to you. It would be useful to learn more.. here or at HorsesAss where mor epople can learn of your dilmma.

Posted by: Stephen Schwartz on October 4, 2007 08:04 PM
5. And almost all are men?

So, why not wimmin'?

Women have the same mental issues, the same alcohol or drug issues, why are they largely not there? Where are they?

What is Silly Seattle doing for women, that keeps them away from the potential ravages of the street?

And do these folks PREFER to be homeless? Or are they resisting the shelters, avoiding lice and other bugs, TB and the like?

Are there some on the Eastside, but they "blend in" or hide better, because there are more places to hide?

Too many questions, too few answers. My head hurts comtemplating it.

I go to bed now. In my trailer park home, soon to be displaced by a 5 story, 97% lot coverage building, taking out 100+ year old trees, in the Peoples Republic of Shoreline. Wonder how many of my neighbors will end up homeless.

The Geez

Posted by: The Geezer on October 4, 2007 08:09 PM
6. Steve,

Take a look at NorthPointe apartments on 168th & 52nd in Lynnwood. They're clean, quiet, modern, and around $700/month for a 1 bedroom/1 bath place. I have a friend who lives there, he makes around what you do...

Posted by: Edmonds Dan on October 4, 2007 09:36 PM
7. I don't understand why you needed to take a bus to Seattle. I do volunteer work and it is my understanding that there are homeless on the Eastside, Northend, and a big problem in the Southend of King County. The issue in other areas outside of Seattle is there isn't the network of support services. Also, many women who have lost a partner through divorce, separation, or death may be able to barely stay in the family home, but often there isn't sufficient food for the entire month. Many of these women live in the burbs and are too ashamed to divulge much of their situtations. I bet if one contacted Catholic Community Services, the Luthern social service netetwork or other religious agencies, they are aware of homeless in other areas outside of Seattle. Which brings me to comments I have received from clients while volunteering - are the people really invisible in your community or is it that you just don't see them?

Posted by: WVH on October 4, 2007 09:51 PM
8. Here is a great Southpark episode that deals well with the issue of homelessness. It is absolutely hilarious!! Beware, there is blood, gore and swearing. This is part one of three. You will find the others in the related search box to the right of the video at YouTube.


Posted by: Bruce Guthrie on October 4, 2007 10:03 PM
9. I am not a Southpark fan, so some one else will have to enlighten me with the details of the episode. Are you the same Bruce Gutherie than was running for office? Are you the one who is the Libertarian? From my limited experience in volunteering, people arrive at the homeless situation from a variety of circumstances. I suppose from the comfort of whatever circumstance you now find yourself, the situation is amusing. It isn't. Life is cylical and sometimes cynical. I do know that no person is guaranteed their next breath and that if one is familar with the story of Job, it tells of one of the richest men in his time. He lost it all. Sometimes, the Creator likes to play jokes on those who find humor in the situations of others.

Posted by: WVH on October 4, 2007 10:28 PM
10. Jim, homelessness covers far more people than just the panhandlers and drunks who you saw. So while I agree with your suggestion to not give to panhandlers, that is hardly a solution to homelessness. For a description of the 7800 people who were homeless on one night this year, see http://www.homelessinfo.org/ONCreportv2.pdf .

Posted by: Bruce on October 4, 2007 11:21 PM
11. My comment above should have been addressed to the combination of Jim Miller and Bruce Guthrie. And I would be curious what either of them think we should do about homelessness, other than not giving to panhandlers.

Posted by: Bruce on October 4, 2007 11:56 PM
12. Jim,
Good reporting. I would agree that Seattle attracts the homeless, but I think the reason is simplier than the reasons you give. I don't think it is because people give to the homeless (as Bruce Guthrie states).

One of the reasons, bigger cities attract the homeless is there is more places to sleep, where they can get out of the rain. There are more highway overpasses and building structures around that can provide shelter.

I spent one Friday night last year with our church youth group going to Tacoma's Under-the-Bridge effort. Each Friday night various community groups sponsor the event under the Hwy 705 freeway in a couple of the parking lots. The sponsors provide warm food, blankets, clothes and other essentials to the homeless and working poor in the Tacoma area. There is always large gather of appreciated people. Many of the people (working poor) live out of cars.

My opinion of how to help the homeless, and clean up down town is one-side mercy and one side brunt force. The brunt force is to enforce park curfews and loitering laws. But to enforce the laws, one needs some place to take the people they round up. This is the mercy side. The community needs to put more effort into shelters and transitional services to help individuals find work and housing. Shelters should not be a permanent living place, but a place where if you live you are expected to contribute to the shelter's operations and maintenance and are expected to find work. Shelters would need some paid staff, but that staff's work needs to be supplemented by volunteers and by the residents pitching in. The way to pay for the shelters is through the developers who develop properties in the area, just as they should pay for road improvements their business brings in, they should also make sure they contribute to the well-being of the community.

The key is helping people in transition. For those who are the mentally ill, they need to be identified and then sent to places where they can get help. We shouldn't let the working poor sufferer in their despair and make the problem worse on society, and we need to help those who are mentally ill get the proper help. If someone rejects the transitional assistance, or mental health assistance, then they are out of luck. They need to be told that loitering and trespassing laws will be enforced and they will be jailed. We then do need to enforce loitering and trespassing laws.

Posted by: tc on October 5, 2007 07:54 AM
13. If someone chooses to live on the streets or in shelters are they truly homeless?

Who are you to force "mercy" on someone or force them to live a lifestyle of your choice?

Posted by: Sparky on October 5, 2007 09:16 AM
14. Sparky,
It isn't a question of forcing mercy, it is a question of forcing responsibility. I don't believe all who are homeless are there because it was their choice. What they have, however, is a responsibility as citizens. The question deals with whether we as a society of the infrastructure in place and are willing to aggressively pursue policies to help the homeless get back on their feet (i.e., transitional plans to address people who end up in this situation). We need to offer dignity and respect, but also tough love.

How, well for example, Tacoma has Transitional housing for people caught in the homeless situation. The people can pursue living their as long as they abide by the rules (no drugs, no alcohol, pursuing work, and contribute to the maintenance/operations of the housing). This is the model I am talking about. The problem is there isn't enough to meet the demand.

Now, some won't offer that assistance, but many would. We need to take the homeless off the streets to these places. Document the offerrings, and if they refuse, let them know that vagrancy, tresspassing, and loitering laws will be enforced (i.e., they will be put into jails). The rules in transitional housing are not so tough that someone who wants to have a chance that they can't make it, but they are tough for those who want to freeload. This is the tough love.

Posted by: tc on October 5, 2007 10:14 AM
15. Wow, I can't believe the way you extreme right wingers talk about Democrat voters. No wonder it's going to be a clean sweep for the Democrats.

Posted by: rainlillie on October 5, 2007 01:11 PM
16. ...and then and only then, the homeless problem will be solved once and for all.

Posted by: snowlillie on October 5, 2007 07:08 PM
17. RE Bruce @11:
Smarter people than I have no solution for homelessness. I also have no solution. "The poor will always be among you." But I do have an opinion about what we are doing now that does NOT work, and that's giving handouts to beggers on street corners. I really believe that it hurts them to give them money. It allows them to stay in a situation that is bad for them, instead of seeking help from a private charity or from their families.

Government programs have been attempted for decades, and they tend to be less efficient, less effective, and more expensive than the private charities.

But a very interesting thing happened to me today. I was parking at Seattle Center, and having trouble figuring out how the parking meter worked. A very articulate homeless dude came up and started explaining how it worked. Now, I'm a teacher, and I appreciate a good lesson, and this guy was explaining it really well! So he helped me out and I was really appreciative, so I gave him a couple of bucks. It was worth it to me for the service he provided me. He offered something to me, instead of wanting a handout, he wanted to exchange a service that I valued for money. I had no problem with it at all. This guy had found a clever way to EARN some money, and it was all TAX FREE!!! When our taxes go to funding such immoral stuff these days, this is sort of like an act of consciencious tax resistance. I wish I had the guts to do that!

I guess it's like windshield wiper squeegee folks. If you like what they do, you can give them money. If you don't, you let their effort go unrewarded.

I still defend the right to live on the streets. Personally, I think it is a bad decision, but I have no right to tell these people what they should and shouldn't do. I won't set myself up as a do-gooder nanny-state type. As long as they aren't hurting anyone or stealing from anyone, they have a right to be there.

I oppose anti-loitering laws. I oppose forcing mentally-ill people into institutions if they aren't harming anyone. I support private charities, because they are more likely to tie their free meals to programs that will get people back on their feet again, instead of giving them enough money to stay dependant and useless to themselves and others.

Posted by: spdsk8@aol.com on October 5, 2007 09:20 PM
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