OAshington has the fifth highest homeless population in the country. We only track the states of California, Texas, Florida and New York. In response, Gov. Jay Inslee has asked state lawmakers for an additional $815 million on top of the roughly $2 billion they agreed last April to spend on housing and homelessness over two years. If Inslee’s latest request is successful, our state will spend more than $120,000 per homeless person in Washington, and that doesn’t include city and county spending.
Resources are needed, but the solution is not simply more money. Our state’s failure to provide basic education, mental health, and foster care services, along with our permissive drug and camping policies in public spaces, have partially created this mess.
Our mental health system ranks somewhere in the bottom third. Our foster care system stores children in motels and cars. Washington is ranked third for adult drug users, but 51st for people receiving drug treatment. The education that the poorest children too often receive does not prepare them for an independent life. Before spending another $815 million, we should demand that our elected leaders recognize these failures and implement reforms. This requires tackling the root causes.
For the last two decades, I searched for the best way to help the homeless among us. Around 2001, I started volunteering as the night manager of a men’s shelter in Seattle. Later, as an elected official, the question landed on my desk. As a gubernatorial candidate, I visited and worked at shelters and soup kitchens across our state. My experiences confirmed that homelessness is a statewide problem. The recent episode at the Spokane Convention Center reveals it. My experiences have also taught me that the countless reasons why people are homeless form a difficult Rubik’s cube to solve.
Helping some is simple. Those who find themselves homeless after losing their job or seeing their rent go up, those who have struggled with addiction or divorce and are looking for help, those people we can help.
Those who grew up swinging between rentals and shelters and friends’ floors, who never had a checking account, who don’t know how to budget, those people probably couldn’t keep an apartment or a job if they were given both. Helping them requires the right services, but if they want help, there is a way forward.
But too many people don’t want help, and that’s where solving the cube gets frustrating.
One night at the shelter I overheard three friends talking about how once it was 10 degrees warmer they went back to the park. When these men left the refuge in the morning, they went to work, but they loved the freedom of camping in the park during the warmer months.
Solving homelessness requires confronting the reality that some people, especially some single men, choose to camp.
A man told me he once had a family, a suburban home, and a job, and he said he would never go back to a full-time job or monthly bills. He preferred to live outside, and when it was too cold, in a shelter. Without advice, I couldn’t see how giving him an apartment that he would eventually have to pay for would ever succeed. And he didn’t want advice.
As president of the Seattle Port Commission, I had to deal with several dozen people camping in one of the port’s waterfront parks and demanding that the port give it to them. The port explained that legally it could not give public property to private individuals, nor legally allow camping on this shore. They were given a deadline to leave. The night before their tents were cleared, I sat down with the “residents”, listened to their stories and assured them that the port had found shelter for anyone who wanted it. Most accepted the offer. The next morning the camp was emptied; a few were arrested.
No other decision I have made as an elected official has required me to balance my commitment to social justice with my responsibility to uphold the law. Pope John Paul II has urged us to have “a special openness with…those who are humiliated and left on the margins of society, in order to help them earn their dignity as human persons.” Some have argued that, legal or not, we should let them stay, but I have come to believe that allowing people to live in filthy, drug-infested camps is to abandon them on the margins of society.
Years later, as a gubernatorial candidate, I spoke with a few Seattle cops who told me they thought condoning the camps made homelessness worse. They told how some of the children who ended up in the camps had been kicked out of their homes, had run away or had been “graduated” from the reception system at 18. They said if you didn’t have a drug or mental health problem entering these camps, you would after a few weeks there.
Most homeless people don’t live in camps, but these tent cities are emblematic of the damp, tangled and nasty thicket of abuse, trauma, drugs and mental illness in which too many homeless people live.
Janet lived in this thicket. I met Janet while walking around SoDo in Seattle. She pointed to a tent she shared with two guys. She had a part-time job at the ballpark, had cancer, and had trouble taking her medications as prescribed. When I asked why she didn’t find help at a shelter, she told me she didn’t want to leave the guys and she didn’t want to follow the rules of the shelter. I guess, but I bet drugs were involved, and who knows what his relationship with the guys was. While Janet had “chosen” to live in the tent, unlike the three men I heard in the shelter, she didn’t seem capable of making rational decisions. It didn’t look like she would accept help either, at least not that day.
Another group of people who need help but aren’t in the frame of mind to accept it are people who are addicted to methamphetamine or heroin. One of the most heartbreaking reunions I have ever seen was with parents whose children were somewhere on the streets of Seattle. Everyone dreaded the call to come and identify the body of their child. As a gubernatorial candidate, they were urging me to oppose safe injection sites and low-barrier shelters, which, along with Seattle’s permissive attitude toward drugs, thought they were only allowing the lives of their children on the streets.
Homelessness is not one problem but many problems requiring different solutions. More resources could be spent, but we should only allow elected leaders to spend more money if they are reforming services we have neglected for decades. This neglect is now spilling onto our streets.
There is one more thing we can do. When you see a homeless person, make eye contact and say hello. It can be uncomfortable, but the first step in getting someone to seek help is to show them that they have worth and dignity.
It won’t solve the problem, but it’s a start. ♦
Bill Bryant, who served on the Seattle Port Commission from 2008 to 2016, ran against Jay Inslee as the Republican candidate in the 2016 gubernatorial race. administration of the Nisqually River Foundation and was appointed by Governor Chris Gregoire to serve on the Ecosystem Council of the Puget Sound Partnership. He lives in Winthrop, Washington.