Disaster Capitalism Discovers the Homelessness Crisis

Ed Murray’s high-priced homelessness consultant, Barbara Poppe, presented her long-awaited recommendations to Seattle City Council this afternoon, and Murray has simultaneously released his own plan for implementing them. It’s all just as bad, if not worse, than homeless advocates expected.
The Stranger’s Heidi Groover does a nice job of translating the meaningless bureaucratese (which came complete with slogans and hashtags! The Mayor sure got his money’s worth! Lots and lots of money!). The thing is, none of this is new. Among other battle fronts, it will look painfully familiar to anyone who follows education policy, where for years in the name of “reform” big corporations have been deploying consultants and nice-sounding mumbo-jumbo to lure bureaucrats and elected officials into giving some of the billions of dollars spent on education each year to Wall Street and to big private companies and investors like Paul Allen.
Essentially, in modern America, no sizable pot of dollars is safe from the covetous grasp of Big Business.
It’s been evident ever since Murray declared a “state of emergency” on homelessness ten months ago that his declaration had two purposes, neither of which necessarily help the homeless. The first was to look good, Lots of meaningless words unaccompanied by action since then have reinforced that motive. Hence this week’s drama over who gets to make homelessness sweeps policies.
But the second motive is that the mayor’s declaration is a legal maneuver that makes the city eligible for several new pots of state and federal money, providing the money is used in a way that plausibly relates to the “emergency.” And that’s where today’s report – which as Groover notes, is sure to be cited endlessly in coming months to justify all manner of nonsense (and that, above all, is what Murray paid for) – is truly significant.
Poppe urges moving money away from transitional housing into private housing market vouchers, and to only fund shelters that put homeless people on track for these vouchers.
It all sounds very good until you realize that such an approach only serves a small fraction of the people who are now homeless, does less than nothing to prevent additional homelessness, and even for those lucky few homeless who get any help at all, that help centers on issuing vouchers for housing that DOES NOT EXIST in Seattle. It doubly screws people who are now homeless by defunding existing help in favor of a mirage, but guarantees they’ll have more competition for scrap cardboard. Meanwhile, Poppe says nothing about how to create her nonexistent housing; I’m sure she considers THAT outside her mandate.
Existing subsidized housing in Seattle is completely inadequate to the demand; the number of people who need it is about ten times the existing number of units, and rising rapidly. At almost every subsidized housing location, waiting lists are either years long (long after Poppe’s vouchers would expire) or frozen entirely. That leaves the vouchers, a pot of public money, to be given to private landlords, who these days are frequently national and global companies, offering Seattle’s insanely priced market rate housing. Just as with “education reform,” the whole point of the charade is to create a large pot of taxpayer money and then transfer it into private hands.
In this case, the approach will help a relatively tiny number of homeless, far fewer than are being created each year; add to that number by making the low-end private market’s competition to rent such units more competitive, meaning that for every person helped out of homelessness, another is almost by definition thrown into it; incentivize management companies and their clients to raise the rents still further on such units; and meantime, by defunding both transitional housing and emergency shelters, leave even more people living on the streets than are there now.
This approach doesn’t address the homelessness “emergency” at all, as most people across the political spectrum understand it. It simply exploits that crisis, in the finest tradition of disaster capitalism. Murray’s overall approach to actual homelessness is to play an endless, expensive game of whack-a-mole while breeding large numbers of new moles – that is, real human beings reduced to the most desperate circumstances imaginable – each year.
His approach is morally contemptible. It does, however, use taxpayer money to make rich people richer. It also guarantees that many more people will die on the streets each year.
I’ll have a more comprehensive look at this week’s homelessness developments, and how they fit into the overall catastrophes that are Seattle’s affordable housing and homelessness crises, later on.

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