The Thick Veneer of Liberal Compassion

With winter approaching, there’s a new clarity to Mayor Ed Murray’s approach to our homelessness crisis. Sadly, the only lesson learned from our city’s last great bureaucratic campaign on the topic, the ludicrously failed Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, seems to be that The Plan cannot fail. The plan can only be failed.

High-priced consultant Barbara Poppe’s long-awaited recommendations, delivered last week, were thick with vacuous corporatese, but this helps explain the only truly useful part: She notes that homeless services in Seattle have been a disjointed mess. In other words, it was an implementation problem.

Unfortunately, coordinated implementation of a catastrophe is no improvement.

How does the mayor’s new plan, justified by the same recommendations Poppe has given literally dozens of other cities, throw even more people on Seattle’s streets? Let’s start to count the ways:

1) Abolishing transitional shelter and turning it into permanent housing – assuming the city can find appropriate buildings to purchase and convert, already a problem in our hot real estate market;

2) Not funding emergency shelters that, as with most such shelters in Seattle, don’t require that guests be placed in the city’s “housing first” track;

3) Not serving homeless people who are unwilling or unable to sign up for a housing first track; who are unwilling or unable to complete the various programs required to get housing vouchers through the program; or who have obtained the vouchers but are unable to find appropriate private market housing, in an extremely competitive market for lower-cost rentals (I would say “affordable,” but that’s a gross misnomer), before the vouchers expire;

4) Not even serving the lucky few who complete the program and use it to find that rare housing if they are unable to sustain their overpriced rentals and become homeless again;

5) There are far more people currently at risk of homelessness than
there are homeless, and they’re all already competing for those same lower-cost private market housing units. The recently passed housing levy still comes nowhere near meeting the demand even after new units are built out over the next seven years. Putting currently homeless into that same market with vouchers will simply take other, at risk individuals, who would have been renting those same units instead, and throw them on the streets;

6) That increased private market demand also exacerbates rent increases, leading to still more homelessness;

7) Because its full-service case management approach is far more expensive per person than simple emergency shelter, the city will need to either sharply cut funded shelter beds or allocate far more money for them, something the mayor’s plan does not provide for; and

8) The plan also narrows the city’s definition of homelessness so that others scrambling to find shelter and housing don’t receive city services.

I could go on – the plan does nothing, for example, to help all those at-risk individuals as rents continue to escalate and existing affordable housing continues to be torn down, guaranteeing still more people without homes. The entire program rests on placing people in private market affordable housing units that simply DO NOT EXIST in Seattle.

Ironically, Murray and his surrogates based their strident opposition to the sweeps legislation now before city council on a provision that bars most sweeps of unsanctioned encampments unless the city can place their residents into housing. That would tie their hands, they specifically say, because…wait for it…the housing doesn’t exist.

That admission tells you plenty about the cynicism of a plan designed to look good in reports and re-election ads, no matter how destructive it is in practice.

Somehow, according to the hype, this is even better than the Ten Year Plan, which involved a lot of the same people. Now, Poppe claims, the homeless will be gone in five years.

Where exactly are they going to? Even if the city magically finds the will and the money, it can’t possibly generate that much newly affordable housing. It’s several magnitudes away from penciling out.
So where do they go? The answer, according to this plan, seems to be: “Away. Please.”

This isn’t a plan to help the homeless; taken with Murray’s insistence on aggressive sweeps, it’s a plan to rid the city of them. From an administration that also seems to be doing all it can to purge Seattle of our working and middle classes as well, I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. But the thick veneer of corporate buzzwords and liberal compassion it’s being sold with makes me sick.

Meanwhile, back on the streets, at least 41 homeless people have already died this year, at an average, much too young age of 48. Almost all died outdoors. With the weather cooling again, 2016’s homeless deaths in Seattle will likely set a new local record. With this approach, 2017 will be worse, because there will be more homeless than ever and fewer city-funded shelter beds available to them. But those deaths won’t get their own column in the new, numbers-based metrics. In all likelihood, they won’t even get their own footnote.

It shows.


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