Washington’s failed response to alarming trends on homelessness
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that Washington state is outpacing the nation in terms of homeless population growth. There are now an estimated 23,000 homeless people in the state – roughly the same as it was in 2005 after millions have been spent by both the state and local governments. Homeless encampments have overrun public spaces such as parks, trails, and highway underpasses, creating unsanitary conditions, creating eyescores, and undermining public safety.
How did we get to this point?
It’s not like nothing has been tried. In fact, one could argue the situation would be better if that was the case.
In 2006, the state and local governments came up with plans to reduce homelessness by at least 50 percent by 2015. However, by 2015 the rate was only reduced by 17 percent before going back up in the following years. Around that same time, King County launched its own plan to eliminate homelessness entirely within 10 years, only to ultimately declare it had failed.
Earlier this year, the state approved $500 million in the capital budget for housing and shelters and $200 million in the supplement budget for outreach services. The city of Seattle intends to spend more than $100 million on homelessness in its new budget.
Much of the reason why these efforts failed is the heavy focus on providing housing, under the misguided belief that unaffordable housing is the primary cause of homelessness. King County tried to “eliminate homelessness” by getting those on the street into new shelters and eventually into permanent housing. Though it added 3,720 new housing units, it failed to meet other important metrics before finally calling it quits on its 2005 plan.
Offering the homeless a place to stay doesn’t address what made them homeless in the first place.
Those reasons primarily involve:
- Mental illness
- Drug addiction
- Substance abuse
Many of those homeless should be in mental hospitals. However, Discovery Institute Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board Bruce Chapman noted in a recent interview that “on a per capita basis, Washington State has only five percent as many state psychiatric hospital beds as it had a half century ago. Community care could not and did not make up the difference. State officials need to be held to account for this tremendous loss.”
Meanwhile, state and local governments have placated the homeless and accommodated their lifestyles. There’s simply no incentive for the homeless to change their circumstances, other than their own desire to do so.
Open drug use is allowed on the street, in camps, and in taxpayer-funded shelters, while public spaces are permitted to be occupied by encampments. It took years, hundreds of 9-11 calls and numerous cases of sexual assaults, drug deals and murders before The Jungle, a massive homeless camp in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, was finally dismantled.
During this year’s legislative session a modest proposal would have sought, on paper, to get homeless off public rights-of-way, only for the bill to fail due to pushback from “homeless activists” who also oppose clearing unsanitary encampments. In Seattle, homeless camps now make up almost half of reported shootings that have occurred this year.
There’s also a clear lack of accountability regarding how the money geared toward reducing homelessness is spent. The Seattle Times recently reported how the head of a group hired by a local school district to do homeless outreach near Broadview-Thompson K-12 was pressuring people to help him buy drugs. No competitive process was used before giving the group money.
Those tasked with managing the shelters are also suspect. In March, a homeless man died of a drug overdose in a Seattle tiny village operated by a nonprofit program that permits drug use, while drug use is rampant in county-own hotels managed by nonprofits.
During all that time, the spending at both the state and local level combined with relaxed laws have only enticed the homeless from other parts of the country to come here, which no doubt has contributed to the increased state homeless population since 2005.
The problem with Washington state’s response to homelessness isn’t that it’s doing nothing. It’s that everything it does only seems to make it worse.