Seattle Will Figure It Out - A Response To 'Seattle Is Dying'

Stenton Toledo lives in Seattle. He is excited about getting a hockey team in our city, but still angry about the Sonics leaving. He rides his bike on the street, but never runs stop signs or red lights. He can be reached on Twitter @stentontoledo

Update 3/30: Eric Johnson, the journalist who produced ‘Seattle is Dying’ has written a thoughtful response to his original documentary. I want to be perfectly clear regarding my below response, that he has a heart for the homeless, and as noted below, his first two documentaries are much more humanizing.

I believe the saddest part of this past week has been the response to this video by Seattle’s citizens, that this has sparked anger online like I have never seen.

Before I jump in, I want to point out that KOMO reporter Eric Johnson has done several specials covering a wide spectrum of homelessness in Seattle. One can be found here, the second can be found here, and the tone and themes are considerably different in each. A close member of his own family is homeless, and he interviews her in part one. The sudden shift toward such negativity in ‘Seattle is Dying’ is surprising, after having also seen the more heartfelt perspectives in the earlier documentaries.

I had to take a deep breath (or hundreds) after watching KOMO’s ‘Seattle is Dying’ documentary in order to avoid Getting Mad Online (TM).

The hour-long documentary did its job, becoming the talk of the town (now over two million views) where two sides have been digging in the past several years, giving plenty of fresh ammo to both.

It’s not hard to understand why people are upset. It’s difficult to accept there is an encampment in a nearby park where your children used to play. Calling 9-1-1 after your car was broken into only to never have the police arrive is frustrating. Watching someone publicly overdose is traumatic. Litter, feces, stolen bikes, used needles, all terrible and on full display in ‘Dying.’ I get it.

But was there any point to ‘Dying’ other than to make people who are already upset even more angry?

First, for the three people in Seattle who haven’t seen it yet, I can’t say I recommend watching as it’s essentially anti-homeless porn, a fantasy portrayal of a much broader issue that only helps confirm biases. But at the same time, I would argue it is important to witness some of the harsh realities of homelessness in order to understand the darkest corners of the struggle.

There’s a particularly harrowing clip where the police are called to the scene with a homeless person in the middle of a crisis (drug or mental health issues assumed). It hurt to watch, and my first thought was how disrespectful it was to show this on camera, a human being clearly suffering. Imagine instead if the KOMO team filmed a gunshot victim dying a slow painful death on the street corner. Unacceptable, right?

I can only imagine what sort of demonic torment was pulsing through this man’s head in those moments between screaming at the cops or jumping in and out of a trash bin. The documentary proceeded to lambaste him for his criminal record and drug use, but it did nothing to dive into the why this man was in this situation in the first place. They found a clear caricature of a homeless person, and made him the poster boy of their movie. THIS is homelessness!

As an aside, while I disagree with the presentation in this specific case for separate moral reasons, there is an argument to be made that we should see the broader struggle for ourselves, and probably repeatedly, until there are clearer solutions. It forces us to address these issues when it would be a hell of a lot easier to ignore if we shove them into corners or neighborhoods where our families don’t live. But things that are the most uncomfortable often push us toward progress, no matter how painful it might seem in the moment.

Now let me be clear. I am not saying this specific person should be allowed to roam the streets. He is committing crimes, sometimes dangerous and violent, and does not face consequences for his actions. He is not blameless. But the documentary used him, and a list of 100 other “frequent flyer” homeless people to argue that homeless person equals criminal, which is creating a false narrative.

Yes, there are homeless people who commit crimes. And among population groups, the homeless can be more likely to do so. But this is often times by default of being homeless (trespassing, indecency), and in most cases as coping with their current condition (petty theft, drug use, public intoxication). Worse still, sometimes homeless people commit crimes in order to be put in jail to have their basic human needs met.

A 2008 Study by NYU Psychology grad student Sean Fischer argued a re-framing of our outlook of the homeless:

"Criminal activity isn't a staple characteristic of these people," Fischer says. "It may be more accurate to think of them as people struggling to get by."

And herein lies ‘Dying’s’ biggest shortcoming, a lack of perspective.

‘Dying’ didn’t profile a single homeless or under-homed person selling Real Change newspapers in front of their neighborhood’s coffee shop as a beloved member of the community. They didn’t show the homeless and under-homed who meet each morning at Urban Rest Stop for free showers and laundry, hundreds of unique and beautiful personalities walking through the door every day. They didn’t mention Path with Art, a program that allows the homeless to show their creativity and story through artistic outlets.

It doesn’t fit the narrative of evil, scary homeless crisis to show a homeless grandmother talking about how writing poetry has helped with her self-esteem as she navigates the city’s shelter system. Or to talk to the employed homeless, showering and washing their clothes at URS before heading to work. Or to show the Real Change vendor proudly selling papers every morning, perhaps one of the only jobs available to them in their current situation.

Second, we are doing the homeless a huge disservice by lumping everyone without a home into “the homeless crisis.” Unfortunately, most editors would prefer a headline with such a quick-hitting phrase over the less-publishable “homeless-dealing-with-one-if-not-all-of-the-following-systematic-racism-drug-and-alcohol-addiction-mental-health-issues-cost-of-housing-increases-lack-of-healthcare-job-loss-eviction-trauma-survivor-criminal-history crisis.” It doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way.

Rather, it’s important to re-frame homelessness as a symptom to many of the aforementioned issues. This helps make the potential solutions to each seem less daunting. Separate individual problems have their own individual solutions.

Third, while the documentary places some at-least-partially-deserved blame on our elected officials and city administration, it doesn’t turn the mirror on the viewer and say, “You are a part of this crisis too.”

It’s politically toxic to support solutions to homelessness, because true solutions are going to be expensive. This toxicity represents the electorate’s unwillingness to pay for these services. Most people believe that we are already spending too much to solve homelessness. Yet a third-party estimation states that it would cost north of $400 million a year to make true progress solving Seattle homelessness. This is over double our current budget when both city and county funds are combined.

Imagine councilmembers suggesting we spend tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars per homeless person on outreach, housing, treatment facilities, mental health and addiction counseling, increased neighborhood policing, and the assorted other expenses associated with recovery. This is an almost-certain political dead-end because we as a city would never elect candidates campaigning on a platform suggesting we do what is actually necessary to end the current state of emergency.

Instead we overwork and under-fund our social services, stress our judicial system, and hamstring our police force. The budget isn’t there to improve these conditions simply because we don’t want it to be there. With this, it’s easy to throw our hands in the air and proclaim, “We tried, but there’s just no realistic solution.” We as a city’s citizenship are not as blameless as I think we want to believe.

The political climate in Seattle suggests that the current council is going to get flipped around in the next election. It seems likely that the city is going to move in the direction of decreasing support for the homeless in order to let the problem move somewhere else. The suggestion that if we stop tolerating homelessness means those people will go somewhere else is gaining public popularity. It might even be true. But it’s also an embarrassing attitude toward an issue that our city should take pride in working to solve.

Do we want to be a city that passes this onto another city? I ask this earnestly. If the answer is truly yes, thank you for the transparency. But I think we’re better than that. I feel that in the root of Seattle’s DNA, there is a desire to be on the forefront of finding sustainable answers to homelessness.

Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I hope hearts and minds in Seattle continue to see humans behind the crisis. I for one take pride from living in Seattle, and I want to work toward solutions that we can show to the rest of the country as a shining example of compassion toward those living in poverty.

This city is not dying. Seattle is smart and kind and progressive enough to figure this out.