New Book Argues That Our Approach to Homelessness Won’t Work

Why are west coast cities suffering through a seemingly intractable growth in homelessness? What can we learn from the relative successes of Amsterdam, Lisbon, Miami and even New York City?

This first appeared in Post Alley on November 22nd, 2021.

By the time you read the subtitle, “Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” you know that author Michael Shellenberger pulls no punches. He explores a vexing, urgent question: Why have San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland — wealthy, progressive cities each — experienced such intractable and rapidly-growing homelessness crises in the past decade? Why have each of these politically liberal, environmentally-conscious cities with enormous financial resources suffered worsening and intertwined crises of addiction, public encampment, needles and deteriorating public safety, and political gridlock — despite spending ever more?

It’s been more than six years since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness. That year, the King County One Night Count found 3,772 individuals living outside and unsheltered. In 2020, it had risen to 11,751 people experiencing homelessness, with 47% of those unsheltered. And, despite more than $1 billion spent on homelessness every year regionally according to the Puget Sound Business Journal and even more donated in affordable housing pledges by Jeff Bezos, Microsoft, and others, we still don’t feel much closer toward a model which works.

Released in October, San Fransicko has broken into the top three reads on Amazon in the Civics & Citizenship category. Though it focuses on the Bay Area, policies in Seattle are similar. Shellenberger indirectly asks the Seattle reader to consider whether the progressive policy approach — harm reduction, housing first, affordable housing, and a victim-centric lexicon — leads toward measurable progress? If not, will it ever?

Two decades ago, the author was a conventional progressive on these topics. Today, Shellenberger is criticizing progressive orthodoxy in the environment and homelessness. His 2020 treatise, Apocalypse Never, is a broadside against what he considers “climate alarmism.” In that book, Shellenberger advocates for more nuclear power and more technological and pragmatic approaches to environmental challenges, bringing data to the argument about which forms of energy can most efficiently reduce CO2 emissions.

San Francisco City Hall and city square. Photo from the Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2021

In San Fransicko Shellenberger takes on three of the most heavily-defended tenets of the west-coast approach toward homelessness.

First, he argues that homelessness is principally an addiction and mental health crisis masquerading as an affordability crisis. Put another way, and this is central to his thesis — it’s not primarily about affordability. To this assertion, he brings considerable data, showing how pure housing-only programs fail to reduce homelessness. He explains how public housing advocates have largely shut down much-needed investment in shelter.

He asks the reader to ponder whether growth in tents is at least in part because they’re the least-costly way to live with no rules, in proximity to drug markets and a community of users. And he names the ever-more addictive drugs doing increasing damage: first opioids, then heroin, fentanyl, and now a new and extremely addictive form of methamphetamine which brings with it much more frequent and lasting mental crises. Drug overdose deaths have hit a record high in the United States, with more than 100,000 dying in the past 12 months. Sam Quinones’ excellent piece in The Atlantic about this new methamphetamine echoes Shellenberger’s central thrust here.

Second, Shellenberger takes on “housing first,” the highly popular intervention policy in west coast cities which prioritizes secure housing and “barrier-free” (i.e., requirement-free) living. Once a fierce advocate for housing-first policies, the author is now convinced the policy momentum itself has overshadowed the ultimate goal. He walks the reader through Amsterdam’s history in policymaking, which once had similar barrier-free models, but has in the past decade adopted a much more empirically successful approach. The “Amsterdam Way” emphasizes earned housing and compassionate enforcement over the “housing first” model. Shellenberger dives in to study methodology to question several of the academic efforts which have claimed efficacy of housing-first.

In interviews subsequent to the book, he’s posed the thought exercise: “If someone who is addicted to methamphetamine is given $200, are they likely to voluntarily spend it on their own treatment, or more drugs?” Shellenberger’s point: if we believe it’s the latter, we’re saying the housing-first — which too often is housing-only — model won’t work.

Third, Shellenberger argues against city-only programs. He notes that in a mobile and free society, no city-specific approach would work in the absence of a broader regional or statewide strategy. He advocates the establishment of a new statewide agency, “Cal Psych,” to handle a broad range of mental wellness services.

The book is at its best detailing the success stories of other cities. Shellenberger holds up Amsterdam, Lisbon, New York City, and Miami as cities to consider as much better models than the failed west-coast models. The chapter “Let’s Go Dutch” focuses on Amsterdam, a city not that much bigger than San Francisco (or Seattle, for that matter), and makes a very strong case for adopting their policy slate. This includes earned housing based on entering treatment programs if addicted, a crackdown on open-air drug dealing, an individualized and well-coordinated plan for every individual, and ample social services.

In the 1980s, Amsterdam had major problems with open-air drug-dealing and homelessness. Crucially, Shellenberger argues, Amsterdam’s courts, service providers, and families helped coordinate an individualized plan for everyone, and linked permanent housing benefits to milestones along the way. That is, rather than housing-first, those addicted first get less-desirable government shelter, but must earn permanent housing. They rely upon family support when available, enforced bans on public encampment, and ample counseling and psychiatric care services.

There are no signs yet that San Francisco will change course. In July, Mayor London Breed pledged $1 billion to house the homeless, after the city experienced a surprise windfall driven in part by federal stimulus spending. District Attorney Chesa Boudin has decriminalized many misdemeanors, and there’s a strong push to reduce police budgets.

Seattle features prominently in a chapter called “Legalize Crime.” Shellenberger recounts the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in June of 2020 and the progressive wave of decriminalizing misdemeanor crimes. And he discusses the mismatch between progressive ideals and actual outcomes.

That people can and should be called upon to do more is central to Shellenberger’s thesis. A former progressive, Shellenberger describes a new, aggressively guarded belief system, which he calls “Victimology.” Such a doctrine plays a central role in discussion of the addiction and homelessness crises and the advancement and protection of failing dogmas. He argues that progressives have become far too invested in the idea that addicts are only victims with no obligation to a greater society, and that nothing can nor should be asked of any of them. In a related blog post, he explores this victimology through Moral Foundation Theory. Shellenberger argues that while espousing such a belief system may signal compassion, it rarely delivers it.

Does individual responsibility have a role in this urgent conversation? Do people experiencing homelessness and the larger community share mutual responsibilities? Shellenberger argues strongly: yes, they do.

The late neurologist, author and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote compellingly about the need for responsibility to balance liberty in any functioning society. Before his death, Frankl called specifically for a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. There’s even a campaign for it. After you read San Fransicko, you might be inclined to rethink our approach toward homeless policymaking.

Post-note: There’s a good discussion with the author here:

On The Accuracy of Self-Reported Data

In the urgent debate around Seattle’s homelessness crisis, many articles (such as this otherwise great one in Crosscut) cite the statistic that 35% of those who are homeless in the Seattle region have some level of substance abuse. It’s often a very central part of the framing, especially by those who wish to portray substance abuse as a relatively low contributor to the problem. Among other things, presenting that statistic at face-value implies that presumably, 65% of homeless individuals don’t have any kind of substance abuse issue, so perhaps addiction is a less significant reason that causes, follows, accompanies or perpetuates homelessness.

Now, 35% is of course much higher than the national average for housed/unhoused combined, so even that level of just over a third should be alarming and worthy of investment in treatment services and treatment-on-demand, and even thoughtful consideration of increasing requirements on those who choose not to enter treatment. This is because not getting help is a danger both to themselves and in some cases, to others.

But here, I’m concerned with the presentation of that statistic itself and central reliance upon it without any context.

Too often left unmentioned is this key asterisk: The 35% statistic is based entirely on self-reporting.

35%’s Origin

The 35% figure comes from the very worthwhile annual “Point in Time” report, gathered by volunteers, which King County calls the Count Us In Report. Here is the key paragraph summarizing the oft-cited statistic:

Approximately 70% of Count Us In Survey respondents reported living with at least one health condition. The most frequently reported health conditions were psychiatric or emotional conditions (44%), post-traumatic stress disorder (37%), and drug or alcohol abuse (35%). Twenty-seven percent (27%) of respondents reported chronic health problems and 26% reported a physical disability. Over half (53%) of survey respondents indicated that they were living with at least one health condition that was disabling, i.e. preventing them from holding employment, living in stable housing, or taking care of themselves.

King County Count Us In Point-In-Time Report, 2018

Survey’s Great. Interpretation? Often, Not So Much.

Please understand what I’m saying, and do not misrepresent it: The Point In Time Survey does not in any way misrepresent or hide information about what this statistic represents. The report itself characterizes it accurately.

But other articles and online discussions and political polemics which cite this statistic and accept it as the ground truth often do. Note, for instance, the framing in that Crosscut article, at least at this writing. The lead sentence of this article reads: “Contrary to what some may assume, most people living homeless do not have a substance use disorder (SUD): it’s about 35%, according to a recent local survey.”

No, that’s not what the Count Us In Report says.

It is not accurate to say that 35% of homeless individuals have substance abuse issues; it is accurate that 35% say they do.

I am in no way critical of the considerable effort to gather and report this data. I’m very supportive of it, and I applaud the many volunteers who give of their time do it. It provides extremely useful snapshots-in-time for things like total counts, vehicular counts, age, gender, regional comparisons, trends and more. That kind of data — i.e., pure counts of things which can be clearly observed and independently verified — is pretty reliable.

And what people self-report is also very useful in a way as well. I’m a fan of collecting it.

The problem I have is when essays and analyses and endless online debates blindly rely upon the “35% of homeless individuals in Seattle have some form of substance addiction” figure without stating — or in some cases, even seemingly knowing — what that figure represents.

35% of homeless individuals surveyed report that they have drug or alcohol abuse as a health issue.

What the 35% means is that, when asked one night by a volunteer stranger whether they have a drug or alcohol issue, 35% of those who are homeless respond “Yes, I do.”

We can and should ask: what is the likely accuracy of that number? Would that tend to undercount, accurately count, or overcount reality? Statistically speaking, does it tend to generate a lot of false negatives, little error, or false positives?

Intuitively, it would seem that highly likely that this is an undercount. After all, what is the incentive for someone who is not addicted to answer “Yes, I am.” Conversely, for those who are addicted — to opioids, meth, alcohol — it’s such a truism that there is denial about addiction that it’s become a cliche, at least about alcoholics in particular. To assume that 35% represents reality is to assume that denial, when it comes to admitting substance abuse to strangers, is nonexistent.

The City’s Own Lawsuit Against Purdue Pharma

Even the City itself has data which is very hard to square with a 35% addiction rate figure.

In the City’s own case against Purdue Pharma, it says: “Seattle’s Navigation Team (…) estimates that 80% of the homeless individuals they encounter in challenging encampments have substance abuse disorders.”

Seattle v Purdue 1:17-md-2804-DAP p8 par18

Now, this is only for those “challenging encampments” encountered by the Navigation Team, and it doesn’t count those homeless individuals living in private or publicly funded shelter. But note too that the lawsuit is focused on opioid abuse, not the broader alcohol and meth (fastest growing) addiction issues. It is very hard to square the 80% substance-abuse figure in this subsegment with an overall 35% rate, unless one assumes that the other segments have dramatically lower than US average level of substance abuse, essentially 0% substance abuse of any kind, which seems unlikely.

Page 32 of the Count Us In Report, embedded below, shows 41% of the homeless population living in unsheltered tents/encampment/streets and another 16% living in vehicles, with both segments growing rapidly:

Further, the Seattle Navigation Team reports than in cleanups of camps, about 80% of them have needles and other physical evidence of substance addiction. That’s of the needles not taken and/or disposed of prior to the final closure, and left behind.

And in the Seattle Is Dying piece, it was very anecdotal and not at all scientific, but it sure did seem like those people interviewed with direct knowledge — the reporters and first responders and even at least one individual who has spent years in either encampments or have reported on them claim a much higher level than just 35% — most saying “100% or close to 100%.”

How can the self-reporting be so low, but these datapoints above be so high?

Do Studies Measure Accuracy of Self-Reporting? Yes!

Surely, this problem has been studied before. What’s the accuracy rate of self-reporting when it comes to substance abuse? Are there studies which ask people and then, say, do lab tests to verify truthfulness?

Initially, I ran across several studies that showed a shocking 89%+ accuracy rate overall, and was quite surprised by them. That doesn’t match my initial intuition. That is, when some stranger asks you about potentially illegal activity, or activity that might make you ineligible for services, or activity that might cause incarceration or at a minimum carries at least some stigma to many, that you’d answer honestly ~90% of the time? Seems odd. Can that really be true?

False Negatives are Very High for Those Not Seeking Treatment

But then I read The Impact of Non-Concordant Self-Report of Substance Use in Clinical Trials Research, which really made total sense to me, and resolved the basic question. There are two ways this ~89% accuracy estimate is an overestimate in situations like the Point In Time overnight counts.

Essentially, the super-high 89+% overall accuracy rates are generally for studies either of (a) people who have decided to seek treatment — e.g., they’re already in the lab and know or think a test is about to happen OR (b) studies which blend the overall population, which has an overwhelming number of non-addicts (90.4% of Americans haven’t used hard drugs in the past month, according to NIH.)

That is, for the individuals in former group of studies (those who are seeking treatment), there’s a very strong incentive and desire to be accurate — and knowledge they’ll likely be lab-tested on it anyway. And for the latter group, the overwhelmingly high number of accurately-answering subjects in the population (i.e., those who have no incentive whatsoever to create false positives) swamps the weighted average accuracy for the group as a whole and brings the forecast accuracy artificially higher.

Toward a Better Estimate

I’m no expert, but it feels like much more likely that 35% — the self-reported rate — is the floor of the accurate normal distribution range, and an implausible one at that. In other words, the notion that 35% represents reality is highly unlikely. Accepting that statistic as reality essentially implies that you believe that 100% of all respondents will answer a question like “Do you have a substance abuse health problem?” honestly (unless you believe that those who aren’t addicted will somehow decide to state that they are, in large numbers), and no study suggests that they do.

There are almost zero pressures on the true number being lower than what is self-reported, and significant evidence that the false-negative rate can be at least 30-50%+. And the true range is very sensitive to your view on the level of error in reporting. If you think that the error rate on the sample is 50% — and again, it is intuitively entirely due to false negatives — you end up with a true substance abuse rate in the surveyed population of 70%, not 35%.

To me, if you gross-up the self-reported 35% estimate by a more reasonable factor given the likelihood of false negatives, you end up with a more plausible, more aligned, and much more compatible with the City’s own lawsuit true addiction range of 45% (that’s quite conservative) to 70%+.

When talking with one acquaintance whose (multiple) loved ones have directly suffered from addiction, service providers and doctors generally have told them that self-reporting is usually off by a factor of 2 to 3x. (Solely relying upon this anecdotal feedback, even 70% would be low.)

At a minimum, when people cite the 35% statistic, I think we should encourage an asterisk that this is self-reported data — what people say about themselves.

Update, October 8, 2019:

The Los Angeles Times pursued its own analysis of Los Angeles, and compares the counts to self-reporting, pretty much fully agreeing with the estimates above:




Bridging Seattle’s Homeless Divide: Toward Common Ground

Fears matter, and they often prevent action.
Each side of the debate needs to have a cogent, believable answer for the other side’s worst fears. That’s currently missing from the debate. But only then can we make progress.

I’m lucky to have very smart, good faith, prominent and well-intentioned friends on both sides of the “Seattle is Dying” debate. They sincerely differ in their perspectives — both on what the severity of the problems are as well as how to improve our city.

On one side are amazing leaders like Jonathan Sposato, Chairman of Geekwire, gifted founder and leader of multiple successful companies and acquisitions, speaker, author and civic thinker, philanthropist and long-time personal friend. On the other side of the ideological divide are friends like Christopher Rufo, accomplished PBS and feature film documentarian, author and radio/television personality, one-time Seattle City Council Candidate, and now conservative activist. To overgeneralize, these perspectives are from the left and the right, respectively.

Each are exceptionally smart, well-intentioned, creative, accomplished and well-informed. Each of them value evidence and data. And, knowing them each personally, I guarantee they each want, at the most important high-level, the same general outcomes with respect to homelessness and addiction: fewer people homeless, more compassion and care for those in true need, increased public safety, and fewer people addicted.

So why is reaching consensus on what to do so difficult? Is it just because one side believes a problem exists and another side doesn’t? Or is it because one side is “compassionate” and the other side just isn’t? I don’t think so.

In listening to what each side is saying and watching what they are doing, it’s plain that each side not only wants their solution enacted, but very much wants to prevent the other side’s solution due to real and valid fears.

The left does not want the right to see its vision realized because of certain valid fears, and the right does not want the left to see its vision realized because of certain valid fears. In several ways, these desires to “block” the other side’s framing/approach/solution outshine their own desire to see their approach enacted. As a result, each side spends an enormous amount of energy on the friction itself, fighting against the other’s approaches, rather than cogently advocating for their own. That’s why so much of this “battle” is spent trying to define and capture the framing, the rhetoric.

But while we debate words, framing and narrative and castigate the other guys in an endless tug-of-war, we’re not actually moving toward a solution. The emergency continues to worsen.

Thus in my view, an opportunity for progress is for each side to clearly understand what large and valid fears the other side has, and try to minimize those opposing fears with a specific action plan they publicly commit to.

No matter which side you’re on, stop for a moment. Ask yourself: can you honestly articulate, without any demagoguery, the other side’s worst fear about your “side’s” approach? Now, what do you say which to them would allay that fear? What data can you bring to bear, and what level of trust can you offer which bolsters it?

Can the right minimize the left’s fears, and assure their approach won’t result in mass incarceration and vilification of those who most need our compassion? Can the left minimize the right’s fears, and assure that their approach won’t result in unending taxation, inbound growth, homelessness spending, addiction and property crime growth?

Do that, and each side might spend a little less time trying to prevent the other side’s vision and more time finding common ground.

The Right’s Real and Valid Fear about the Left’s Approach

From the right/center-right, one real fear is an unchecked expansion of uncoordinated, unmeasured municipal largess and permissiveness that at every step penalizes the law-abiding and taxpaying.

Listen to, and don’t disparage, the business owners in Seattle Is Dying: those people feel unheard and unfairly treated. The fear-driven debate which erupted after this special shifted quickly to the broadcaster itself (KOMO/Sinclair) and whether one of many individuals shown actually had shelter. But the post-broadcast debate notably hasn’t ever really focused on the shopkeepers’ needs, nor what they are saying or experiencing, nor the taxpayers’ fears that the track we appear to be are on is uncapped. They are the ones doing the work to pay the taxes that we as a city use, and their fears are valid. One such business owner is so fed up and so frustrated with a lack of responsiveness from civic leaders that he’s jumped into politics, not having wanted to as any kind of career path. There’s dramatically rising property crime vs. other cities, visible addiction, mental health crises, property crime and growing trash. There’s been an expansion of a dual system of justice which lets some people get away with illegal behavior that we, the funding taxpayers, still have to abide by.

But by far the biggest fear underlying it all, I think, is the lack of any kind of limiting principle of largess/permissiveness/measurement, which suggests the growth in investment and resources has no end. For those who believe in supply and demand, it makes intuitive sense that being comparably — and now, famously — more generous or lenient than any other region with benefits and/or prosecution (or lack thereof) will only cause the problem to grow, as people are indeed mobile. These fears to me seem justified — the biggest growth in Seattle’s homeless population have been from those living in vehicles, either cars or RV’s.

To see this fear in action, let’s say 12,000 new permanent units are funded with wraparound services. Great! I support that. Lots of taxes and/or reprioritization needed. Outstanding; let’s do it.

BUT — Unless we define measurements and limits, we will only get an influx of MORE people seeking free shelter due to our comparative generosity, and then we are back where we started.

So, to the left: what in your plan specifically prevents this? And in that world where shelter is available, are you prepared to mandate treatment for those who are addicted, and mandate that people cannot just set up tents or sleep on sidewalks? And is your model that these 12,000 are static and will grow no further? What gives you that confidence given the data? Does it somehow go down if Amazon slows hiring? What gives you that confidence? If we had 12,000 or even 15,000 units, is that really enough, or only for the next year or so? I certainly know that under such a regime, Seattle is where I’d like to be from anywhere in the nation or world. The frustration expressed by the Employee Hours Tax came from this sense of misallocation of resources, dual-system of justice, and knee-jerk turn to “it’s a resource problem: citizens, pay more, or you are uncompassionate, or simply shills for big business.” But only 7% of Seattleites believe that the problem is first and foremost a money problem.

The Left’s Real and Valid Fear about the Right’s Approach

From the left/center-left, the fear includes embracing, validating or institutionally endorsing an overly punitive and carceral and vilifying/dehumanizing approach, which too-hastily imprisons and denigrates people for being poor, many of whom got displaced or into their situations due to no fault of their own. In short, the fears include shamefully mistreating the innocent, mass incarceration, and not at all helping to rehabilitate those who need our help the most. It fears an overly harsh approach to addiction which only sends it underground and thus expands the health problem. It naturally fears what it sees as a continuum from vilification to “othering” to reprehensible forces like white nationalism, fascism and more.

So, to the right: what mitigates these fears? I’d say more investment in services, a more rational and compassionate civic dialog and way we discuss these issues, embracing housing-first with wraparound services, electing leaders and creating a system which understand that homelessness is not a monolith, a more personalized approach throughout their leg up, mental health services, and housing. Speak Out Seattle advocates for all of these things. I’m ready and willing to invest, but hold on — not until we understand what prevents unlimited inbound growth, and not until we better manage our existing funds.

It’s my view that we need to interrupt the “compassion” vs. “uncompassionate” argument. It’s not getting us anywhere. We are never going to convince each other that the other side is more “compassionate.” The fight for the moral highground has left a lot of people on the battlefield and alienated far too many potential allies. There’s a fatigue by those of us who have continued to fund and help and fund and then watch the results — they are not going in the right direction. And no amount of PR is going to gloss over the fact that Seattle has a problem in addiction, per-capita property crime that dramatically exceeds most other big cities, and rudderless municipal government on this issue.

We should recognize that it is neither cold-hearted nor unusual to have differing levels of compassion (and therefore generosity and related asks) for people based on ability, choice, luck, effort and circumstance.

Unfortunately, as with so much political discussion these days, a ton of energy is spent trying to frame the problem, define the words used, label the other side, and “seize the narrative.” Is it working? The first battle is over language; unfortunately, too much of it has stayed there.

Can each side take steps to minimize the other side’s fears?

To the left, what is the concrete, limiting principle that assures your ideological opponents that it’s not unlimited growth in the problem? What’s your evidence that backs up that view? Is there any failsafe which prevents inexorable expansion? What’s the maximum investment you expect, and the measures you have in place to know if your solutions are tracking well? What measurement would you allow? What concrete steps would you take to stem the frequent offender problem? What hard “asks” would you be willing to require on people seeking taxpayer-funded services, varying by circumstance of course? Or, do you have a different argument as to why the growth and spending will not be boundless? If so, what’s your evidence for that view? Allay those fears.

To the right, what can you do to assure your approach is compassionate and well-targeted, and not part of a march toward “othering” and imprisoning people for bad luck, treatable addiction or mental health? What about those many who are mentally ill, or fleeing abuse, or LGBTQ youth who may feel they have no support structures, or those who are incapable of work? Can systems or watchdogs be put in place which mitigate those fears?

See also: Fixing the Homeless Crisis

“Seattle is Dying” : KOMO News Special

Last night, an hour-long program aired without commercial interruption in Seattle on the addiction crisis and homelessness. It’s an important watch. I found it devastating, riveting and motivating, all at once.

There is already much being made over the fact that (a) it comes from KOMO News, a station now owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, a large conglomerate which has an unquestionably conservative lens. And that (b) there is direct footage within this broadcast of people — who, I should add, are in public, not private places — who are suffering, some in mental breakdown and in crisis. And (c) the piece leads off with the recent System Failure Report, an important report about repeat offenders (read it!) — but also which, as SCC Insight carefully noted, has some some important caveats to consider about its interpretation.

Before I go further, it must not be left to a footnote that the main journalist, Eric Johnson, has been a part of the Seattle journalism community for more than two decades, has deep ties to the Puget Sound community, and has long profiled Seattle life with high quality, decades before the change in station ownership. If you’d like to thank him for bravely breaking out of the “it’s all about Amazon” media narrative and tackling a difficult, controversial issue which will no doubt bring him a lot of ideological heat, please drop by his Twitter feed.

Issues (a) through (c) above are each legitimate concerns, and they are worth deeper sidebar discussions. They should absolutely add some nuance to the viewing, and people should discuss them.

But they should not be allowed to overshadow the central message, because none of them invalidate the central, monumental, devastating theme of what is being reported. And what’s being reported is that we have an addiction crisis in Seattle, that the homelessness crisis is primarily but not solely driven by addiction, and our existing policy regime is broken.

Very broken. People need help from our leaders, and that includes both those suffering, our first responders, residents and business communities. This is not, primarily a “tech displacement” story, nor is it primarily a “lack of compassion” story, nor is it primarily a “police need to do a better job” story. And it is absolutely not a “let’s do more of what we’re doing” story.

If you’re more focused on the filming of individuals already in public who are suffering than the systemic problem our policymakers exacerbate, stop and ask yourself what you are fighting for.

KOMO News Special: Seattle is Dying

Is our policy approach working? No? OK, we agree on that. Do we want far fewer people addicted and homeless? Yes? OK, we agree on that too.

So let’s say we snap our fingers and there’s suddenly thousands of permanent, publicly-operated individual housing units with addiction treatment services. That’s great, and I support that. But before going further, answer: What then? Would you be willing (as I am) to mandate that those who are addicted to go through such treatment, or go to jail? Do you believe that without mandating treatment, those profiled will suddenly get well? Do you believe that data about their unique needs and touch-points with the city are important to measure, to know more about whom we are treating, what they need, and how they’re progressing? Do you believe that there are a substantial number of crimes that could be prevented if we did warrant checks among the population at various touchpoints with taxpayer-paid services? Do you believe the citizens who fund these services have any right to demand the most basic of database checks? Do you believe the unhoused are actually most at risk for violence and crime, and that we have an obligation to do what we can to limit it in the shelters or encampments we do tacitly allow? Do you believe that public safety will magically improve with free housing, without a change in how we handle addiction and repeat offenders?

In other words, would you be willing to implement a Providence RI style approach? Would you be willing to try it on a small scale at least? Ask yourself that, and state your public answer, and the ideological divide between approaches might begin to be bridged.

Which is more important — fewer people addicted and suffering, or proving the “correctness” of your own (or my own) specific political ideology or power desires or what-have-you which we don’t want challenged? Does the story above suggest that simply building more housing and low-barrier tiny villages without any “asks” of those residing with them will magically solve the problem? Has it, where it’s been tried? (That was basically the Licton Springs model. How well did it work?)

Or does it appear to be that the central problem is that of addiction and our revolving, permissive approach, and a City Council that prefers not to touch an entrenched, ideological third-rail, and one which actually benefits politically by leaving it alone? What do first responders say? And why do they feel they need to be anonymous to be honest?

When our police feel they must be anonymous or retired in order to be honest, what does that suggest?

I don’t think most Seattleites would agree that the current policy approach is working, and I would ask what you are truly fighting for. We need the City Council to start holding hearings on this in an honest, transparent way. We need to begin exploring much more proactive approaches, such as the ones used in Providence Rhode Island and Snohomish County and Boston and elsewhere — those regions have seen dramatic improvements in the very measures where we’ve seen failures.

Some of us think it’s time to change the broken policy agenda that we’ve been pursuing, and time to take a new approach.

Seattle City Council, can we please stop spending time and money and focus passing symbolic resolutions on national issues and get to work? Can we please stop dishonestly portraying homelessness as just (or even primarily) a tech affordability displacement issue? It’s been more than three years since we declared a state of emergency on homelessness. Our approach isn’t working.

Seattleites, you can help push for better solutions. There are many ways to help. Write the Seattle City Council and demand better action. Contact the City Attorney and ask some good questions. Send your thoughts, even this blog post if you care to, to the Mayor. Push back when you hear people championing the shibboleth that it’s just about needing even more money without a change of policies. Consider joining one of multiple volunteer organizations. One of the ones I’ve found suits me best is the diverse group of citizens seeking evidence-based solutions at SPEAK Out Seattle.

At a minimum, resolve to improve your information diet. Don’t just read The Stranger’s take on it. Follow SOS at, or better yet, join us at SPEAK OUT Seattle on Facebook. Read the System Failure Report. Share this video, even this post if you care to, with neighbors and coworkers. And please consider attending the free City Council candidate forums in March through June in your neighborhood (see @SOS_Seattle on Twitter), and ask your district candidates what their take is on the addiction crisis in Seattle. And of course, there are numerous organizations that directly help today’s urgent need and those struggling with poverty and addiction, from King County United Way to Community Lunch to food banks like the amazing University Food Bank to Habitat for Humanity Seattle – King County to clothing donors and more. Most important, for the mid and long-term, we have to right this ship.

Major citywide elections are coming up in August (primary) and November (general), where 7 of 9 City Council spots are up for vote. This provides hope, for the first time in a long while, to change our direction. I’ll have more to say about the City Council candidates I feel have the best shot at changing our policies for the better in a future post; right now, I’m only starting to eliminate a few from further consideration. If interested, follow me on Twitter.

Disclosure: I donate time/money to several of nonprofit organizations mentioned above, but I do not speak for any of them.

Two Competing Philosophies in the Head-Tax Debate, Venn Diagram Edition

Letter from Convention-Goers to Seattle: Your Homelessness Problem Is Out of Control

“Based on my recent visit, I believe the problem is out of control.”

Why was the Seattle "Head Tax" Repealed So Quickly?

I was there at that raucous council meeting to repeal the vote, I signed an Open Letter from Tech Leaders Opposed to the Proposed Head Tax, and I was a volunteer signature gatherer and small donor ($275) to the repeal referendum effort.


Why did the council vote 7–2 to repeal it, just a few weeks after voting 9–0 to pass it? It is telling that the City Council called for a vote to repeal it right after the initial numbers were announced showing the overwhelming strength of the repeal referendum sentiment.

Here in Seattle, the City Council cannot block a valid referendum with signature counts exceeding a certain numerical threshold. That threshold varies based upon prior election counts. This year, that threshold came to about 17,500.

We got 45,833 signatures in less than three weeks, from a standing start.

To put that in perspective, it took just 73,000 votes to get our new mayor elected. The petition drive was still going strong when it wrapped up — plenty more than 45,000+ signatures were possible.

I suspect when the key SCC members saw the size of the citizen turnout to sign the petition, well over the required threshold, collected in a startlingly short period, they were forced to make a political decision: (a) plow ahead in a near certain losing effort to get voters to vote “no” on the repeal referendum (which Sawant very much wanted to do), or (b) heed voters, retrench and go about it a different way. Our hope is that by signaling tax fatigue, especially a new tax which penalizes hiring (and which would very likely have an indirect effect of raising prices and/or limiting in-city employment) what the City Council hears is that we want them to get a handle on their reckless and ineffective “management” of both the overall budget and the homelessness crisis.

This has been cast nationally as a “City Council vs. Amazon” debate, but that’s a false narrative. The tax would have applied to some 600 companies not named Amazon. Grocery stores. Pharmacies. Discount retail. Gas stations. Auto dealers. Fast food chains. Restaurants. Cafes.

And I personally didn’t see the hand of either Amazon, Starbucks or the Chamber of Commerce in my own or any volunteer (i.e. unpaid, unsolicited) efforts in any way. Not that this didn’t happen, but their influence was
far less than that portrayed by sheepish Councilmembers now looking for some entity to blame.

We moderates are fed up with Council mismanagement and hard-left ideology. We have a pretty atrocious Councilmember, Kshama Sawant, who has never missed an opportunity to promote a hard-left ideology and sow division, and uses her time, the city’s time, and even our own taxpayer dollars to foment “national movements” over proper fiscal and municipal management. She declares as a Socialist, but really, she is quite Marxist in both rhetoric and approach. That’s not hyperbole. Every “movement” leader needs an archenemy, and she chose to vilify Jeff Bezos many months ago.
But she’s even alienating would-be allies, like labor unions:

[ Side note: See those red signs that Councilmember Sawant’s protesters are holding? Hundreds of them — maybe thousands — were printed during the EHT fight. The printing of these was paid-for by Seattle city taxpayers, because Sawant let her “movement” use city printers to print them! Check out this video .]

Seattle is flush with cash, and we’ve been generous.

We have record revenues in both per capita and absolute terms. City coffers have never received more than they are receiving today. Unemployment has never been lower. And we taxpayers have been compassionate and very generous in tackling this problem: we just passed (and I voted for) a $290 million Affordable Housing Levy just two years ago. That is, we voted ourselves a very sizeable property tax increase quite recently. Collectively, we spend over $1 billion per year on the issue regionally, when adding private and public programs together, per the Puget Sound Business Journal’s study last year.

Our city paid $200,000 to a national expert for a series of good recommendations on homelessness response and we’ve ignored two of the most important central recommendations:

  • UNITE overlapping programs and
  • DO NOT sanction tents and encampments without fixed shelter

We look at cities like Boston, which spends far less on homelessness per capita, and their results are improving; we spend far more, with different policies, and our results are getting worse — much worse. Could it be that our policies, and not lack of funds is what is exacerbating the problem?
Under those conditions, it is eminently reasonable to say STOP, let’s get hold of this. Let’s build a better plan and reprioritize some of our EXISTING funds if we truly need more than the $70+ million already being allocated directly by city taxpayers. If existing funds aren’t enough: sorry, but with an all-time record budget both in per capita and absolute terms, some pet projects will have to go. (I can name $10+ million of them in my own neighborhood alone.)

What’s changed is that the “fed up middle” has been activated and is getting organized, in places like Speak Out Seattle! on Facebook, to finally start rivaling and surpassing the pushback from the hard left.

Some petition signers literally ran to take the pen from my hand. And it’s not because Amazon is paying us. The movement got less than 10% of its funding from Amazon, and I know dozens of unpaid volunteers who helped with this campaign because they’re tired of the City Council’s poor policymaking and mismanagement.

As I met signer after signer, they told me, they’re fed up with strident, hard-left ideology taking precedence over sensible debate and results. Of leftist bullying destroying civility. Of misguided shout-downs drowning out sensible moderate voices. And of a City Council that, after years of fiscal mismanagement, in the midst of record revenues both in absolute and per capita terms, wants to impose yet another tax before even having a clear plan, and before demonstrating results that work.

Many of us (me included) just added to our own tax bills by approving a $290 million Affordable Housing Levy in 2016, yet the City Council cannot say with audited clarity and independence just where, precisely, that money has gone and with what results. When numbers are mentioned, they’re all over the map, vary by Councilmember, and seem to change weekly.

This City Council is the key legislative, policy-making and resource allocation body in a MUNICIPAL government representing over 800,000 people. Yet we are being treated to regular grandstanding for a “grassroots national movement.” Except the key “leader” here is absolutely abysmal when it comes to fiduciary obligation to taxpayers in the areas of public safety and budget and many other matters.

Most of us, upon observing a bathtub with receding water, wouldn’t simply rush to install a second faucet before ensuring that the stopper was properly seated. But that’s what it feels like the Council was forging ahead with here, before demonstrating fiscal competence.

45,000+ signatures collected in less than 3 weeks

So that’s an overwhelming level of public support against the employee hours tax. Other polls from KIRO and Q13 and even the Council’s own internal polling
showed strong sentiment against as well.

They repealed it because they feared the “fed up moderate” vote at the polls. (I am one such moderate.) They reasoned, rightly I think, that having this ballot measure would also jeopardize new levies as well. One in particular that is getting ready for voters in November is a big one around education.

Further, they knew that a vote to repeal, by city charter, put implementation plans on hold, and the EHT was interfering with exploratory efforts to unite city and county level programs.

A humorous but sad moment at the end of the meeting: the “Tax Amazon” Sawant socialist movement started loudly chanting — as they are want to do — “Vote! Them! Out!” Those of us in the other faction looked at each other, cocked our heads a bit, and said “hey, that’s what we’re saying too.” So we all joined in, every citizen in that chamber except the press and the Councilmembers themselves. So at least the meeting ended on a moment of boisterous unity.

Look, it’s easy to complain about a complex issue. So what
should we be doing about the homeless crisis in Seattle? I’m still formulating my views, but I’ve put a few of my own thoughts here on my blog:
Fixing the Homeless Crisis

I suspect this isn’t the end of the story here; if you’d like additional updates, follow me @stevemur on Twitter.

Seattle Considers Mobile Injection Van

The “Head Tax” isn’t the only major controversy in Seattle politics these days.

Seattle City Council is forging ahead with plans for a publicly funded “safe injection” facility.

I’m just getting up to speed on the discussion here, and wanted to pull together a post that summarizes where we’ve come from, what we know about such approaches done elsewhere, and where we stand today. I’ll be adding to this list of resources over time.

Present View: Skeptical, at Least as Planned

I’m sympathetic to the harm-reduction model. If we could only isolate the users to those who are already here, and had confidence it would be well run with detox pathways in-place and extra policing in the area, and if we had a good handle on other aspects of homelessness, I could see supporting spinning up such a new effort.

But the more I peruse the existing, often conflicting body of evidence and try to apply it to what SCC is pursuing, the more skeptical I become. Given tremendous mismanagement of municipal efforts by the council, I also think the lens of our taxpayer-funded services needs to shift to a stack-ranked model — does safe injection pioneer work rise to the level of “must do now?” given fiscal constraints?

I am also concerned about funding yet another “magnet” policy which will likely draw people from the region and the country to Seattle who need more services when we are already overcapacity serving our own. Further, as evidenced in Vancouver, any solution here needs full cooperation of the police, cooperation from the local community (where?), extra police resourcing (funds) to be able to “surge” around the facility, as well as clear obligations on the part of those who do use, such as helping us understand whether it’s drawing people regionally. And it’s not at all clear these days, after all the expense that Vancouver’s harm reduction strategy is actually working.

The Beginnings: 2016

2016 was the year that the Seattle City Council started seriously moving ahead with ideas around safe-injection. SCC has taken its cue from the harm reduction model that was first implemented in North America in Vancouver BC.

March 21, 2016

A key milestone in this effort was March 21st 2016, when the SCC’s Human Services & Public Health Committee heard an overview of Vancouver’s Insite by Liz Evans, former nurse and one of the founders of Insite in Vancouver. The presentation and Q&A which followed are well worth a watch:

CM O’Brien asks a question about location at about 41:00. Evans says “You won’t even get people to go eight blocks – you need to be where drug users are.”

Fast Forward to June, 2018

While California may get the nation’s first “safe injection” site this summer, Seattle is on course to fund and deploy one of the first-in-the-nation taxpayer-funded “safe injection” facilities. But it looks like it won’t be a building.

The City Council has recently shifted its approach from a fixed location to a “fixed-mobile” facility, which is in essence a very large outfitted recreational vehicle (RV) which will be used to provide a “safe space” for injection. The “fixed” moniker refers to the fact that it’ll return every day to the same location. The location itself is currently TBD.

Here’s a good overview of where we are as of mid June 2018 from Q13. CM Mosqueda advocates for moving ahead with the $350,000 van purchase even though location has not yet been determined and vetted with neighboring community, and many other important details aren’t nailed down:

The specific plan, including who qualifies for treatment, whether there is anything asked of participants, what data is tracked, how physically the injection and post-injection effects will be handled in the context of a vehicle with limited capacity, and treatment pathways offered off of addiction are unclear to me.

I’m still learning about the evolving plans; perhaps someone in the comments could direct me to the specific plan in development. How do we measure the results and impact on the neighborhood as compared with costs? What constitutes “success”?

Further reference on studies:

Projected Cost

On the cost side of the ledger, the budget appears to be:

  • $350,000 for van
  • $1.5 million to outfit it
  • Ongoing operating costs: $2.5 million per year

Lots of Questions

  • How many injection stations will this van have?
  • Where will this be located?
  • How much “throughput” is expected here on a typical day? Presumably it’s not large enough to have the detox within the facility, as it is in Vancouver.  (At Insite, “detox” is upstairs.) Maybe the plan is to have the detox in the van, but that will limit the throughput considerably.
  • What data do we have from Insite about the success of going from path from addiction to clean?
  • How will the drugs be purchased?
  • Which drugs specifically — heroin, fentanyl…  others?
  • Will this be a regional “magnet” for more addicts to come to our region? How will we measure and know? (Will clients be asked for ID’s and point of origin? Will non-locals’ use of this facility be time-limited in any way?)
  • We are repeatedly told that we don’t have enough money by the City Council. So what makes this the “highest and best use” of funds?
  • Are non-civic funding sources sought at all?
  • Do users get checked against, say, outstanding arrest warrants?
  • What extra policing plans will there be as this is deployed?

What Can We Learn from Insite in Vancouver? Data is Mixed.

As noted above, the approach is being modeled after Vancouver’s Insite facility, the first such “safe consumption” site in North America.

The question: “Is Vancouver working?” has answers on both sides, and the data seems quite ideologically driven. In 2016, Evans cited “over 40 peer reviewed studies.” In particular, Evans mentions a study by the Lancet which shows a reduction in deaths in the surrounding area by 35%, but another follow-on study notes serious errors were made in reaching that conclusion. Evans also notes that there is no increase in crime in the area, something which as been quite disputed by Vancouver’s police department itself.

Those in favor of publicly-funded injection sites may site this study as written up by Macleans: “The Science Is In. And Insite Works.” Those opposed might find Tristin Hopper’s opinion in National Post more suitable: “Vancouver’s Drug Strategy Has Been a Disaster: Be Very Wary of Emulating It.”

Crime does appear to be growing in the Insite Neighborhood:

And Vancouver is now ranks among North America’s highest for opiod overdose deaths.

And grim anecdotes abound:

[Vancouver’s Safe Injection “Insite” Facility] sits smack in the middle of an eye-popping outdoor drug market and shooting gallery. Here’s a snapshot: a urine-soaked alley, directly behind Insite. A man squats on the broken pavement, poking a needle into an open, bleeding wound in one arm. Another man stands nearby, moaning, eyes glazed, a sharp protruding from his wrist. Next to him, a woman holds a small cosmetics mirror in front of her face. She’s not applying makeup; she’s pushing a needle into her neck.

Back on Hastings, right next to Insite, a thin man in a dirty orange t-shirt and ragged blue jeans sits on the sidewalk, cross-legged, pulling small folds of heroin from a plastic bag. He’s handing the drugs to a steady stream of customers. No one bothers to disguise or conceal their transactions.

Some buyers walk straight into Insite, where they will give a name—pseudonyms aren’t discouraged—to a receptionist, and sit inside a waiting area until they are called into a large space behind a locked door. Once there, they will pick up fresh, sterile equipment, sit at one of 13 mirrored, stainless steel booths, and fix. Nurses may sit or stand next to the users as they inject. This takes an average of 20 minutes, says Tim Gauthier, one of Insite’s two clinical coordinators.

— from “Vancouver Supervised Injection Struggles with Fentanyl

While I do think the “harm reduction” model should not be dismissed out of hand, my inclination is first, before we have a clear understanding of why this is a good idea, do no harm.

Before we establish a program to help scaffold more injection, we really need clear data on the results. What’s the policing plan? What’s the plan to measure results? What’s the plan, if any, to check the ID’s of those who are using against, say, arrest warrants?

One statistic often cited by Insite supporters is that there have been no deaths inside the Insite facility, and Seattle has had many people die on its streets of overdose. Will a mobile lab have enough capacity to make the same claim? Will people exit these vehicles high?

Citizens Speak Out

On social media, some comments have included:

  • “There are already hundreds of mobile injection RV’s parked around the city.”
  • “When you are actually funding injection vans, you know that your first priority is not to reduce homelessness.”
  • “Last year we had 169 people die on our streets. If this helps reduce it, it’s worth it. Life is precious.”

Cautionary words from Vancouver Police Union about Supervised Injection Sites

“So that wherever these facilities are located, the negative impact of the associated drug use can be managed so other citizens aren’t negatively impacted,” says Vancouver Police Union President Tom Stamatakis. “I think when you look at illegal drugs and activities associated to that you need to look at it more holistically. You can’t just focus on harm reduction, you also have to focus on prevention, education and enforcement.” Stamatakis agrees police here have had to deal with a lot more because of supervised injection sites.

While Neil Arao, Insite Manager reports “There hasn’t been an increase in crime rates, there hasn’t been an increase in violence or anything in the community,” other reports are that the Vancouver Police had to add 65 additional police officers to the area, because it tends to attract an increase in regional crime. Are such extra-policing plans being put forward, and at what cost?

Branding: Call It A “Public Health Clinic”

One thing is clear — the effort to sell this idea on a wary public is not lost on City Councilmembers. Formerly called “Community Health Engagement Locations” (CHELS), that term is now deemed doubleplus-ungood. On April 19 2018, Councilmembers Bagshaw and Juarez both emphasized that branding is important, for a very wary (and weary) public:

“I don’t think we’re doing a bait and switch with people.” – CM Juarez

More reading

Where is Seattle’s Growth In Homeless Coming From?

A vexing question at the center of the debate around homelessness policy is: where is the growth in Seattle’s homeless coming from?

Specifically, to what extent is the growth due to locals losing their homes and being displaced vs. inbound growth from other regions of the US? Yes, I know it’s not entirely one or the other (and there are certainly myriad causes and situations), but these are the two ideological extremes.

So what’s the composition? The answer seems knowable, but the data, thus far at least, isn’t conclusive.

First, Why is Knowing the Answer Important?

In my view, answering this question is central to addressing the problem.

Let’s say we knew that a large percentage of Seattle’s substantial growth in homelessness is from those coming to Seattle from outside the region. It would be reasonable to conclude that our local policies and relatively permissive enforcement have something to do with the growth in homelessness, and that perhaps we ought to rein those in or at least make them time-limited for those not from here at a minimum until well after we get our crisis under control.

If however all of our homeless population growth were indeed due to displacement and lack-of-affordability, we’d design different responses. We’d have far less reason to believe our policies are drawing people in and need any change. And we’d have stronger rationale to demand that the biggest drivers of the affordability crisis (I’m looking at you, Amazon, big tech, biotech, Starbucks and Seattle tech boom) must pay the disproportionate cost in attempting to right the issue that “their” success has created. (Though of course, we’d also still have to include things like rising property taxes and restrictions on landlords, which have each put upward pressure on housing costs and made affordability more scarce.)

Is “Freattle” a Thing?

Most of us Emerald City dwellers have heard the term “Freattle,” which refers to a generous panoply of services offered with few accompanying responsibilities demanded of the beneficiary. But is this actually a thing, or just a pejorative used to demean or even “criminalize” the homeless? I honestly don’t yet know, but I have a hunch there’s some degree of reality to it.

First, there are numerous anecdotes of local encampments of people coming to Seattle from outside the region. For instance, there’s an encampment currently at Seattle Center that has a couple from West Virginia, which we’ve for some reason refused to clear.  And there’s a recent violent rape by a homeless man who came in from Texas, who managed to avoid an outstanding arrest warrant by living in a sanctioned (some would say, sanctuary) encampment. Even though he benefited from Seattle taxpayer generosity, there was no requirement for his ID to be checked for outstanding warrant when residing at Nickelsville. These are pretty good instances of “Freattle” in action.

Next, note that there’s been a 46% increase in people living in vehicles from 2017’s count to 2018’s. That includes RV’s. And most vehicles, of course, can move. So, where from? Just within the city itself?

Is data simply the plural of anecdote?

Intuitively, there’s reason to believe that inbound migration of homeless individuals to the Seattle region has been happening, though the extent of this influx is unclear.

We do know that we have among the most permissive policies around drug use and lack of loitering/encampment law enforcement in the nation. We have explicit de-policing policies around RVs and have lessened must-move enforcement. We have hands-off approaches to encampments. We have city council members decrying sweeps. And we’re planning a “safe” government-funded injection mobile site — the first in the nation. A logical question: why shouldn’t these policies have any impact on migration? What’s the clear proof that it doesn’t?

I also find the reluctance of Seattle and King County to get crystal clear data on this “where are people from” issue to be suspect (e.g., by not asking the question in a clear way — obfuscating the issue — see below), and emblematic of an historically ideologically-driven, relatively evidence-free (or, at a minimum, evidence-bending) approach to the problem.

The midwest and Texas have seen declines in homelessness during the past decade, and King County’s has only increased. Nationwide, the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness declined by 18 percent, or over 19,000 people, between 2010 and 2017, according to the 2017 Annual Report on Homelessness  to Congress, yet Seattle’s has increased greatly during that same period.

While no one should question that affordability has been a key driver of the crisis, in my view homelessness can’t just be displacement due to economic growth, either, yet that’s how its currently framed. Take Texas and the midwest: the fracking boom and general economic recovery has greatly benefited these regions; why has their homeless populations shrunk over this same period, while ours has skyrocketed? And why has Boston’s been on the decline?

Enter The Survey: AllHome King County Point In Time Count

The Homeless Housing and Assistance Act  requires that each county in Washington State conduct an annual point in time count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons. This census is conducted in accordance with the requirements of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You’ll find the full Seattle/King County 2018 Report at the end of this post.

It’s very important to know how the questions are posed and how the data is gathered before drawing any conclusions from the data gathered.

Point In Time Survey Doesn’t Ask “Where are you from?” In a Meaningful Way

The only data-collection vehicle that I’ve seen that attempts to collect data on the question of whether we have a lot of inbound homeless is the annual “Point in Time” Survey. King County and Seattle’s “AllHome” agency runs the annual “Point In Time” survey of the homeless. And sadly, it’s asked in such a way as to not really provide any meaningful data.

King County’s Point In Time Survey, “Count Us In”, reveals seemingly incongruous results between two questions in Section E:

1: “Where were you living at the time you most recently became homeless?”


2: “How long have you lived in King County?”

For question 2 above, only 31.7% said they were born or grew up in King County, meaning 68.3% did not. 68.3% of the homeless are originally from elsewhere.

Yet on the first question, a full 83.1% of survey respondents said they were living in King County at the time they “most recently” became homeless. Strange. How can we reconcile these seemingly incongruous responses? Taken together, it might seem that people come here, experience affordability and are displaced. But is that really what’s going on?

Perhaps the question itself is creating this odd congruence.

A distinct possibility is that it’s the result of the way the question in Section E was asked: “Where were you living at the time you most recently became homeless?”

Does this include those who migrated in from other regions? I think in many cases yes, it does.

Imagine you were, say, sharing a home with a friend or parent in Texas, then hopped in a van to come up to Seattle and “became” homeless here. How would you answer this question? You’d probably say you were living in Seattle or King County when you “became” homeless. So my hunch is that the “most recently became homeless” question includes a lot of people that are actually inbound from elsewhere.

Why did you come here?

The 2017 survey also explicitly asked why those experiencing homelessness came to Seattle. But note that this chart only shows the TOP reason they came to Seattle. So someone who came here to access homeless services but also to be with friends might only show up as #1 on the list:

Source: Gaining a Better Understanding of Those Experiencing Homelessness,

Washington State Point In Time Count

On the more general Washington State Point-in-Time Survey (not, to my knowledge, used in the All Home Point in Time Count in 2018), you’ll see the Section C, subitem i question: “Last known permanent city.”

That’s it. For the Washington State surveys, that’s primarily what we have to go on, and it’s not much.

Point-in-Time Survey

The Report

Seattle/King County Point in Time Count, 2018

The Findings as Summarized By AllHome


Fixing the Homeless Crisis

It’s going on three years since Seattle declared a homelessness crisis, but the homeless population in Seattle continues to rise. The amalgam of programs we’ve tried since 2015 hasn’t stemmed the growth in Seattle’s homeless counts; in fact, the numbers have actually accelerated, particularly of those living in vehicles.

There is no shortage of recommendations on what not to do, but what should we do? Plenty.

Broadly, I would say that the solution to begin to turn this around includes, but is not limited to:

[1] Build permanent (or at a minimum, semi-permanent, like FEMA tent) shelter with attached, mandatory addiction treatment services. Fix and/or suspend broken city policies that make it more attractive to be here as opposed to far away from this region if you are addicted, or looking to get addicted, and not from this region. Yes, we should have compassion for all, but we shouldn’t unnecessarily expand “magnet” incentives during this period of local crisis. Once we get our own population better cared for, we can certainly revisit this issue. This might need to include:

[2] Consider time-limiting benefits to those not from here originally (6 months? a year? two years?) Since the programs are largely funded by Seattleites and sold to the public as being based on helping those who are displaced due to high cost, it should be OK to focus on Seattleites and, once programs are unified exclusively at the county level, King County-ites. With limited resources and a desire to limit inbound growth on an already overburdened system, it should be OK to have policies which are more comparatively generous for those who, through no fault of their own, have been DISPLACED due to affordability or are fleeing domestic violence or what have you, vs. those who have made active choices to come here, vs. those who have serious addiction problems and don’t want to get well.

Right now, there’s essentially zero distinction among these groups from an eligibility or even duration-of-benefits standpoint, but they are VERY different segments, and it is OK for our sense of obligation to each of these segments to vary. At a bare minimum, even if there were zero such cases and this were NOT an issue, enacting such a policy would nip in the bud any “Freattle” objection to these policies and thus help gain broader public support.

Related post: Bridging the Divide, with the difficult-to-hear but grounded-in-reality sentiment that for more and more generosity to flow beyond the already copious amounts, we must also have reasonable limits and focused priorities on those from here, because these benefits are funded by those from here.

Just how big or small is this problem? Quite frankly, the data is squishy on who was displaced from here versus inbound from elsewhere because of the way we try to measure this data, as I attempt to outline in “Where Seattle’s Growth In Homeless Coming From?”

[3] Unify programs to create better pathways and care from addiction to employment for those that can. The Puget Sound region spends over $1 billion annually on the homeless crisis, and has a ton of overlapping programs and touchpoints. Recognize that a large driver of the homeless crisis is addiction, and ensure we have pathways for treatment. Be willing to make treatment mandatory to receive certain benefits and in some cases even to remain located where they are.

[4] Create city-administered, city-paid low-wage city-jobs like Ft. Worth and a program to help those get a leg up. Require those to work who are physically and mentally able to do so. Ask corporations to contribute to that fund, and consider promotion of them as sponsors.

[5] Pursue unified, county-level administration, not fragmented, duplicate city and county-level administration. There is finally a nascent effort to do so, begun by Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Have all in the program use relationship management apps and services (and yes, some are available off the shelf — it doesn’t HAVE to be super-complicated) to track and unify on an individual level. Perhaps even a CRM company like Salesforce might configure and deliver it as a pilot pro-bono or in-kind charitable donation. I’m serious — before just laughing this off, consider what an individual-level, unified relationship-management overview would do. It sure would reduce arguments over data. We cannot easily improve what we do not measure.

[6] Relax the many restrictive landlord policies that are causing landlords to abandon offering more supply; consider tax incentives to landlords who offer at or below affordable range.

[7] Accelerate permitting for affordable housing units, such as the pre-approved plans used for backyard tiny houses (but apply it more broadly)

[8] MEASURE EVERYTHING: where people are inbound from, what services they need, how long they’ve needed them, touchpoints, eliminate duplication, etc. Without divulging personally identifiable information, make aggregate data available to University of Washington and other research universities. Make the “Find It, Fix It” app data available via data feeds and API’s, stripping out the personally identifiable information and any other confidential information. Allow citizens to get a look at trends, hotspots, most areas of citizen request, etc.

[9] ENFORCE THE LAW, and that includes trying to locate people who have outstanding arrest warrants. When benefits are delivered by taxpayers (residence, food, whatever), it’s acceptable to require ID, or that a person goes to GET a photo ID specific for this purpose. On a batch basis, check for outstanding arrest warrants. It is NOT compassionate to force those many innocent homeless people to live in close proximity to people with outstanding arrest warrants. Take things like property crime, needle littering and other crimes seriously.

[10] RE-PRIORITIZE the city budget. I agree that homelessness should be a top priority. So let’s cancel — or at least postpone, expensive, unpopular programs like specific road reconfigs (35th, Sand Point Way, there are others.) Reallocate those funds from cancelled programs. In my neighborhood alone, there’s at least $10 million of savings there — that’s more than 20% of what was “lost” by repealing the Employee Hours Tax. And that’s just of the programs I know that are nearby.

[11] Don’t sanction unsheltered encampments

[12] Don’t sanction RV living within the city unless permitted ahead of time, and only allow a handful of those permits for exceptional cases, and know where they are.

[13] Look to best practices of other cities and adopt those lessons. Allocate one full time city staff member to bring the best practices of the nation to Seattle’s attention.

[14] Bring in those administrators who have actually seen great results elsewhere, and fire the ones here that have failed us.

[15] Run a full, independent audit of all homeless providers over the past 3 years and make the results public.

[16] Place more stringent requirements on addiction treatment. With tracking, track those that have refused treatment over X amount of times, and enforce vagrancy laws on those who have consistently refused this.

[17] Focus on permanent shelter, not far more expensive temporary encampments and mini-homes. Perhaps even look to failing big-box retailers to buy or lease their property. Check out the New York Times story on turning Macy’s into a homeless shelter, for instance. Here in Seattle, there are two Safeways closing, a SEARS in Shoreline that’s closing, Toys R Us that’s folded up shop, and more.  It may sound crazy, but it could be an affordable place in which to build out apartments with fixed and better shelter. Barbara Poppe is quite clear that we shouldn’t allow encampment, yet we continue to do so. It’s an expensive stopgap, and it may signal virtue, but it’s more expensive and it’s not compassionate.

[18] Once we have proven that initial efforts are working at a reasonable cost, and when neighbors start to have their concerns about crime, needles and overnight encampment/RV taken more seriously, consider increasing the B&O tax (which doesn’t directly penalize hiring) or extending the Affordable Housing Levy for several more years. The point here is that trust must first be restored during a period of temporary re-prioritization of funds from other non-mandatory city projects. Programs must be united at the county level, taxpaying neighbors must begin to SEE their concerns taken seriously, and THEN we can go about increasing levies or taxes to pay for full implementation. The way the council has pursued it has been to first find revenue sources to double-down on a failing set of policies, which had a great deal to do with the failure we now see.

[19] Make needle exchange a true exchange, not a giveaway: Why don’t we require needles to be turned in any more to get more needles?

… that’s a starting list off the top of my head, but it’s far from complete.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant it is now.” – Chinese Proverb