Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Nicholas Kerr: Seattle’s homeless contradictions


Seattle’s ongoing homeless crisis is surrounded by an absurd number of contradictions that if not addressed will only result in a continuation of this human tragedy. 

Leaders and supporters of the city’s current approach claim compassion, but have delivered heartlessness. When residents have been asked for and given more tax dollars, the result is only ever more homeless on the streets. 

Our city council continues with the same failed policies, yet anticipates different results. We elect the same politicians or ones cut from the same cloth, yet expect them to solve something they’ve failed at or made worse. And our councilors say they want more low cost housing, but adopt policies that only increase prices. This city needs change for our homeless to have hope.


There’s nothing compassionate about letting the homeless live on our sidewalks and in our parks; it’s heartless and uncaring. As Mayor Jenny Durkan has noted, every three days a homeless person dies in Seattle. The average life expectancy is about 50 years, around 30 years shorter than the general population.
These people need hope, but by leaving them in the streets, we’re letting Seligman’s “learned helplessness” set in. While animals are susceptible to learned helplessness on their own, humans can also learn it vicariously through others who have already developed it. In Seattle we’re compounding this problem by letting tent cities and tiny home villages flourish. Whether by experience or by the hopelessness that surrounds them, these poor souls are developing the belief that they are unable to lift themselves up, and that poverty and misery are their destiny.
The compassionate thing to do is insist that the homeless take our offers of shelter and assistance. We must stop learned helplessness from settling in before they develop it or learn it from others. Letting them say no and allowing them to stay on the streets is a heartless approach and Seattle needs to put an end to this policy.
Over the past dozen years, including the period when the city implemented it’s “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness”, we’ve generously spent over half a billion dollars to solve this crisis. In recent years spending on homelessness has doubled, yet the numbers on our streets keep on climbing.
Our tax dollars have been spent with little or no accountability for the quality or results of the spending. Human-services providers that have received the contracts for outreach and treatment for the ills of the homeless have actively lobbied against performance targets and other metrics that would allow us to monitor which agencies have been getting good results and which haven’t. Our leaders have largely bent to their will. Similarly, providers have frustrated efforts for work to be competitively bid so that we know we’re getting the best services at the best rates.
Poor policy leads to poor outcomes. In most workplaces, people lose their jobs for results like this. Yet we re-elect the same people who’ve led us down this path or we elect others espousing the same policies. What is the matter with us?
We want houses people can afford to help solve the homeless crisis and so people from low paying professions can live in our city. On the other hand, we support unnecessary and burdensome regulations far and above what most other cities have adopted. Our 745 page building code and 685 page residential building code largely just make us feel good and virtuous, but as a University of Washington study found, they and other regulations literally add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of our homes. In other words, we want to have an affordable cake and we want to eat it too.
When it comes to rising rents, regulations are also to blame. Our city keeps piling them on to landlords as if they are costless. In the last year or so it has: forced landlords to pick the first applicant rather than allow them to select from amongst all applicants; required that they provide tenants guidance and information on registering to vote; and, removed their ability to conduct background checks. These might all be noble goals, but they are far from costless and they increase the risk and associated cost of renting.
Our elected officials need to change their approach or we need to change them. Before we support any further increased spending, we need to demand that our tax dollars are being spent well. As a city, we also need to decide between affordability and nobility. If we truly want less expensive housing, we need to make it less expensive to build or rent houses. This means removing unnecessary and costly regulations. And we need to stop being heartless to the homeless. To be compassionate, we need to give them hope, get them off our streets and into shelters with assistance, and stop them developing learned helplessness.

Nicholas Kerr, who grew up in New Zealand, is a marketing consultant in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two small children. In his spare time he blogs at The Kerrant.

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