Seattle, like many cities large and small all over the country, is facing a homeless crisis. The homeless have been studied, vilified, embraced, patronized, and pushed from one encampment to another as we struggle with a real solution to the problem. As I see it, (and I’m no expert), there are many reasons people resort to living on the street or in their cars, so a single solution might help get one segment out of sight (and out of mind), but not address the special needs of another.
Many people have jobs that don’t pay enough (thanks to a cap on the minimum wage) so that they can afford to live close to work. They end up commuting to and from the hinterlands (that’s just north of Marysville) and jam our freeways at all hours of the day and night. And yes, we spend billions to build wider roads, and trains, and ferries and to what end? And when their car breaks down or when they’re prohibited from driving because they were caught without insurance or they simply can’t afford the gas, they can’t afford their rent and end up homeless. I don’t have statistics to support this, but I know enough cases from conversations I’ve had with people living in shelters or in Tent City encampments to know this is a real problem–but how big a problem is a good question.
Some of the men and women (and children) living on the street have special needs. Some have children and would prefer not to have their children scooped up by CPS so they hide the fact that they’re living in a Ford somewhere near the school. Some are single parents, fleeing from an abusive, addicted, criminal spouse. Some have mental issues that keep them out of shelters and away from others. Some people simply flee the city and head out to survive in our temperate climate or somewhere where they can live off the land. Alaska is peppered with dry-cabin survivalists–I’ve seen them first hand. You’ve seen them under our freeway bridges.
Some people have problems with addiction–to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. While we want to help these individuals, we provide shelter beds but don’t permit drug use or drinking so we exclude the very people who need the most help. We also provide far too few recovery/rehabilitation beds to help treat this life-long illness.
Some of our homeless are unemployable in their current state. They might have done time in prison for offenses as minor as cannabis possession or non-violent crimes but that taints them forever in our system of “justice.” Some have done time for serious crimes and might still be a danger to society but having done their time, they are living and camping among us.
Some might not have served a day in jail, but for any number of reasons might not be able to read or write or fill in a form even when it’s read to them. Some suffer from paranoia, schizophrenia, or other mental diseases, or handicaps that bounce them from job-to-job. Some are perfectly smart but without the resources to retrain to a job which suits their abilities.
And even when people find jobs, they discover the pay is far, far below what is required to rent the simplest dump. They find landlords hesitant to rent to them without substantial deposits and once signed, far-too-often they find the landlord disappears or can’t be reached to effect repairs. Sometimes, moving your family to a tent under a bridge is preferable to sharing your space with vermin, roaches, and black mold.
Too many homeless are veterans whose government has turned their back on their needs. Some suffer from PTSD, VA-induced opioid addictions, alcohol addiction, and all suffer from unbridled frustration with an underfunded and politically neglected VA healthcare system.
But I promised a few ideas to help this problem. The city wants to tax larger companies on a per-head basis. $250/head is the current tax. What if companies could reduce or eliminate this tax by providing suitable housing within a few blocks of the workplace–close enough to bike or walk or take a company shuttle? What if Microsoft bought some of the apartment blocks in the area near their Redmond campus and leased them to employees AND the people in the area who support the campus? This would help house the cooks, gardeners, security staff, secretaries, janitors, restaurant wait-staff, the clerks, the “contractors” (who get paid far less than full-time employees and get no benefits) and the rest of the hourly non-employees who flood the roads every day. It was done in the past with some success.
What if the big companies created more subsidized classroom seats for vets and those who want to retrain into jobs where there are great needs. Welders, carpenters, electricians and other trades as well as high-tech? Perhaps if companies built their support call centers here in the US, we would not have to depend on centers ten or twelve time-zones away.
In other words, keeping in mind that the flood of new well-paid employees coming into Seattle has forced landlords to force out low-income residents, and new apartments and condos are priced well out of reach of the poor, large companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and others have contributed significantly to this problem. They should be more than willing to find and contribute to a solution. If they want to simply pay the city and county to solve the problem on their own, so be it, but I think that’s reprehensible. If they want to use their own resources and expertise to solve the problem, I would be more willing to invest in their stock.
No, these few ideas will not solve the entire homeless problem, but they might help. They would also free up more space and resources for rehab shelters and treatment centers and retraining facilities. It’s a start.