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Located north of America’s West Coast, Seattle has been mired in housing and homelessness crises for the past decade, from which it is struggling to emerge. A matter of growing fast and adapting too slowly, but also a case study for a city like Montreal. Second and last aspect under the magnifying glass of Le Devoir: homelessness.
Every week, street workers John Kapshaw and Meaghen Grant drive through the streets of Seattle in their red pickup truck. They provide support and basic needs to homeless people across the city. These services are in high demand as Seattle has been hit by one of the largest homeless crises in the United States in the past 10 years.
These two understand the reality of the people they are trying to help: John, a fifty-year-old from New York, has been mired in on-off homelessness for more than thirty years. Meaghen, on the other hand, became addicted when she was 19 during the opioid crisis: “I lost everything: my house, my job, my car, everything,” she says. Today, sober and housed, they are employed by Union Gospel Mission, a Christian organization dedicated to helping the homeless.
“I was on the streets during the crack epidemic in the 1990s and it was bad, but it was nothing compared to what we’re seeing today,” says John. There’s a level of despair in the people that I’ve never seen before. »
John and Meaghen pull up in their van in front of an industrial park where three trailers are parked. Makeshift camps like this are scattered around the city by the hundreds, with some housing as many as 100 people. They try to talk to one of the residents of the trailers to warn him: the city will come to clear their camp in two days. They have to leave if they don’t want their things thrown away.
Evacuations like this have become commonplace in Seattle. This approach is nothing new, but since taking office in 2022, Mayor Bruce Harrell, a Democrat, has picked up the pace. The exact number of evacuations ordered by the city is not public, but John and Meaghen’s calendar shows one almost every day.
In the past decade, the homeless crisis has radically changed the landscape of Seattle. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of homeless people there increased by 30.2%, ranking third in the ranking of American cities.
This crisis does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it takes place against the background of a real estate crisis that is affecting all major cities on the American west coast. With Seattle’s real estate market exploding in value over the past 10 years, even middle-income households can barely afford to live there. This crisis hits the less affluent even harder: in 2020, households living below the poverty line in Seattle spent almost 60% of their income on rent.
In King County, which includes the largest city in Washington state, an estimated 13,368 people will be homeless, according to a biannual 2022 census. However, that number would be even higher. According to another approach, 40,800 people are actually homeless there.
“People get frustrated when they see how people sleep and live in their parks, on their street corners, and in front of their workplaces,” says University of Washington researcher Gregg Colburn, co-author of Homelessness Is a Housing Problem.
In a 2020 statewide poll, voters named homelessness the top priority for local lawmakers, ahead of issues like the economy, environment and health.
Mr. Colburn explains that this frustration is pushing Seattle residents to accept increasingly stringent measures to avoid everyday misery. Among other things, the city is experiencing more evacuations. However, “it just shifts the problem from one place to another without addressing it,” he laments.
In order to contain the homelessness crisis, the researcher emphasizes, it must first and foremost be viewed as a housing problem. In his opinion, the lasting solution in Seattle would be to build affordable housing in sufficient numbers to accommodate the city’s homeless population. The academic literature is also clear: the so-called “Housing First” model, which consists of placing homeless people in permanent shelter before offering them the support they need, is the best practice to contain the crisis. When such a program is put in place, the vast majority of people manage to keep their homes.
But given the lack of affordable housing, it’s impossible to practice the Housing First model on a large scale in the Emerald City. “The problem is that we know the right intervention, but we don’t have the shelter that we need,” laments Gregg Colburn.
In the absence of short-term solutions, the issue continues to split. Homelessness functions as a vector for a new form of reactionary politics […] who would want it to be the result of individual failure,” says journalist Will James, a longtime journalist covering homelessness in Washington state for KNKX Radio. He notes that people who describe themselves as moderate but are uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of that reality “feel betrayed by the left, and this pushes them toward right-wing politics.”
Ari Hoffman, anchorman at KVI radio and deputy editor of the conservative newspaper The Post Millennial, is one of the speakers of this rhetoric. Like many right-wing commentators, the polemicist believes homelessness is primarily a drug problem, not a housing problem. “People who use drugs and are on the street are a danger to themselves, building a roof over their heads is not enough to solve the problem,” he says.
Although drug addiction and mental health issues have been shown to increase the risk of homelessness, these factors are not enough to explain the Seattle crisis. “If you think it’s a drug problem, you have to explain to me why we don’t have a homelessness crisis in Appalachia or Arkansas, where the opioid epidemic has torn whole communities apart,” argues researcher Gregg Colburn.
“When you live outside, you’re scared, you’re hungry and you’re ignored every day,” says Dee Powers, who lived homeless for six years and now works with various homeless organizations. “On the street it is much easier to find medicine to forget about your problems than to solve them concretely. In fact, it has been shown that drug addiction is often a consequence and not a cause of homelessness.
“I often tell my students that if I were on the street, I would treat myself,” adds Colburn.
“Most people on the street don’t want to be there, but often they don’t know how to get out of there or don’t think they’re worth it,” said Meaghen, who drove his van. John sits to his left and agrees. “Too often our society has rejected people, whether because of their actions or because of their mental illness. According to the social worker, it doesn’t matter whether a homeless person has consumed drugs or committed crimes: “Everyone has to have a chance to get out of it,” he concludes.
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The city of Seattle is gripped by one of the largest homeless crises in the United States
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