In the past decade, the city of Seattle, located north of the American West Coast, has become mired in housing and homelessness crises from which it is struggling to extricate itself. A question of rapid growth and too slow adaptation, but also a case study for a city like Montreal. Second and last aspect under the magnifying glass of the To have to : homelessness.
Every week, street workers John Kapshaw and Meaghen Grant cruise the streets of Seattle in their red pickup truck. They provide support and basic necessities to homeless people across the city. These services are in high demand, as for the past 10 years Seattle has been hit by one of the most significant homelessness crises in the United States.
These two understand the reality of the people they are trying to help: John, a fifty-year-old from New York, has been immersed and re-immersed in homelessness for more than thirty years. Meaghen, meanwhile, was thrown into addiction during the opioid crisis when she was 19: “I lost everything: my house, my job, my car, everything,” she says. . Today, sober and housed, they are employed by the Union Gospel Mission, a Christian organization dedicated to providing support to homeless people.
“I was on the streets during the crack epidemic of the 1990s, and it was bad, but it was nothing compared to what we see today,” says John. There’s a level of desperation in people that I’ve never seen before. »
John and Meaghen stop their van in front of an industrial park where three trailers are parked. Makeshift camps like this dot the city by the hundreds, with some housing up to 100 people. They try to speak to one of the residents of the trailers to warn him: the City will come to evacuate their camp in two days. They have to leave if they don’t want their belongings 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 last decade, the homelessness crisis has radically transformed the landscape of Seattle. Between 2010 and 2020, the homeless population there jumped by 30.2%, earning it third place in the ranking of American cities.
This crisis does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it takes place against the backdrop of a housing crisis that afflicts 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 hardly afford to live there. This crisis affects the less well-off all the more: in 2020, households living below the poverty line in Seattle spent nearly 60% of their income on rent.
In King County, which encompasses the largest city in Washington state, an estimated 13,368 people will be homeless in 2022, according to a biannual census. However, this number would be even higher. According to another approach, 40,800 people are in fact homeless there.
Long term solutions
“People are frustrated to see people sleeping and living in their parks, on their street corners, and in front of their workplaces,” says Gregg Colburn, a researcher at the University of Washington and co-author of Homelessness Is a Housing Problem.
In a 2020 statewide poll, voters named homelessness the top priority for the local legislature, ahead of issues like the economy, environment and health.
Mr. Colburn explains that this frustration is pushing Seattle residents to approve of increasingly severe measures to avoid seeing daily misery. This is how, among other things, the city finds itself experiencing more evacuations. However, “it only moves the problem from one place to another, without dealing with it,” he laments.
To stem the homelessness crisis, emphasizes the researcher, it must be considered first and foremost as a housing problem. According to him, the lasting solution in Seattle would be the construction of affordable housing in sufficient numbers to accommodate the homeless population of the city. The scientific literature is also clear: the so-called “Housing First” model, which consists of placing homeless people in permanent housing before offering them the support they need, is the best practice for curbing the crisis. When such a program is put in place, the vast majority of people succeed in keeping their housing.
But with the shortage of affordable housing, it is 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 accommodation we need,” laments Gregg Colburn.
In the absence of short-term solutions, the subject continues to divide. Homelessness acts as a vector for a new form of reactionary politics […] who wants it to be the result of individual failure,” says journalist Will James, who has long covered homelessness in Washington state for KNKX radio. He notes that people who call themselves moderate, but who feel uncomfortable with the omnipresence of this reality, “feel abandoned by the left, and this pushes them towards right-wing policies”.
Ari Hoffman, KVI radio host and deputy editor of the conservative media The Post Millennial, is one of the mouthpieces of this rhetoric. Like many right-wing commentators, the polemicist believes homelessness is first and foremost a problem of drugs, not housing. “People who use drugs and are on the streets are dangers to themselves, putting 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 crisis gripping Seattle. “If you think it’s a drug problem, you need to explain to me why we don’t have a homelessness crisis in Appalachia or Arkansas, where the opioid epidemic has torn apart entire communities,” 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 advocates for the interests of homeless people in within various organizations. “On the street, it is much easier to find drugs to forget about your problems than to solve them concretely. Indeed, 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 was on the street, I would self-medicate too,” adds Colburn.
“Most people on the streets don’t want to be there, but often they don’t know how to get out of it or don’t believe they’re worth it,” Meaghen said, driving his van. Sitting to his left, John agrees. “Too often, our society has rejected people, whether because of their actions or their mental illness. According to the worker, it doesn’t matter whether a homeless person uses drugs or has committed crimes: “Everyone must have a chance to get out of it,” he concludes.