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Seattle isn’t dying, but KOMO’s program is hurting efforts to combat homelessness

As tensions rise over homelessness, some people decide to take justice into their own hands

Fear-mongering over homelessness can give rise to vigilante justice. Some citizens in East Pierce County have attempted to police the homeless on their own despite authorities cautioning against such an approach.
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Fear-mongering over homelessness can give rise to vigilante justice. Some citizens in East Pierce County have attempted to police the homeless on their own despite authorities cautioning against such an approach.

Something is broken. Badly broken.

I’m talking about the way we view — and increasingly the way we talk about — our regional homelessness crisis.

Two recent examples make the dangerous and growing dysfunction abundantly clear.

Each fits into a different point on the cause-and-effect continuum. Individually, they share a likeness, though there’s little question that one directly contributes to the other.

Both examples deserve to be called out for their toxicity and also for what they provide ample proof of — that our conversation about homelessness desperately needs a reboot.

The first, as you’re likely aware, is the recent “special” report from longtime KOMO news anchor Eric Johnson.

The apocalyptically titled “Seattle is Dying” is perhaps as notable for what it includes as what it does not. It’s full of menacing music, over-the-top talk of “wretched souls,” people possessed by “demons” and anonymous anecdotes from frustrated Seattle police officers who, we’re told, are itching to lock up addicts and criminal frequent flyers if only those bleeding heart politicians would let them.

What KOMO’s “documentary” does not include, as it turns out, is much in the way of context or needed perspective. Homeless service providers, city officials and people actually experiencing homelessness — save for, perhaps, the most unsympathetic man imaginable, seemingly cherry-picked to make a point — are all noticeably excluded. So, too, is any mention of some of the effective steps the city is taking.

This exclusion, we’re told, is intentional. It was an editorial decision, made to finally give a voice to fed-up residents and business owners who are sick and tired of being forced to confront homelessness, crime and addiction as if these things are wholly synonymous.

This column will not be 700 words spent taking “Seattle is Dying” to task for its many shortcomings, however. For starters, others have already done that work. When longtime homeless advocate and founding director of Real Change Tim Harris described the effort as “misery porn,” he was exactly right.

What I’m most concerned with is the lasting impact “Seattle is Dying” is likely to have on our regional conversation surrounding homelessness, and on how that conversation shapes our collective response.

While it’s too early to know for certain what the effect will be, we’ve been given a sneak peek.

The emails already have started to hit my inbox from people who’ve watched “Seattle is Dying.” One reader — frustrated by the attention I’ve paid in the past to things like housing and humanizing the problem — called the piece “spot on.”

Another reader wrote to say they were “all in” on the idea of sending people experiencing homelessness to McNeil Island, which is currently used to house sex offenders deemed too dangerous to release.

What I’m more concerned by is the receptive audience KOMO’s piece has found with people in positions of power, and what fruit it will bear.

On cue, the state Republican Party has pounced. Republican State Sen. Hanz Zeiger called the KOMO documentary “one of the very best works of journalism I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Zeiger, speaking to KOMO, believes the station’s piece has “changed the conversation in a real way.”

Then there was Tacoma City Councilwoman Lilian Hunter, who during last week’s council study session offered the following endorsement:

“If you have not had an opportunity to see it, I encourage you to do so. It’s available on YouTube, and it really speaks to the challenges of an urban city dealing with homelessness and the influence of addiction and possible remedies to that. I’ve actually seen it twice now, and I chatted with city manager, who’s also seen it twice. It’s almost mandatory viewing and done very well with what only can be a fairly objective look.”

“Fairly objective” is not the way I would describe it.

All of this brings me to the second recent example we’ve seen, providing evidence of what happens when fear-mongering and stereotypes about homelessness spill out of Facebook threads and Nextdoor posts and into real life.

As The News Tribune’s Alexis Krell and Alison Needles reported last week, folks in Puyallup and Bonney Lake have started taking matters into their own hands. They’ve accosted panhandlers and berated people in broken-down RVs, to name just two examples of a particularly misguided form of vigilante justice.

It’s cause and effect, put simply. To no great surprise, when you talk about people experiencing homelessness as less than human — even if they’re dealing with mental health issues and addiction — it adds fuel to the fire and gives angry residents permission to treat them that way.

So where do we go from here?

KOMO’s piece, for all its flaws, did tap into a frustration. While I would argue that it’s far from unheard, it’s not completely dismissible either.

People aren’t out of line to expect safety. They’re not incorrect to point out the difficulties of running a business near an unauthorized homeless encampment. They’re not cold and callous to want fewer needles on the street or responses to homelessness that succeed in getting people off the street.

It’s not wrong to want laws to be enforced, as long as the laws aren’t written against homelessness itself. Let’s keep that in mind.

At the same time, how we talk about these issues matters, and has real implications on the ground. Let’s also remember that, and craft policies accordingly. Chronic homelessness sometimes intersects with drug addiction and crime, but not everyone experiencing homelessness is a drug-addled criminal.

When the narrative centers on filth, “demons” and “wretched souls,” what can we really expect the reaction to be?

I reached out to Hunter on Monday to better understand her study session comment and why she made it. She recalled an experience she had working in Seattle, along University Avenue in the U District, and the legitimate safety concerns it posed. That’s why KOMO’s special resonated, she told me.

“If it does anything, hopefully it highlights the need to take decisive and definitive action on our opioid crisis,” she said. “I’d like to see us invest heavily in those programs, to start with.”

“The answer is not to demonize and ship people off to McNeil Island, the draconian response,” she added.

If that’s what ultimately happens from all this, then good.

If, as Zeiger believes, the conversation will be changed, and it’s changed in this way — then I’ll take it.

But please excuse me if I’m skeptical at this point, given the damage that dehumanizing homelessness can do.

Because we’re already seeing it, every day.