Homelessness, Nadine, and Worldview
Homelessness. The perceived solution depends on one's worldview Are the homeless mostly mentally-ill or drug addicted people attracted to our fair city from elsewhere, people lacking the ambition to straighten up their lives? Or are the homeless mostly local folks who have fallen through the economic cracks, people who found themselves unable to keep up with rising rents while working minimum wage jobs and one day found themselves on the street?
Nadine Woodward, candidate for mayor of Spokane, has tried to implant her view of the homeless in the public mind since she first announced her candidacy: Be fearful! Those homeless people are scary. They're "80%" mentally ill and/or drug addicted. [She frames drug addiction as cause, not effect. You're homeless because you are addicted rather than you became addicted because you became homeless and hopeless, and sought refuge.] Ms. Woodward wants to deal with them sternly: If we don't, they'll take over the city and we'll become just like the Seattle [selectively] depicted in "Seattle is Dying," [the brazenly slanted political video she posted on Facebook]; if we don't clear them out we'll have to abandon downtown to them! It is a great tactic: selectively video and present the craziest ones (of course there are some glaring examples) and then suggest those folk are representative of all the Spokane homeless.
Nadine's "solutions": move the police station, build a bigger jail, force these people into rehab [but she steadfastly claims she will do all this with no new revenue].
Even as staunch a conservative Republican as Stacey Cowles rejects Nadine's framing (although he carefully avoids mentioning her by name). As the only member of the Spokesman Reivew's Editorial Board, Mr. Cowles has published two pieces that contradict her, one on the myths of homelessness and the other on the "Curing Spokane" video, a production of a local developer, Larry Stone, a video Shawn Vestal writes: "...should be reported as a contribution to the Nadine Woodward campaign." Of course, it remains to be seen if Mr. Cowles can bring himself to endorse Ben Stuckart for mayor, Ben Stuckart, a man who is actively chipping away at the issue of homelessness as the City Council President.
What of the other view, the view supported by the actual data on Spokane homelessness, the idea that a majority of the homeless are local economic and social refugees, people lacking an affordable place to live, seeking refuge from domestic abuse, some of them managing to keep working at low wage jobs while living without secure shelter? Those facts don't make dramatic video--and the complex solutions for their plight don't lend themselves to 30 second soundbites: affordable housing, shelters, streamlined connections to services offering people a leg up on reorganizing their lives.
Homelessness is a longstanding national issue, always present, but varying in its visibility and the scariness and "otherness" with which it is depicted. One's reaction to it is molded to some people's political advantage. Do we take an Old Testament style punishment-centered view of the issue or a New Testament view--and offer a helping hand?
The following article entitled "Living on the Streets" is a (mostly) clear-eyed look at the issue of homelessness, an issue that four candidates for municipal office in the City of Spokane (Woodward, Cathcart, Wendle, and Rathbun) and a group of wealthy real estate magnates are trying to leverage for partisan advantage.
The article appeared on August 4 in The Week, a sober weekly print and internet magazine. (The bold is mine.)
Living on the Streets
West Coast cities have booming economies but neighborhoods that are filled with homeless people. Why? Here's everything you need to know:
How bad is it? A tragic paradox is on display in Los Angeles and San Francisco: Their economies are vibrant, and legions of wealthy young professionals spend small fortunes on food, cars, and other consumer goods. Yet in some neighborhoods, people live as if in Third World slums. In L.A., tent cities line freeway underpasses, armies of rats stoke fears of disease, and thousands of homeless people share a dozen toilets. In San Francisco, drug needles and garbage line the streets, and the city employs four full-time workers to sweep up feces. Throughout the nation, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the homeless population has been relatively stable in recent years, with about 550,000 Americans living without homes. California accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. population but a quarter of its homeless, and it's getting worse: Los Angeles County's homeless population jumped 12 percent this year, to nearly 59,000, while San Francisco's homeless count grew 17 percent over the past two years, to about 8,000 — nearly 1 percent of the city's population.
What's driving the problem? Homelessness is a complex phenomenon with many causes, including mental illness and drug addiction. But the primary factor in California is the skyrocketing cost of housing. Over the past six years in L.A., the median household income grew 23 percent, while the median rent increased 67 percent. An Angeleno must earn $47.52 an hour — more than triple the minimum wage — to afford the average monthly rent of $2,471. As a result, one-third of renters qualify as "severely rent burdened," meaning they spend at least half of their income on housing. In those circumstances, an unexpected cost or job loss can quickly result in people failing to pay the rent and landing on the street. For every 2 percent increase in L.A. rent, 4,227 people are likely to become homeless, according to the real estate database Zillow. In Oakland, one of the Bay Area's most rapidly gentrifying cities, homelessness has exploded by 47 percent since 2017. Across the bridge in San Francisco, the median one-bedroom apartment now rents for $3,690 per month.
Are there other factors? The cities' temperate climates make it possible for people to live outdoors. Spending nights on the street can be nearly impossible during New York City's cold winters, which helps explain why just 5 percent of the city's homeless population is unsheltered. (The Big Apple houses more than 61,000 people every night in about 745 shelters.) Seventy-five percent of L.A.'s homeless are unsheltered, as are about 70 percent in San Francisco. San Francisco recently designated a city-owned parking lot for people living out of vans and RVs, allowing them to stay in this "triage lot" for up to 90 days. In 2007, Los Angeles officials agreed to stop enforcing an ordinance banning sleeping on the sidewalk. That allows as many as 10,000 people to live in the 50-block district known as Skid Row, a dystopian encampment where assaults and robberies run rampant.
What is the impact of drug use? Drug abuse can be either a cause or a consequence of homelessness. Some people lose jobs and homes because of addiction, while others land on the street first and become drug abusers to blot out the shame and misery of their lives. That's why dealers brazenly target homeless encampments. In Seattle, city officials say that the majority of homeless people are hooked on opioids. Among the unsheltered, 80 percent are believed to have a substance-abuse disorder. In Los Angeles, some homeless people smoke crystal meth to stay awake at night so they can fend off thieves and assailants. [This 80 percent is a pseudo-statistic from an unidentified source, an impression presented as a statistic, the same number Nadine Woodward persistently quotes.] San Francisco employs a crew to pick up used syringes 12 hours a day, collecting more than 140,000 in the past year.
What can be done? Municipalities already are spending a lot of money on the problem. Private and public organizations in the Seattle metro area spend $1 billion each year fighting homelessness — nearly $88,000 for every homeless person. Last year Los Angeles spent $619 million to bring 20,000 people off the streets, largely thanks to a sales tax passed in 2017. A year earlier, L.A. voters overwhelmingly approved raising property taxes to generate $1.2 billion for 10,000 new housing units. Willingness to spend, however, is half the battle. Building low-income housing always generates powerful "not in my backyard" opposition among existing homeowners, who fear it will hurt their property values. But without many more affordable apartments, homelessness can't be reduced. "Housing is an inescapable, unavoidable part of the solution," said University of California, San Francisco professor Dr. Margot Kushel, one of the nation's top experts on homelessness. She says that is no less true for people with substance abuse or mental health problems. "It makes treatment so, so, so difficult — bordering on impossible — if people are living on the street."
The era of 'hostile architecture' Business owners in Los Angeles are adopting aggressive tactics to keep the homeless away from camping out near their front doors. Some are putting large arrays of cactus plants, thorny rosebushes, and even metal spikes on the sidewalks. Peter Mozgo, operator of downtown L.A.'s Hungarian Cultural Alliance, says dozens of homeless people began congregating outside his building, which happens to be next to a food bank. Potential clients would tell him, "I'm sorry, I really like your place, but the street is unacceptable." So, without bothering to get a permit, Mozgo bought 140 large planter boxes, filled them with dirt, and arranged them around his building to prevent people from sleeping on the sidewalk. In cities plagued by street dwellers, "hostile architecture" is increasingly used to drive the homeless away: benches with extra armrests to prevent lying down, boulders placed under bridges, grates raised off the ground. Chris Homandberg, an activist for the homeless in L.A., says getting people "out of sight" does nothing to fix the problem. He cites a sidewalk outside a Catholic church where someone planted a thorny bush. "There's some metaphor there about a crown of thorns," he said.
Keep to the high ground,