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Homelessness Crisis Worsens in Seattle Despite Welfare Policies

Skid Row, indigentes, Los Angeles

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The homelessness crisis is nothing new, but it is still surprising how it continues to advance mercilessly throughout Washington State, especially in Seattle. In addition, large cities across the country are not immune to what has become a structural problem. The most curious thing is that in all the states where the number of homeless people continues to grow steadily, there is a common denominator: welfare policies, far from helping, are worsening a situation that needs efficient solutions as soon as possible.

A structual issue

According to the annual Congressional report, Washington state had one of the largest estimated increases in homelessness in the country between 2019 and 2020. According to the figures, overall homelessness across the U.S. grew by more than 2 percent in that period, but Washington had an overall increase of 6.2 percent, ranking it as the third largest increase in homelessness among the 50 states.

“The report also showed that Washington was far from alone in grappling with one of the most devastating and difficult kinds of homelessness to alleviate: chronic homelessness, defined as frequent or extended bouts of homelessness experienced by people with a disability,” The Seattle Times explained. This means that people who suffer from “chronic homelessness” are likely to be victims of mental health or addiction issues that prevent them from “remaining in housing without intense treatment or other supports.”

According to the report’s data, across the United States, 15% more “chronically homeless people” were counted in 2019-20, creating an even greater structural problem.

There is more data that is discouraging in relation to Washington and its large cities like Seattle. Washington saw a 20% increase in family homelessness between 2019 and 2020, ranking it at the top nationally. Moreover, Seattle and King County, for the seventh year in a row, ranked third nationwide in overall homeless population in major urban areas.

It’s becoming common to see homeless families living camped out in parks or in vehicles.

But don’t get carried away with the pre-established narrative that the homelessness crisis is only in urban areas as a result of the high cost of living driven by big companies like Microsoft, an issue that is replicated in San Francisco. The problem is much more complex and, in fact, the homeless crisis is transcending the urban and is already being felt in rural areas.

“But in a telling finding, Washington’s urban areas weren’t the only parts of the state that saw high numbers of chronic homelessness. Washington’s rural areas ranked as having the country’s largest number of people experiencing chronic homelessness among rural communities,” The Seattle Times reported.

Flawed analysis impedes effective response

What is causing the indigence crisis to deteriorate even further? Precisely one of the problems is that the diagnosis is inaccurate and the solutions are generating harmful results.

For example, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office produced a report explaining several of the “root causes” of the homeless crisis.

While the mayor’s office outlined some logical and true points, such as addiction and poverty issues, or demographic changes, state officials also claimed that one of the reasons exacerbating the homelessness crisis is “racial disparities.” This is not a palpable reality and does a disservice by diverting attention from the key point of the issue.

“People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately people of color. The systemic problems of racial inequality and the policies that drive that inequality are woven throughout our city,” explained the report from Durkan’s office. “These disparities continue to show up in many ways – educational attainment, life expectancy and access to health care, access to affordable housing, and access to job training for family-wage jobs- and are key indicators in determining success in Seattle. Of the 21, 500 applications for SHA’s 2017 Housing Choice Voucher program, more than 35% came from people of color.”

The narrative of racial problems with the homelessness crisis is not only factually wrong, but counterproductive, because it diverts attention from what is most important: most homeless people can return to work and need a second chance; which grants a window to constitute more effective policies.

Moreover, the issue of race disparity is easily countered with data: of the 11,751 homeless people in Seattle King, white people represent 48% of the total number, African Americans 25%, Asians 2%, Native Americans 15%, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders 4%, and multiracial 6%.

Políticas asistencialistas fracasadas
A homeless man sleeps in front of the IRS headquarters in Washington, DC. (Image: EFE).

Welfare policies failed

There is a very interesting article entitled “Helping the homeless: lessons from welfare reform”, written by Peter Cove and published in The Hill, dating from 2019. There you read several of the lessons that authorities in every state should learn to combat the homelessness crisis.

Cove starts by pointing out that “Welfare reduction has been perhaps America’s single most successful domestic public policy. Ten years after the welfare reform bill of 1996, 60 percent of the national caseload was reduced. The reason: “work first” programs and work requirements to maintain benefits. Previously, welfare rolls had been increasing, decade after decade, but this policy change reversed the trend and reduced by millions those dependent on public assistance.”

Indeed, what the piece explains is that, a vast majority of the homeless are people perfectly capable of reintegrating into society through second chance employment and housing.

Today, the number of homeless people is growing steadily despite the fact that public spending to reduce homelessness continues to increase. According to Cove’s piece, “Between 2017 and 2018, homelessness increased nationally by 0.3% or 1,834 people. But 67% of people experiencing homelessness can be found in the ten states with the highest number of homeless people,” this according to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NATEH).

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cove explains, homelessness increased by 12% and 16%, respectively, and welfare policies, hand in hand with increased public spending, had an inverse effect on homelessness.

In a very interesting documentary by Christopher F. Rufo, “Chaos by the Bay”, the author explains some of the failed policies in San Francisco regarding homelessness. According to the video, the city has more than 18,000 homeless, including 4,000 suffering from mental illness and addictions, all despite the fact that the city spends about $1 billion annually on this population.

In San Francisco, just to get an idea, the addiction problem is so bad that overdoses killed more people than COVID-19 in 2020. The funny thing about all this, is that many overdose deaths occurred in low-income apartment buildings and city-funded hotel rooms, according to information from the San Francisco Chronicle. One more episode of “Aid that kills,” by the state.

The situation is not much different in Seattle, as over the past five years, its metropolitan area has suffered from indiscriminate increases in homelessness, crime and addiction.

In 2017 alone, Seattle King County’s social services agency, All Home, found 11,643 people sleeping in tents, cars and emergency shelters.

According to City Journal, in addition, property crime grew at a rate two-and-a-half times that of Los Angeles and four times that of New York.

So what did the city of Seattle do? It spent more than $1 billion a year combating the homelessness crisis. As Cove explained in his column, “that’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County.”

Jobs, jobs and more jobs: the policy that must be implemented.

Welfare policies have failed in New York, California, Washington (Seattle) and most of the rest of the country. However, “housing first,” which has been among the least funded policies, has had clearer success.

“Studies in Denver, Boston, Seattle and Utah show significant reductions in homelessness, as much as 72% in some cases. In New York City, each person housed in the (housing first) program saves taxpayers $10,000 a year. However, continued reliance on social services, transitional housing and shelters account for the majority of public money spent,” Cove explained.

This is not a minor point, the problem is not the policies that are generated from the state, the problem is that most of them are dysfunctional, costly and make the situation worse. And the good ones barely attract attention.

If to a policy such as housing firts, where the homeless are taken to housing, a “work first” policy is added, where the homeless are given a job, a second chance, the problem could improve in the long term and not worsen like the current crisis.

Of course, it is not a magic solution and, in fact, there are many factors to take into account: such as which homeless can be reintegrated and which need psychological help. But, for all that, there is one encouraging statistic: approximately 75% of the country’s homeless do not suffer from serious mental illness.

This is a good number to work with and attack this great crisis of homelessness that has systematically advanced due to the inefficiency of welfare policies.

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