KOMO’s recent one-hour special, “Seattle is Dying,” has sparked heated conversations about homelessness in our city. In the piece, reporter Eric Johnson claims Seattle is experiencing a homelessness crisis. We agree, and we’re glad our community is outraged. We are too. He shines a spotlight on substance use and argues we must do more to help people struggling with addiction. We also agree. But he wrongly equates homelessness with criminality and addiction and points to the criminal justice system as the solution. We disagree. Jail is not the answer to this crisis—and it does nothing to address the pipeline of homelessness.
While “Seattle is Dying” is presented as a news documentary, it is actually one person’s account of the homelessness crisis and his opinion about the solutions. Jonhson’s reporting lacks context, fails to address root causes—such as racism, poverty, and lack of affordable housing—and ignores effective local solutions. Instead, it reinforces negative stereotypes and makes false claims. While we welcome conversations about ending homelessness in our community, we are disappointed to see misconceptions presented as facts and punishment masked as compassion.
Here are a few things that stood out to YouthCare:
- FALSE: Everyone living on the streets is addicted to drugs or alcohol: According to King County’s 2018 Point in Time County, 35% of survey respondents reported drug and alcohol use as a “health or disabling condition.”
- FALSE: People become homeless because of addiction: The number one reason why people reported experiencing homelessness was because of the loss of a job (25%). While drug and alcohol use was also high (21%), other reported causes included eviction (11%), medical problems (9%), and mental health (9%).
- FALSE: Crime in Seattle is at an all-time high: In 1985, there were 1,317 reported violent crimes and 11,426 property crimes in Seattle. In 2017, the violent crime rate had dropped to 633 and property crime had dropped to 5,259.
- FALSE: People experiencing homelessness come to Seattle because of our free services (aka Free-attle): 83% of respondents reported living in Seattle/King County immediately prior to loss of housing and approximately 95% of survey respondents reported living in Washington at the time of their housing loss. Those experiencing homelessness are our neighbors.
Mental health conditions or addiction can be the causes of homelessness, but they can also be the result of the sheer physical and mental trauma of living outside. We absolutely believe we need solutions to address these crises. But solutions can be found in services and treatment, not incarceration—prison should not be a prerequisite for getting help. Even if people get medical help or drug treatment, they still face the stark reality of what truly fuels homelessness: rents are skyrocketing and wages have not kept pace with the cost of living.
At its best, media can educate and breakdown stereotypes. At its worst, it can affirm them. At YouthCare, we come across these misconceptions often: homeless youth are “drug addicts,” “lazy”, or are just “bad apples.” The reality is that young people experiencing homelessness are incredibly resilient and full of potential. Most have endured significant trauma, yet get up every day determined to reach their goals. Almost 50% of homeless adults in our community experience homelessness for the first time before the age of 25. Helping young people move ahead is our most effective—and humane—strategy to prevent and end adult homelessness.
To end this crisis, we need investments in housing so people don’t have to live on the street. We need resources for drug and mental health treatment. We need education and employment training so people can earn a living wage and maintain their housing over time. And we need to address root causes and dismantle systemic barriers so we can stop homelessness before it starts.
In the meantime, YouthCare will continue to do what we do best: helping young people move ahead and achieve their potential. We will continue in our advocacy to push for social justice and racial equity. And we’ll continue to work to dispel stereotypes about those who are experiencing homelessness in our community.