Are We Asking the Wrong Questions About Homeless Encampments?

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Another death took place in the Ballard Commons Tent Encampment this week. EMTs showed up to remove a body as police looked on. I’ve seen no further information yet on the person who died or the cause of death.

Recently, I walked through Ballard Commons on a trip to drop off my ballot. The Commons is a park in central Ballard that has been a tent encampment for 18 months now. As I entered the Commons that day I saw what looked like a drug transaction. Something in plastic going one way. Cash going another.

Recently I listened to author and journalist Sam Quinones on an Econ Talk podcast about his new book, The Least of Us. Since listening to that podcast and reading an Atlantic article about the same thing, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the Ballard Commons encampment.

The podcast and article are all about the new meth, which is scary as hell. According to Quinones, tent encampments are ground zero for the new meth.

What is “the new meth?” Remember when Sudafed stopped being available off the shelf and got locked up at the drugstores? That was because meth manufacturers (think Breaking Bad) used the ephedrine in products like Sudafed to make meth. But now there’s a new way to make meth without ephedrine, called P2P. The new method has transformed meth production into something that is happening on an industrial scale. This development is mainly what Quinones is talking and writing about.

It’s not just the method and quantity of production that have changed. It is the effect the new meth has on users. The old meth was sort of a party drug. It made a person happy, outgoing, talkative. Over time, six or seven years, it ravaged a person’s health. But it was fun to begin with, and the destruction was gradual. You could be a meth user and still lead a sort of normal life.

Not the new meth, which drives people into their own heads where they experience something that is a lot more like a serious mental illness, instantly. Paranoia, hearing voices, losing capacity for coherent speech, hallucinations, conspiratorial thinking — are all effects of the new meth. And tent encampments, it turns out, are the perfect setting. Here’s Quinones:

“Tents themselves seem to play a role in this phenomenon. Tents protect many homeless people from the elements. But tents and the new meth seem made for each other. With a tent, the user can retreat not just mentally from the world but physically. Encampments provide a community for users, creating the kinds of environmental cues that the USC psychologist Wendy Wood finds crucial in forming and maintaining habits. They are often places where addicts flee from treatment, where they can find approval for their meth use.”

If what Quinones writes about the new meth is true, and he’s a veteran and respected journalist, our debate over tent encampments may be missing the point. It’s not just about whether unauthorized encampments are a bad but unavoidable response to high housing costs and widespread homelessness. They begin to sound less like homeless encampments and more like death camps. Death camps in plain sight. Camps about which most of us are clueless and about which little, if anything, is being done.

Quinones book, which I’ve not read, has a subtitle, True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. So far his reporting hasn’t, I gotta say, given me a lot of hope. But it has made me wonder if we’re asking the wrong questions about homeless encampments and what is going on with them. It is axiomatic that before you are able to address a problem you have to correctly diagnose what the problem is. It may be that the problem, at least in the encampments, isn’t simply homelessness but a new, very dangerous, and hard to treat form of addiction.

But, according to Quinones, people are reluctant to talk about the new meth.

“Remarkably, meth rarely comes up in city discussions [in Los Angeles] on homelessness, or in newspaper articles about it. Mitchell called it ‘the elephant in the room’—nobody wants to talk about it, he said. ‘There’s a desire not to stigmatize the homeless as drug users.’ Policy makers and advocates instead prefer to focus on L.A.’s cost of housing, which is very high but hardly relevant to people rendered psychotic and unemployable by methamphetamine.”

Is there a similar disconnect here in Seattle?

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

9 COMMENTS

  1. What you saw in Ballard I see frequently in downtown Seattle, where I live and work. Lately when I walk around downtown on errands I almost always see one or two people (most often white males who look to be between 20 and 50) furtively applying a flame under a crumpled piece of aluminum foil and holding it up to their face. Sometimes a pipe device is involved. Less common than the aluminum foil and flame behavior is open intravenous use, usually by someone hunched over in a shuttered doorfront. I never see police walking around downtown anymore. This urban scene is a horrible dystopia that is all too real, not out of some dark, depressing movie. After reading Quinones article in Atlantic, I suspect I am witnessing evidence of this terrifying new meth pandemic. It also undermines the notion – which increasingly seems dated and naive – that the way to fix our homeless problem is raise taxes and provide the homeless free housing. Another scary thing about Quinones reporting is that this new meth is a much harder addiction to kick. Seattle has a huge and growing problem on our hands and I’m not confident our political leaders and police recognize it.

  2. If, as a city, you condone the use of drugs, the results are where we are. The drug way of life isn’t pretty, nor fun eventually …………..

  3. Don’t confuse correlation with causation. Many of Seattle’s homeless have serious substance abuse issues. But the data has shown for years that the vast majority of them become homeless and then develop substance abuse issues as they try to cope with the trauma of being homeless, not the reverse. I’m sure there are some who develop substance abuse issues and then become homeless, but that is not what is predominantly happening. It’s easy to have less sympathy for the homeless in our communities when we can tell ourselves that it’s their own fault for having a drug problem, but the reality is that most people become homeless for economic reasons: losing a job, rent increases, a major medical expense, divorce, LGBTQ youth kicked out of the house by disapproving parents.

    Here are the effective things that really help the homeless people who have drug issues: police crackdowns on the drug rings that prey on homeless people; interventions that intercept people just as they become homeless before they start spending time on the street and are exposed to the drugs; substance abuse treatment facilities, of which we don’t have nearly enough; and permanent supportive housing for the people who will need years to recover from the effects of living on the street and chronic drug use.

    I don’t doubt that the “new meth” is changing things out there, and it may be that over the next year the data changes to show that housed people are developing drug addiction issues with the “new meth” that lead to homelessness, but let’s not get ahead of the data. On the flip side, the lifting of the eviction moratoriums will almost certainly lead to an increase in evictions — and homelessness — that could drown out the number of people becoming homeless because of their drug addiction.

    • Great comments BUT solution light.
      What you are implying is that we can save the people that are just homeless because of setbacks if we get to them early, before they turn to drugs to make their issues more palatable . Maybe so, but many of the renters that our about to be evicted have gamed the system and will be facing the consequences. Life is not easy except in Utopia………..
      Trying to build “Permanent Supporting Housing” is an impossible endeavor. Building a facility that houses is doable – but an apartment or tiny house with facilities is equivalent to hospital care financially.

  4. “Is there a similar disconnect here in Seattle”, you ask. Oh HELL yes. And those of us who have pushed back on the City enablers and the Homeless Industrial Complex narrative have been demonized for daring to speak of the obvious. Encampments ARE filled with drug users. People become homeless because of their addictions and/or mental illnesses (and self medicating for those illnesses), because they cannot hold a job. Far fewer are those homeless because the rent is too damn high (although it is).

    Maybe, perhaps, with the outcome of this election, we can turn a corner and address reality. Maybe, perhaps, we can discover that while criminalizing drugs didn’t end drug use, enabling drug use is detrimental to society. Maybe, perhaps, we could quit pretending that these drug addicts are not dangerous and treat them and their addictions as the dangerous problem it is.

  5. It seems to me encampments are a bad scene regardless, for another simple practical reason. After the 2016 Jungle debacle, part of the case against encampment clearances was that they were sloppy – poorly publicized to residents, deprived residents of their meager belongings, etc. But that unfortunately is guaranteed – an encampment by its very nature will defeat any attempt at orderly removal – and we must have the ability to remove camps where they’re a problem. So this may seem kind of circular, but the only way to avoid disorderly, damaging sweeps, is to keep encampments from forming in the first place. Once they become established, they are an unmanageable problem that ultimately harms the residents.

  6. I guess I must have read a different article in The Atlantic. The one I read made it clear that the “new” meth has been around for over a decade. In Seattle, and probably elsewhere, P2P has been slang for meth among gay men for several years.

    Which is not to say I disagree that it’s a huge problem. But it’s a huge problem that has been around for a long time–you’ve just begun to notice it.

    It says a lot that you live in Seattle, yet are getting your news about Seattle’s homeless problem from The Atlantic.

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