Backlash: West Coast Cities Lose Patience with Homelessness Crisis

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(Image: Wikimedia)

Like it or not, our compassion for the homeless is wearing thin. Our tolerance is running low. Urban progressives who once championed the much-maligned “Defund Police” mantra, have grown quieter in recent months, and a serious backlash is flaring in cities up and down the West Coast.

Enough already has become a cry as common as a newborn baby’s wail.

On Thursday it was revealed that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is set to unfurl an emergency order that will allow this mendicant-weary burb to more easily rid itself of homeless encampments from roadsides and other places thought to be dangerous to so-called “outdoor campers.” Friday he delivered with the new policy.

This comes after a Portland Transportation Bureau study showed that 70 percent of pedestrians killed in traffic crashes last year, and so far in 2022, were homeless.

If the emergency order goes through, the embattled Wheeler, who, like former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, faces relentless criticism for his tepid response to the homeless epidemic, will allow him to ban encampments across numerous corridors of Oregon’s largest city.

According to a poll conducted in early December by Portland-based opinion research firm DHM Research, 45 percent of those polled in the Portland metro area said homelessness was the biggest issue facing the region. Crime finished a distant second with 24 percent.

In 2021, those who said homelessness was a key impediment to the city stood at 32 percent. Four years prior, however, the problem of homelessness sat at 24 percent, with a mere 2 percent of those polled citing crime.

“It is likely to be the first in a series of emergency declarations that the mayor plans to issue in the coming months in an attempt to dramatically reduce street camping and connect more people with shelter and social services, two Ted Wheeler staffers with knowledge of the plans said,” the Oregonian reported.

“Limiting the locations of homeless encampments has been a longstanding goal of the mayor and is supported by most business interests and some residents. But it is unclear where people without homes would go. The city’s long-promised half dozen safe rest villages are months behind schedule. And available shelter beds are limited.”

In Seattle, meanwhile, Bruce Harrell did not become mayor because of his good looks or because of his long-ago prowess on the gridiron at the University of Washington. He was elected mayor primarily because he promised to beef up on policing and crackdown on the homeless, or at least those who refused to take advantage of city-supported shelter options.

On the day after Christmas, a homeless encampment at Green Lake was removed by city crews, who days before notified people living in RVs and tents around the lake of the planned clean-up. Angry neighbors, fed up with the trash and violence in the area, were at last able to convince the city that something needed to be done.

Weeks earlier, in December, two North Seattle homeless encampments – at the Ballard Commons and Bitter Lake – were also cleared, as dozens of desperadoes there at last came to their senses and opted to move to newly opened hotels and shelters.

The Bitter Lake compound, located, for goodness’s sake, between a playfield and a school playground, had been around for more than a year.

While all this was going down, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 2 to codify Mayor London Breed’s state of emergency declaration, which, in essence, will permit the city to go full-throttle in clearing homeless camps populated by opioid addicts from the city’s Tenderloin district – San Francisco’s version of Seattle’s Third and Union-to-Pike hellhole.

Numerous studies have shown that the vast majority of homeless individuals either suffer from mental illness or drug/alcohol abuse – or both.

Last summer, in Los Angeles, their city council passed a sweeping measure to stop dead the proliferation of homeless camps around the city. It could have huge implications for up to tens of thousands of people seeking refuge in tents and makeshift sidewalks encampments, which, as we all know, have grown rampant in Seattle.

As Los Angeles TV station KCRW reported, “The new rules target people who sit, sleep and store their belongings near building entrances, freeway underpasses, parks, homeless shelters, day care centers and other public facilities.”

In the summer of 2016, while writing long-winded features at the now-defunct Seattle Weekly, I went to Salt Lake City and spent time with a devout Mormon named Lloyd Pendleton, who almost single-handedly put an end to homelessness in Salt Lake. He did it by pushing forward a program Seattle had abandoned, inexplicably,15 years before. It was called Housing First.

I wrote: “Of the nearly 600,000 homeless people in the U.S., the vast majority, some 85 percent, spend relatively short periods of time (“the episodic homeless,” they are often called) sleeping in shelters and the like, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The remaining 15 percent are the real desperadoes—the ones who have fallen so far that night after night spent in a soggy blanket must suffice for a permanent home.

In 2005, Utah was home to 1,932 chronically homeless people. Today there are 178—a remarkable 91 percent drop statewide.

“It can be done. It’s not rocket science,” says Lloyd Pendleton. “You just need the political will.

“What Utah did was discard the old paradigm long employed by social-service agencies nationwide, which, in essence, dictates that first one needs to make the homeless “housing-ready”—meaning they should be placed in temporary crisis shelters or halfway houses and complete drug-rehabilitation treatment or mental-health counseling or both before they can expect to live permanently in their own apartment.

“This concept, sometimes called “linear residential treatment” or “continuum of care,” often fails because very few chronically homeless people ever complete the work required to become “ready.”

“If you have to worry where you’re going to be sleeping tonight, you’re not going to care about dealing with staying clean,” Pendleton explains as we pass strip malls filled with Mexican food trucks and a scatter of old, wood-peeling clapboard houses on the city’s poorer west side.

“Everyone living on the streets deserves a home, and we operate on the belief that no one should have to prove that they are ready or worthy of residing in their own place.”

I remember sending the story to Jenny Durkan, whom I’d known during her years as a trial attorney and later as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington. It was 2017, and she had just been elected, and I knew the issue of homelessness would likely occupy much of her administration’s attention.

Surely, Jenny would be interested, I thought, and I figured at the very least her press people would pass it along to her. No response. I assume she must have been very busy at the time. But certainly, no busier than Portland’s Ted Wheeler is today.

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Ellis Conklin spent decades as newspaper man, mainly in Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Louis, having worked at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, United Press International as a national feature writer, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At long last, he and his wife settled in Manzanita, Oregon. Here, Ellis continues to root for his beloved San Francisco Giants.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with first part of the article but I’m not sure the housing first is the answer. At least not the only answer. This week we had the previously homeless man living in a Plymouth housing apartment violently hit a woman in the head with a baseball bat.

    Also there’s the issue of giving free apartment to some yet others must work two jobs to afford their apartment. Also, the city still hasn’t filled the hotels purchased for the homeless. More needs to done with shoplifting, litter, drug use, drug sales, mental illness and all the antisocial behavior.

    In short, it can’t be all what can we do for the homeless. Society needs to demand and enforce minimum standards or society starts to break down.

    • I agree with enforcing minimum standards. Bringing back litter laws and not allowing individuals to disturb the peace by screaming and shouting would do a lot in my Capital Hill neighborhood.

  2. i don’t agree that everyone living on the street deserves a home. Everyone deserves a hand up, but from there it is up to the individuals to take advantage of the help and WORK at self-reliance.

  3. I see this as the Liberals last chance to be relevant in American National politics. Rampant West Coast homelessness/drug addiction/petty crime issues added to unbelievable housing prices make the rest of the Nation look at California (and the rest of the West Coast) and say…… absolutely not. The bumper stickers say it all…. Don’t California my Texas! or Don’t California my Idaho!

    Single payer healthcare also died in the California legislature this week…. and if single payer can’t work there, it isn’t going to work anywhere. Then there’s the whole Defund the Police movement that seems to have stalled without making any positive gains. Liberalism has taken heavy losses this year.

    So now several West Coast mayors…. Wheeler, London, Harrell are going “all in” on homelessness. I believe that their success or failure on this pushes the needle Left or Right in National elections. Post pandemic, the Left really needs some sort of victory. Godspeed West Coast mayors, Godspeed.

  4. It’s about time! No rules housing of the homeless just creates decaying tenements of the future while ignoring the underlying mental health and addiction problems. We need to provide some tough love helping these people get well rather than just moving the problem off the streets.

  5. So agreed. The get something for nothing -an apartment in the case of “Housing First” – only works within a conscript of the homeless person committing to a quid pro quo of learning and living life skills.

    Controversial but worth reading is “San FranSick-0” by Michael Schellenberger.
    There are so many reasons underlying and contributing to homelessness.

    To name but a few: Mental illness, drugs, the combination which contributes to crime, COVID, the burgeoning “homeless industry” competing for increasing government funding and needing to “staff up to do so,” the politicians who become dependent upon the “homeless industry” and support programs which too often don’t work or who work at cross purposes.
    And don’t forget the “Boise” decision which allows sleeping in public space unless government provides an adequate alternative.

    Oh yes, mental illness: No beds available. Western States. Not. Local beds. Local opposition to siting them. Small houses? Not the solution but more lawsuits.

    We have an intractable problem. I think it was a mistake to abandon “broken windows” I remember “Bryant Park” pre-broken windows and after that policy was implemented.Do some police violate our trust? Yes, and despite training, body cameras, more careful screening, and changes that allow for firing the “Brady list” and other bad apples, there will always be “bad cops”

    But where would we be without them? Better yet, where are we now? Defunding the police is a prescription for authoritarian leaders, like Trump, because the average man who gets up and drives by this chaos on the way to work is seething at our elected’s inability and will take out his frustration at the polls. And surprise, he won’t be voting for Democrats.

  6. Thank you, Mr. Conklin, for this excellent article. I’m re-thinking some of my opinions on the homeless situation because your regional information gathering is something I haven’t really paid attention to before.
    Keep writing, please.

  7. The war on drugs was wrong but our switch to libertarian policies on drugs has had terrible consequences for our fellow citizens and public spaces.

  8. Salt Lake City is an interesting story, in that it seems to depend on where you go and whom you talk to. I can’t quickly sort it all out from surfing the web, but it looks like the Housing First initiative that was so celebrated in 2016 had stalled by 2019. The downtown “Road Home” shelter closed partly due to drugs and crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

    Of course, there aren’t any solutions that will work if funding isn’t there – and funding isn’t going to be there if there if they aren’t working, so things can descend into finger-pointing pretty fast. It does seem like an option that needs to be evaluated with some caution, though.

    I think what “first” means, in Housing First, is that (first) we give people apartments when we know they’re drug addicts, and then (second) we hope that we can address the substance problem. Apparently there’s documented success with alcoholics. Alcohol is however a relatively inexpensive, legal drug. Maintaining a heroin habit is (I assume) more expensive, and it means you and your drug addict neighbors support dealers. If it’s methamphetamine, add to that a trend towards violent psychosis. The stories I’ve read from Salt Lake City on this point were mixed.

    • I actually live in the greater SLC area now, (but I still love and miss the PNW) so I actually see what’s going on at ground level. Yes, Salt Lake still has homeless problems and the cost of housing is becoming as high as West Coast cities. No, there is not, and never all be a mess like there currently is on 3rd Ave, Seattle in Salt Lake. Utah does a good job of targeting and arresting drug dealers who serve the homeless population. Prostitution is also illegal here… street walkers and street dealers go straight to jail.

      Salt Lake doesn’t have enough low income housing and has had trouble ramping up addiction services over the last few years. But when Salt Lake drops the hammer on street people…. and clears camps and arrests people, they have also cleared slots in treatment and have housing available. Utah will pay to fix things.

      Harrell is in a world of hurt here. Seattle isn’t going to pony up the funds for support those displaced by big sweeps and their is a very vocal minority is going to everything in their power to stop the Mayor’s plans. Big business funds a lot of Salt Lake’s efforts on homelessness, but then the Captains of Industry expect results. Salt Lake has arrested hundreds of people of a couple of days to clean up downtown in the past. Seattle isn’t going to do that, so the private money to save downtown isn’t likely to show up.

  9. Here’s an idea on how to take care of the homeless problem.
    Put all the drug addicts in a cage where they belong. Put the mentally unstable people in a healthcare facility where they can be taken care of and be safe. Give all the people who are down on their luck a place to live and help them bet a job.
    That’s my two cents.

  10. Great piece, Ellis, on an incredibly complex issue that sure sparks a lot of thoughtful talk, action and inaction. You do a good job of pulling it all together and offering hope. For that, you get my vote for Editor-in-Chief of Homeless Stories on the West Coast.

  11. Housing first will never work in Seattle. We cannot afford to house everyone who is already here. And people who are already homeless or on the brink of homelessness elsewhere move to Seattle because we are seen as a generous city with many services/programs for homeless people. Lastly, it is a good bet that some of the homeless people removed from camps in Portland will come to Washington cities.

    Salt Lake City is not comparable to us. Rents are lower, and the weather is worse, so the number of homeless people there has always been lower. And building affordable housing is also cheaper there.

    We have to start enforcing existing laws: an existing city ordinance prohibits camping in parks, and I bet there are ordinances or statutes that prohibit camping on freeway exits/entrances that could justify removing people who are camping in dangerous situations (i.e. on the side of a freeway). If Portland’s mayor can remove campers, we should be able to follow suit. And we also have to hold social service agencies providing services/housing to the homeless accountable. We are spending an extremely high amount of money to obtain services from non-profits, with mediocre results, at best.

    • I walk in Portland along the Willamette River Green Way (Garbage Way)
      Portland Mayor is – my opinion – all hat and no cattle.
      Optimistically a year plus to clear freeway and park camps.
      But Portland also announced “small houses” by the fall.
      Now spring, nothing in place.
      These things promised will not be delivered and no real accountability.
      Meanwhile, like Seattle, the “non-profit Homeless industry” will continue growing
      Both Seattle and Portland have dysfunctional City governments although with Bruce Harrell maybe Seattle has a chance?.

    • Nope, housing costs are sky high in Salt Lake as well. Same amount of metal illness and drug abuse. Salt Lake and the State of Utah just function at a much higher level on homeless issues. Seattle is stuck 20 years in the past. Also the Republicans in the State government are much more willing to help out Salt Lake than the Democrats in Seattle are to help out Seattle. Here’s some cutting edge solutions.

      https://www.deseret.com/utah/2021/3/7/22311483/salt-lakes-homeless-have-hard-time-getting-to-court-so-courts-coming-to-them-justice-court-camps

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