The “Wicked Problem”: An Accounting of Seattle’s Long Battle with Homelessness


Ever notice how many of Seattle’s story tellers came from elsewhere? Even Murray Morgan, author of Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, hailed from Tacoma. Others came from farther afield: History Link’s Walt Crowley from Michigan; Betty MacDonald (Onions in the Stew) from Colorado and Maria Semple (Where Did You Go, Bernadette?) from California. 

Joining the non-native authors (me included) is Virginia-born Josephine Ensign, a University of Washington professor of nursing, who learned to know Seattle from reading Morgan’s Skid Road and even borrowed his title phrase for her 2021 book, Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homeless.

In her book tracing Seattle’s long history of homelessness, Professor Ensign tells us about Seattle’s first encounter with what she terms the “wicked problem.” In December 1854 — early in the town’s history, town dwellers encountered Edward Moore, a half-frozen tent dweller. They carried the poor, insane sailor from Massachusetts along the frozen, muddy beach to the town’s one rooming house. While unwrapping rags covering Moore’s feet, they found severe frostbite. Town founder Doc Maynard amputated most of his toes with an ax. Maynard and his second wife Catherine nursed the city’s poor soul back to physical health.

After recovery, Seattle leaders transferred Moore to Steilacoom to be cared for by a Dr. Matthew Burns, who kept the demented man shackled. In 1855, King County commissioners submitted a report to the Washington territorial legislature requesting reimbursement for caring for “a lunatic pauper named Edward Moore.” The bill was for $1,659 for the 12 months after he was found on the beach. 

Since that was more than the territory could pay, the legislators sent the problem back to King County. In 1856, the county commissioners decided Moore, now back in Seattle, should be sold to the lowest bidder for his maintenance. But no one wanted to care for Moore, so later that summer Seattle residents collected donations. They bought Moore new clothes and paid a ship’s captain to transport him back to Boston where he had family. In May, 1859, Seattle’s first homeless person died a suicide.

Ensign uses Moore’s story to introduce her tales of homelessness in Seattle. Written from her perspective of 30 years working with homeless youth and adults, Ensign unearths long overlooked stories of lives, history, and law touching homelessness. Each of her meaty chapters begins with a description of the urban atmosphere of a different era, events that shaped the nation like the Homestead Law of 1862 and the criminalization of poverty. 

One chapter revisits the life and times of Kikisoblu, known as Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. She was living in an area known in the 1890s as Shantytown. Residents of Shantytown on the downward slope side of Pike Place Market included urban Indigenous people like Kikisoblu, recent immigrants, migrant workers, and families too poor to afford other housing. Shantytown had no running water and only a few scattered outhouses. 

In another chapter, Ensign tells about the three Sisters of the Charity of Providence who moved into the newly built King County Poor Farm and Hospital in Georgetown to care for the growing number of mentally-ill poor patients. The author spins yarns about Dr. Alexander de Soto, a Robin-Hood-like character, who operated the Wayside Mission Hospital in a former opium-smuggling sidewheeler moored to the waterfront. The floating mission cared for chronic inebriates, prostitutes, drug addicts and anyone else who needed free medical care, a meal and spiritual salvation.

Woven into Ensign’s many narratives are tales about the struggles of single moms like the intrepid Hazel Wolf who worked for years to keep her head above water. The book chronicles the rise of Hooverville during the Great Depression and the scourge of tuberculosis, the “white plague” which for years was the leading cause of death in Seattle

While digging through the layers of life histories, Ensign encountered blatant instances of racism, sexism, xenophobia, colonialism, and religious discrimination. She shines a light on attempts to separate the “worthy” from the “unworthy” poor.

Ensign’s book will long serve as the go-to standard for understanding Seattle homelessness. It owes much to the author’s own encounter with homelessness, a story revealed in her earlier book, Catching Homelessness. This latest volume is a credit to her diligent research and to the many interviews she conducted with those who’ve labored in the trenches, standouts like Dr. Ben Danielsen, social activist Nancy Amidei, Real Change Editor Tim Harris, and dozens of social workers like Sinan Demirel, Joe Martin, and Jim Theofelis. Ensign also acknowledges the helpful hands of librarians at the University of Washington, the Washington Health Sciences Library and Seattle Public Library.

She concludes: “Wicked problems like homelessness are best approached by being willing to enter the swamp, to value the role of stories.” Her book defines the problem while not offering solutions – she says that’s for her next book. In the meantime she poses the central moral question: Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at


  1. The much larger unsheltered population in Seattle these days is not “the same old problem just bigger.” Seattle used to have employers creating jobs (mercantile hub during the gold rush, commercial center of the northwest between the world wars, military and private sector aircraft manufacturing center during the Cold War, tech hub after that), and those high-profit businesses in turn created many ancillary jobs for the homeless they could use to earn and start paying for shelter. Now is different. The hordes of homeless are here because most sheltered residents don’t want or need to go into the areas with all the office buildings. A negative social feedback loop now exists due to the long-term slump in office and retail storefront commercial space that likely will lead to further downtown decline. Ongoing challenges from persistently high homelessness and the associated street crime show no signs of improving due to office workers retaking control of the urban core sidewalks.

    • Don’t know the statistics and they aren’t offered in this comment.
      Disagree I think -that the chronic homeless would work “ancillary jobs” Yes, some would leap to this option for work. But many others are drug addicted and mentally ill. They are poor candidates for “ancillary jobs” work.Not even sure what ancillary jobs are. Too often it’s crime, shoplifting and more.

  2. Thank you to Jean and to The Seattle Times for their courageous coverage of mental health and homelessness. The key to solving much of our homelessness crisis is early treatment of our mentally ill and drug-addicted fellow citizens. We seem to be willing to do everything but fund and implement treatment. We have taught police and fire staff how to identify and compassionately respond to these folks. While I am sure there are exceptions, police and fire are becoming part of the solution. (I say this bearing in mind the tragedy of my friend’s son who was both almost fatally shot and later mauled by police dogs about ten years ago).
    We trumpet better clean-up of our streets and parks, but where are people going? Who is tracking their outcomes?
    Harborview is overwhelmed and there are few options for people in a mental health crisis. 72 hours in an ER or temporary holding location won’t help because mental illness and addiction can be severe and long term.
    There are solutions that work. Several years ago Eugene, Oregon started a program to immediately hospitalize and treat initial psychotic episodes. Patients were hospitalized until stable, with a two-year follow-up plan and weekly or more frequent checkin.
    Years ago Plymouth Housing bought houses near Harborview and housed all previously homeless discharged mental health patients. They received (and were required to eat) two meals/day, taken to their appointments and monitored by live-in volunteer staff. Recidivsion to Harborview was reduced by 86%. They stayed for at least 6 months and did not leave until they had stable housing.
    There are similar success stories in England and lots of other locales, but the common theme is long term, integrated treatment with early intervention. That requires much more funding for early intervention and thoughtfully designed, long term support. We will have to knit our systems together and track outcomes as never before. We have to spend to save. This is incredibly hard work but it can be done.
    Mr. Moore’s story breaks my heart. It also compels me to call out all the saints who labor in their institutional settings, whether it is Seattle Mental Health Court, SPD, shelters, community clinics etc. They deserve a better system.

  3. Seattle’s long history of dealing with these problems stems in part from its economy, based on transient, migrant labor (Natives, Chinese, Japanese, and Scandinavian) which would live in Seattle, in poverty, before being dispatched to railroad, lumber, hops and other poorly paid and uncertain jobs. Seattle developed a reputation as a good place to be poor (cheap lodging, cheap meals, lax police), but that is no longer the case.

    • But Seattle is a “sanctuary city”!!!! The City Council said so!!! Seattle is currently a place where immigrants and other down-and-out folks have little chance of making a life because of the cost of housing. They need to leave ASAP and try their luck elsewhere because Seattle is meaner than Hell if you don’t have money. City Council shouldn’t invite immigrants to come here unless they have a plan for support.

      How many times have we watched Seattle pols stand on a podium and flat out lie about the homeless and immigrants? Harrell ought to just man up and tell the truth for once. If you don’t know English or you’re living on a fixed income, the city might let you live in a garden shed. Maybe, because there are really enough garden sheds to go around (tiny homes). Harrell, like the mayors before him, has grand plans for “skid road” but only 10% of the funds needed.

      It’s not the lack of housing or services for those in dire need that surprises me… it the constant lying on the subject by our elected officials, and members of the public who believe those lies. Wake up Seattle! The mayor’s budget doesn’t have enough money to even move the needle on the homeless crisis.

  4. When a person is homeless, that means they are: toiletless. Kitchenstoveless. Showerless. Imagine, waking up in the night, ill, which happens to everyone, without a private place to shut the door and be miserably sick! But it’s even worse than that: Recently, while helping people standing in a long line, a little girl of around four asked me for a hug. Then her mother confided that she and her daughter have been homeless for 10 months. She is trying to teach her child about ‘stranger danger’. So to the list of horrors of homelessness, add the terror for your child and what that does to her sense of the world and her place in it. Whatever it takes, we can’t legitimize having children with no home.

  5. In a recent comment, my last line was: “whatever it takes, we cannot legitimize having children without a home. ” I think the last line might be misconstrued. What I meant to convey was, We cannot legitimize homelessness for children, NOT that homeless mothers and fathers are to blame for their plight.


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