Anatomy of a Failure: Why Seattle isn’t solving its homeless crisis

November 18, 2016

Seattle’s disastrous homeless policy has resulted from a combination of three things:

-Ideology
-Paid advocacy
-Lack of accountability

Of course there are other factors, such as the drug epidemic and high rents, but those exist in other cities that aren’t having nearly the problem we are. There must be something different about us. And indeed, there is.

Ideology – The naive social justice worldview that currently dominates City Hall holds that all homeless people are victims: victims of racism, of capitalism, of “the system.” The justice warriors don’t see themselves as running a city so much as righting wrongs. Accordingly, they don’t measure success by how well or poorly things are going out on the street but by whether they, the justice warriors, are perceived as being compassionate and “helping.” For the social justice model to work, a steady and highly visible supply of needy people (victims of inequality) is essential. Anything that substantially reduces the number of victims is anathema because it undermines the justice warriors’ reason for being. Naturally, it’s not allowed to expect someone to get a job, get psychiatric treatment, or get off drugs . . . because that denies their essential victimhood.

It goes without saying that most of the justice warriors at City Hall are wealthy White folks looking to salve their consciences. That’s a characteristic of the breed.


Paid advocacy – Strangely enough, the people exerting the greatest influence on Seattle’s homeless policy are not ideological firebrands but rather business people operating behind the scenes. These are not your standard business people, though. They don’t make anything, except money, and they don’t provide jobs, except for themselves. The “business” they’re in is homeless services. In some cases that means shelter beds. In others, it’s outreach. In some cases, it’s just advocacy, where a paid staffer shows up regularly at City Hall – sometimes at a public hearing, other times behind closed doors – to “advocate” for more homeless services. That’s their whole job. And it’s good work if you can get it. Which in Seattle, you CAN.

It’s not hard to see how advocates work the system. The ideologues on the Council need someone who can help them be heroes, and that’s where the advocates come in. They’re there to stroke the councilmembers’ egos and to catch the money when it falls, like ants lapping honeydew off an aphid’s butt.

Paid homeless advocates wouldn’t be such a problem if their relationship to City Hall was public and widely known, but unfortunately, it’s not. And there’s nothing that says it has to be. There’s no rule requiring that advocates state their financial interest when speaking at a meeting. Perhaps there should be such a rule. That’s no substitute for real citizen involvement, of course, but it would help limit the advocate influence until we can get more real people turning out at Council meetings.

Lack of accountability – This is what keeps the ideology/paid advocacy system propped up. Even when we know the system’s rotten it’s hard to fight it unless we can force a change, unless we can compel the government to change. There are laws to ensure accountability in government. Unfortunately, those laws are only as good as the government’s willingness to enforce them. And that depends, in turn, on us, on our willingness to apply pressure. Seattle is not there yet. But we’re getting there all right. Inch by inch, we’re getting there. Every new shooting in the jungle, each new mountain of trash on the roadside is like a wake-up call for the city. We wake up half way, groan a little, and then hit the SNOOZE button, roll over, and go back to sleep. But each time the alarm gets louder, and it’s just a matter of time until it’s gonna sound like a jackhammer right next to our ear.

I’ve been trying to impose some accountability. I and a handful of other people. We shouldn’t have to be doing this; this is really the media’s job and we’ve all got other stuff we’d rather be working on. But the media’s been falling down on this, and in fact, they’re a part of the problem, because they’ve pretty much bought into the social justice thing too. In any event, the media’s failure means that we’ve had to do this ourselves, on blogs and in social media. And you’ve helped out with that, just by reading this page and making it grow.

Accountability is the Key

Accountability is the key to changing things. Everything else will flow from that. If we can impose accountability on Seattle’s government, we’ll be able to get the paid advocates out of the system (or at least diminish their influence) while getting ordinary citizens back in. Once that happens, we can clean the grifters and ideologues out of City Hall and replace them with people who can actually run a city.

–David Preston

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Note: This essay was originally published on October 30, 2016 on the Safe Seattle Facebook page.

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