Fear not facts fuel misconceptions and scapegoating of the homeless

Nextdoor sometimes becomes a forum for some to vent against “those people” sleeping in “our parks” and falsely conflating homelessness with criminality

– by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, reprinted from our long-running column in Pacific Publishing Newspapers

“Nextdoor” is an on-line bulletin board where residents may post anything about their neighborhood: lost cats and dogs, things they’re giving away or selling, upcoming events–or perhaps a post about criminal activity or something else amiss in their community.

But it can also be a forum for some to air their prejudices against the homeless, to vent about “those people” sleeping in “their” parks, scaring their children, and who they see as singularly responsible for all the trash and crime in their neighborhood.

This happened recently on a Nextdoor network in the Ravenna community when a resident discovered 7 tents in Ravenna Park. A string of hundreds of comments grew quickly, largely reflecting common stereotypes about the homeless with words like “feral,” “addicts” and “criminals”.

The few offering insights or compassion, were reprimanded. Helping them would be “a major layer of the problem”. “Progressives at City Hall are to too lenient” “We’ve become ‘Freattle’ a magnet”, offering too many services instead of jail, or “a bus ticket back to where they came from”

Fear not facts inform these assumptions. Recently, the city commissioned a survey of area homeless including extended one-on-one interviews of 1000 homeless people. Dozens more were assembled in focus groups for lengthier discussions. While full results can be found at http://coshumaninterests.wpengine.netdna… here’s what leapt out at us at odds with the mythology:

  • 37% of the homeless are women, 58% of whom report being victims of domestic violence.
  • 18% reported that they first became homeless below the age of 18
  • 41% actually worked part-time or seasonally
  • 68% have never spent time in jail, and 88% haven’t been in jail in the previous year
  • 70% were living in Seattle or King County before they became homeless. Only 13% came from out of state, a rate of in-migration nearly identical to the ‘housed’ population (so much for the magnet theory).
  • 90% would gladly accept ‘safe’ and ‘affordable’ housing if they were offered it.

Another popular misconception: those camping outside are a hard core “criminal element”. The survey found “little difference in the demographic characteristics of sheltered and unsheltered individuals.” Regarding any fear of the homeless overrunning our parks, the King County’s 2016 homeless count found only 24 of 3000 unsheltered camped overnight in public parks. Most were hidden away in campers, cars, under bridges and along freeways.

Perhaps the most popular misconception is “they’re all drug-addicted”. But survey results indicated only about a third regularly use drugs while 45% said they used no drugs at all. Focus group participants blamed police prejudices for exaggerating drug use and often confusing it with other health conditions.

These results on drug use haven’t varied much from previous studies going back decades. Any suggestions that current programs like LEEDS, needle exchanges and safe injection sites, special drug courts, jail diversion, counselling and addiction services have somehow attracted more folks with these problems to Seattle are way off base.

On the contrary, only dramatic expansion of these programs will make an effective dent in the problem. And it’s essential to combine these services with housing, much more, placed in our communities where people in need are located including via the proven ‘housing first’ model for those still ‘wet’.

This survey and every past survey only confirms what our years of experience working with the homeless tells us – the homeless are more like us than they are not. As for any notion our city leaders (and police) coddle the homeless, try telling that to the hundreds turned away each day from overcrowded shelters and years-long waiting lists for permanent subsidized housing.

Try telling those now being victimized by a series of poorly executed police sweeps recently authorized by our so-called “progressive Mayor”. He was just sued by the ACLU for giving little notice to campers, losing or crushing their belongings with heavy machinery, slashing their tarps and tents, and causing the loss of essential legal paperwork and precious family mementos.

Federal courts in LA and Idaho recently declared similar actions a violation of due process, ‘criminal’ and unconstitutional especially when there are no “concrete alternatives” for those swept from their camps. (So who are the real criminals here, parochial neighbors demanding more police sweeps and other ‘get tough’ measures, or the hundreds of human beings with no homes routinely victimized by these actions?)

Until our local officials respond to redevelopment causing rapid loss of existing affordable housing (and put a stop to their upzoning plans that will greatly accelerate these losses) we’ll see more homeless on our streets, camping out in their cars and in city parks. The Mayor, Council, most press reports, even the consultants they bring in, rarely reference this direct connection.

Tragically, as the number of homeless inevitably rises, we’ll likely see more neighbors on Nextdoor demanding jail, more sweeps, crackdowns, and other non-solutions that only serve as further roadblocks to recovery and a normal life.

For some real solutions check out these .  And to truly understand this human tragedy, volunteer at an area homeless program: http://www.homelessinfo.org/about_us/current_members.php





About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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