Pat's View: Proximity is part of the problem of homelessness
By Patrick Robinson
What if we’ve been thinking about homelessness wrong all along? What if the entire issue is in part a misallocation of resources?
The problems that lead to homelessness and stem from it are both complex and daunting.
In 2020, the homeless population in King County was estimated at more than 40,000 people.
This Gordian Knot has defied many attempts at solutions. The ones that seem to work best almost always involve providing a more stable base for these people, in other words even the most basic home.. and that’s part of the knot too.
But like any knot you must untie you have to take the threads and trace them into and out of the binding areas.
So it means taking homeless people and categorizing them as best you can at least at first. Are they young, middle aged or elderly? Are they physically ill? Are they mentally ill? Are they addicted to one or more substances? How far from being employable are they? Are they willing to work? What is the cost of the crime, the medical care for the mentally ill, and the addicted? What is the cost of the shelters we now provide? Are these people local in origin or did they come from a distance?
The recent announcement by our local prosecuting attorney that some crimes will simply not be punished, actually makes sense, to a point. But it can’t stay that way. We live in an ordered society, or need to, to the extent that we turn a blind eye to crime only encourages more of it. This is not to say we need to live in an authoritarian world, where even minor infractions result in harsh punishment. But we’ve let things get way too far out of control and it has overwhelmed law enforcement, our courts and our jails. So, a reset was necessary.
But back to the knot.
Once we have those questions about all these people sorted out, and it’s understood what the core issues for these people are, we offer them some choices. To be clear, what they are or have been doing for a remarkable number of them is in fact their choice. They prefer to live without rules, take the drugs, steal to get by. But that simply must stop.
The King County Regional Housing Authority has a $170 million dollar annual budget. They are spending $980,000 on really just a few tiny homes. The spider web of problems clearly calls for a complex approach, calling for racial equity, gender equity, and much more but it’s also, in an attempt to respond to so many constituencies complicating the answer.
The answer I see is to take the some of those millions of homeless relief money we spend annually, the funds for crime investigation, and all the other money this issue costs and put it toward buying tracts of land, far removed from most large cities, or for that matter, even small towns. Build free housing along with buildings for drug treatment centers, job training, mental health counseling, food prep and a dining hall. You might call them Reset Centers. You might be thinking along the lines of the Chinese “re-education camps” but that’s not what I’m talking about at all. And you might be thinking about the fear many have of “Not In My Back Yard.” These are not meant to be prisons. They are in fact a kind of “tender trap” to be completely honest. A positive, comfortable, helpful, and compassionate place. I’m also anticipating that this amounts to “hiding the problem” or “out of sight out of mind” but the simple fact is that having it be 10 feet away is not resulting in effective solutions.
One primary rule must apply to these centers. They must be a long distance away from, such as 25 miles from any major road. Residents get free housing, free job training, free mental health counseling but cannot get or use drugs, have no opportunity to steal. They cannot have visitors, but they are free to leave at any time. On foot, and critically they are issued only slippers for footwear. I’m not kidding. No cell phones, and computers are there only for training purposes. Internet access is restricted. Crimes committed there are treated like any other, but they cannot continue to live there. They can even live in an unheated tent if they so choose. But the tiny homes would be well equipped, safe and secure.
The areas for the different categories are separated, and it’s not co-ed. The genders are essentially separated with some special cases considered. Staff would live in an adjacent and secure housing area…but they too would work there in quarterly periods or longer if they so chose. Some staff could commute but free housing is powerful incentive. That staff would include doctors, security, maintenance, and others living roughly one mile from the main center.
If the people living in the center leave and return to an urban area to commit a serious crime after being sentenced or agreeing to go to this facility for a minimum of six months, they go to prison for one year minimum. It’s part of both a sentence and/or a voluntary agreement. It’s the carrot and the stick. But in the meantime, they are not living seven blocks away, stealing bikes, buying and using drugs, living in tents or RV’s in your neighborhood, getting in fights with guns or knives, in short they are not here preying on people. It’s the proximity they have, the networks of people they know, the habit patterns they have developed, the way of life they have fallen into that must be addressed. Changing their proximity as I see it is very important part of solving this problem
This is not criminalizing homelessness. They simply cannot camp out on public roads, public parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, or under freeways. That would in fact be against the law and should be. That we tolerate this out of sympathy is wrong headed. We are doing them no favors. This is not a way of life that promotes anything positive.
Some have suggested revamping McNeil Island prison at a cost of $50 million or more, but then, it’s a prison after all with all the stigma associated with it. There's no dignity in a jail cell.
I recognize that this is a somewhat simplistic concept and that many hurdles would need to be overcome, and a lot more thought given to how it would actually function, but I am proposing it mainly as a starting point for a discussion about really tackling the issue by creating a more remote location to aid in solving the drug, crime, garbage and other problems created by having these unfortunate people live in our urban setting.
Change the proximity and do so in a compassionate, thoughtful, and reasonable way and crime goes down, drug use goes down. Investment and tourism come back. We get our city back.
We get our lives back. And so do they.