Recently it caught my attention when Seattle admitted the failure of an ambitious 10-year plan to rid the Emerald City of homelessness, and took the dramatic step of declaring a state of civil emergency last month. While it is clear there is a homeless emergency in Seattle — a city with wealth and resources that Seattle — it is obvious to me the real emergency is one of our city’s values and social morality.
Until 2005, I worked as a mental health counselor, including at an emergency service program that responded to people who were homeless or in transitional housing. After leaving the field, I lived, studied and worked in Spain and Greece for more than seven years. The contrast between the U.S. and southern Mediterranean culture could not be more apparent, especially in the way the two regions have reacted to the inequality and poverty produced by neoliberal global politics. In spite of the economic crisis driven by a neoliberal European Union financial system that left more than 25 percent of the population unemployed and more than 50 percent of the youth jobless in Spain and Greece, I never saw the kind of homelessness and poverty that exists here in Seattle or other U.S. cities.
I lived for years in some of the poorer neighborhoods in Barcelona and it was rare to ever see anyone sleeping in the street. The statistics are striking: Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million is estimated to have 2,800 homeless within its city limits compared to King County, a county of 2 million, which has a homeless population of about 10,000 on any given night. The figures for King County and for Barcelona include people who are on the streets as well as people in transitional situations or shelters.
Even during the worst of the economic crisis civil societies in Athens and Barcelona were always fighting for what they valued the most: the “common good” and a sense of dignity and solidarity with each other. This core value is reflected in their system of national health care, low-income housing and community based solidarity organizations.
Despite the immense pressures on both cities to reform themselves into economic colonies of the “troika” (European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) the civil societies reacted by producing radical political change. In Greece, voters elected the Syriza —a parliamentary coalition of left-wing parties. Barcelona saw the election of a new progressive city government.
These political changes were brought about by the civil societies’ collective spirit to create new networks of solidarity organizations that have overthrown the austerity government’s rule. The results have been dramatic and a testament to what makes a city a home; the “common good” reflected in the collective values and social relations that place people over profit.
In comparison, like the states of emergency declared in Portland, L.A. and elsewhere, Seattle’s state of emergency over homelessness is a spectacle of panic. With states of “emergency,” city leaders are alerting the people of the dire need to get the poor, mentally deranged and addicted misfits in our grand neoliberal metropolis to stop sleeping and dying in our streets and “disrupting” the city’s atmosphere of joy and peace.
Yet, what is really behind the curtain of this call to emergency? I would argue that it is the same habitual dual response that drove the failed 10-year-plan: charity and criminalization. Never mind the stark reality that since 2008 Seattle has seen a dramatic increase in inequality, as the small elite rich class have made huge profits in the supposed economic “recovery” while a sinking middle and lower class citizenry have seen their real income radically decrease. Never mind the city’s dedication to a corporate-driven economy, resulting in unregulated housing cost increases, skyrocketing medical costs, a privatized prison industry and poorly funded public education. It appears the city’s only solutions to people marginalized by inequality are charity projects and the criminalization of poverty that also disproportionately affects people of color.
As in cities across the United States, there is a real homeless “emergency” in the Emerald City — yet the emergency isn’t the number of people who die or sleep on our streets. A place is not a “home” when it values profit over people. Our city itself is “homeless.” The basis for a good home is its collective social fabric, the belief that solidarity is key and comes from grassroots community based interdependence and decision-making. We feel at home when our first priority is for those who are most in need.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray reinforces the stigma of homelessness as a problem of sick people not getting the help they need when he states that, “Untreated mental health and drug addiction has finally resulted in a human crisis seldom seen in our history.” Pathologizing poverty only obscures the fact that homelessness reflects a value decision of a society to allow for accumulation of wealth and power over the “common good.” Thus the cities debates and conversations never address the real emergency we face, a crisis of values and priorities. This call to emergency by the cities mayor and city council is the same diversion the city has used for the past ten years. It only serves to avoid the real question: whether we actually value each other and are serious about eliminating inequality and injustice. Unless we ask this question the root cause of our “homeless” as a city is never addressed.
Seattle is “homeless” not because we, the People of Seattle don’t care, but as a city we have not en masse directly challenged a system that is based on the sacred privilege for some to accumulate and monopolize resources, while others are left to the margins. There is plenty of space and resources in Seattle for everyone to have housing, food, medical care and education. If our first priority as a city were the “common good” we would have no homelessness.
The reality behind the curtain is that those in political power in Seattle are unwilling to consider changing the social relations that produce inequality and injustice. By continually turning poverty into an emergency, they reinforce the desire to keep doing what they’re doing and have the taxpayers clean up the ugly site of its own marginalization of those in need. City officials protect power as it stands by not addressing directly the obvious structural problem in the social fabric of the city. We are instead told there is another “emergency” and asked to bring our holiday cheer to the same band-aid approach that has failed for the past 10 years and will certainly will fail again. As was recently stated by Dr. Wes Browning, a client service specialist at Real Change in Seattle, “the city just wants to get the homeless out of its sight.”
If we are serious in Seattle about addressing our own “homelessness” then we have to decide that the common good comes first and that we are going to create a real “home” where we equitably share resources and decision making with everyone. This change will not come from our city officials or the generosity of neoliberal charity in the form of another Gates Foundation grant. It will come when we, the People of Seattle demand and create a different kind of city than this, a real home. Until then we will all remain essentially homeless for the holidays and beyond.