Puget Sound Business Journal

Opinion: Homelessness isn’t just a burden for Seattle politicians 

By Ryan Lambert, Editor in Chief, Puget Sound Business Journal

Patrick Evans is President & CEO of Sound, one of the largest mental health and addiction treatment providers in Washington.

As we approach the Aug. 6 primary election, it makes sense to focus our attention — which sometimes resembles ire — on Seattle’s homelessness crisis. I’ve read through many op-ed submissions recently that suggest wholesale changes to the city’s leadership will solve this crisis.

It is a convenient and targeted solution to a profoundly complex issue. And it’s a solution bound to disappoint.

While Seattle bears the brunt of the crisis, it’s important to remember the larger context. Yes, the street scene in Seattle makes homelessness impossible to ignore, let alone avoid. Across Lake Washington, homelessness is less noticeable but equally troubling.

Families are living out of their cars in parking lots of grocery stores and churches. Young mothers are camped in dark corners with infants, unable to provide diapers or formula. In this year’s Seattle/King County “Count Us In” report, officials counted 2,451 homeless people who were in families, and noted that this is likely an underestimate because identifying unsheltered families with children is difficult.

This reality is much easier to overlook. The term homelessness has become a catch-all for all of society’s ills, and I see it applied more and more in a slapdash manner.

Our region needs better leadership, and the election might start a recovery, but local politicians aren’t a panacea.

There is a severe lack of behavioral health professionals, for example. Sound CEO Patrick Evans this year wrote in an op-ed for the Business Journal that “an underpaid community-based workforce presents an even more troubling trend for the industry.” The state Legislature recently earmarked $30 million to increase Medicaid rates, but industry leaders say more is needed.

Residents and business owners are clamoring for support as Seattle’s police department shrinks. But it isn’t a lack of political will, in this case. In March, the Seattle City Council approved a $15,000 hiring bonus for trained officers. Recruiting efforts have gone well beyond state boundaries as the SPD saw a net loss of 41 people last year.

The optics are bad, but if the foundational flaws are not remedied, there is very little local politicians can do to halt this crisis.