For the past five years, like many of its West Coast counterparts, Seattle has endured a steady expansion of homelessness, addiction, mental illness, crime, and street disorder. But the activist class—a political and cultural elite comprising leaders in government, nonprofits, philanthropy, and media—has enforced a strict taboo on declaring the obvious: something is terribly wrong in the Emerald City.
Last month, veteran Seattle reporter Eric Johnson of KOMO violated that taboo with a shocking, hour-long documentary called Seattle is Dying, which revealed how the city has allowed a small subset of the homeless population—drug-addicted and mentally-ill criminals—to wreak havoc. Johnson’s portrait is backed up by evidence from King County homelessness data, by city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay’s “prolific offender” report on 100 homeless individuals responsible for more than 3,500 criminal cases, and by my own reporting on the homelessness crisis.
In the past two weeks, Seattle Is Dying has garnered 38,000 shares on Facebook and nearly 2 million views on YouTube. The report has clearly resonated with anxious, fearful, and increasingly angry Seattle residents. Exhausted by a decade of rising disorder and property crime—now two-and-a-half times higher than Los Angeles’s and four times higher than New York City’s—Seattle voters may have reached the point of “compassion fatigue.” According to the Seattle Times, 53 percent of Seattle voters now support a “zero-tolerance policy” on homeless encampments; 62 percent believe that the problem is getting worse because the city “wastes money by being inefficient” and “is not accountable for how the money is spent,” and that “too many resources are spent on the wrong approaches to the problem.” The city council insists that new tax revenues are necessary, including a head tax on large employers, but only 7 percent of Seattle voters think that the city is “not spending enough to really solve the problem.” For a famously progressive city, this is a remarkable shift in public opinion.
Despite this growing consensus, the activist class is pushing back. According to leaked documents, the City of Seattle has hired a crisis-communications firm to discredit Johnson and insist, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, that “Seattle is making progress to end homelessness, and proven solutions are working.” It’s quite a strategy: Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan is using taxpayer money to attack a respected local journalist and convince taxpayers that they shouldn’t trust their own experience.
The city’s nonprofit and academic partners—mainstays of the homeless-industrial complex—have also launched coordinated attacks against the critics. Timothy Harris, director of Real Change News, has argued that grassroots neighborhood groups like Speak Out Seattle and labor unions like the Iron Workers Local 86 who opposed the city’s head tax are “alt-right” white supremacists, bigots, and fascists. Catherine Hinrichsen, director of the Project on Family Homelessness at Seattle University, accused Johnson of “hate-mongering” and spreading “fear.”
After dictating homelessness policy for a generation, the activist class is losing the narrative—and this accounts for its increasingly desperate counterattacks. As their support among voters erodes and principled journalists like Johnson break the silence about homelessness, they fall back on branding their concerned neighbors “bigots,” “fascists,” and “white supremacists.” It’s not working the way it used to. In Seattle, a reckoning on homelessness may not be far off.