Seattle is Dying begins with footage captured by a drone as it rises above a homeless encampment on the south side of the city, eventually revealing the shimmering towers of Seattle’s urban core. This, the third documentary on homelessness made by local news anchor Eric Johnson and aired on KOMO News (a holding of Sinclair Broadcasting), is not a story about the homeless themselves,
“It is about the damage they inflict, on themselves to be sure, but also on the fabric of this place where we live. This story is about a beautiful jewel that has been violated and a crisis of faith amongst a generation of Seattleites falling out of love with their home.”
Johnson concludes his intro narration questioning, “What if Seattle is dying and we don’t even know it?” What follows is a piece of anti-homeless propaganda that makes one yearn for the understated subtlety of a Leni Riefenstahl film.
Seattle is Dying features a parade of business and homeowners, largely white and middle aged, who give the usual list of complaints. Crying, a business owner complains that the homeless urinate on the sidewalk which is a problem when she wears her flip-flops. City Council candidate Ari Hoffman makes wild claims that people can’t go to parks because they are full of needles and that his downtown office is constantly being riddled with stray gunfire.
Two tourists from Tennessee—where homelessness most definitely exists—are “genuinely confused” by the existence of urban poverty. They tell Johnson that they “don’t understand, isn’t this [sleeping on the sidewalk] trespassing?”
“People come here because it’s called Free-attle” an anonymous SPD officer is quoted, repeating a popular myth amongst anti-homeless groups, “and they believe if they come here they will get free food, free medical treatment, free mental health treatment, a free tent, free clothes and will be free of prosecution for just about everything; and they’re right.” This is of course non-sense, but police—who are featured heavily in Johnson’s film—play a critical role in perpetuating the myth of a “stand down” order that makes the homeless above the law.
Toward the end of the film, Eric Johnson sums up the feelings of the “forgotten” wealthy property owner while a drone hovers over a tent encampment:
“They use deadly drugs and they sell those drugs for ten bucks a dose. And over and over they steal us blind to get the ten bucks. And they pollute our streets and parks and neighborhoods. And they live in filth and despair like animals. And we allow it.”
“Seattle is Not Dying, It is Splitting”
Seattle is a city of immense wealth. It is home to eleven billionaires who, by one estimate, collectively hold more than $274 billion in wealth. According to the Census Bureau, median income for a family of four in the city hit $121,000 in 2017. There are now more families in the city that report making over $200k per year than there is making under $50k. Only San Francisco and Washington DC report having a larger portion of family households making over $200k. There are also thousands who have become accidental millionaires as a housing shortage and rampant speculation have sent housing prices soaring in the city over the last decade. This is the core audience for Seattle is Dying.
To quote Tim Harris from Real Change, “Seattle is not dying, it is splitting.” “In a rising economy, housing gets built for the affluent,” Harris notes, “Since 2011, units built for those earning 80 percent of median income or more have doubled, while units built for those earning less than 50 percent of median have halved.” The end result is that those who can no longer afford to live here move to the outskirts. Those who cannot afford to move scramble for places to stay. Those who cannot find a place, become homeless.
As wealth moves into the city, the poor are pushed to the margins. Concerned about their newly minted home values and filled with the distaste for the signs of urban poverty that is characteristic of the American middle class, homeowners crusade against the homeless with all the callousness of an exterminator hunting for insects. This is a story of urban development and class struggle under capitalism. It is a struggle that has marked Seattle since its founding.
“A Wretched Community of Animalism”
Dehumanization of the homeless is nothing new in Seattle. At the turn of the 20th century, the land now occupied by the baseball and football stadiums was a massive encampment of improvised housing known as “Shacktown.” At its height in 1913, it consisted of 3,500 people living in more than 1,200 homes that ranged from simple tents to multi-room wood houses. Here lived the seasonal laborers that fueled the region’s logging and lumber industries.
In a 1905 exposé, the Seattle Times described Shacktown as a “breeding ground for a class of criminals and degenerates that endanger any city.” Its residents are described as “listless and worthless” bearing “the visible marks of the vagrant—the slouching walk, the drooping figure, the dull and shifty eye of the purposeless bum.” They are “utter failures” at the “bottommost level to which the human animal can sink” forming a “wretched community of animalism.”
“Siwashes, negroes and degenerate whites herd together in these hovels,” the Times warned readers in the eugenics laden racism of the day, “and are producing a race which some day will be a heavy menace to the city.”
Seattle’s urban poor, as the Times points out, had no place in the city’s booming economy. After all, “The railroad companies want the ground [where Shacktown is located] at once and it will be filled up and made creditable sites for business.” And who are the poor to stand in the way of capital’s constant re-development of the city?
Seattle’s health department, under the guise of tuberculosis control, was tasked with ridding Seattle of its indigent population by burning the shacks of the urban poor. Number of shacks razed became a grim statistic in the monthly reports issued by the department. “This action of the health department,” one Shacktown resident told the press, “is as bad as the dark days of old Ireland when the landlords threw out the tenants.” Another added, “It looks as though the authorities want to drive us off the face of the earth.”
What city health officials were doing in burning down the homes of the poor was policing the class borders of the urban landscape and re-establishing the capitalist class’ right to the city in the face of rising property values. In 1913, when Shacktown was finally, fully demolished, the Times celebrated the destruction of this “wretched community of animalism.” Of course, by destroying Shacktown they had not ended urban poverty, but merely dispersed the now homeless to other parts of the city. Within two years, a new Shacktown had been built on the ashes of the old.
Squatting on Valuable Property
“Boos and cat-calls went up from the squatters,” the Seattle Times wrote describing a City Council public safety meeting in November of 1938, “as Beacon Hill residents described the shack residents as a menace to children and a health problem.” Clubwomen and gentlemen lined up to give evidence of the criminal menace that the urban poor posed to their wealthy neighborhood.
Shack resident William Kinloch responded to the calumnies aimed at he and his neighbors, “I am a seafaring man. The law of the sea is to help those in distress. Don’t take the plank away from the sailor who has helped you into the boat and taken only a plank for himself.”
In 1938, Seattle, like many cities during the Great Depression, had a serious problem with urban poverty. A committee appointed by the City Council to analyze the “shack problem” counted 22,204 shacks in a city of 368,000 people. Neighborhood and commercial clubs complained that the City Council was unable to move on poor removal because of the sheer size of the shack dwelling voting bloc.
Petitions calling for the removal of various encampments began to peak in early 1938 leading the Times to note that “the Community Club war on shacktowns was renewed.” An early petition hinted at the fears commercial and real estate interests had in the continued “tolerance” of the urban poor. SPD Sergeant E.C. Griffin warned that the “entire situation [in Hooverville on the tide flats where Shacktown once stood] is very grave as there is a possibility of the owners of these said shacks filing squatter’s rights upon this valuable property.”
Of course, in public, anti-homeless groups chose not to lead with such self-serving motives, choosing instead to play the role of protector of the social order. Associate editor for the Seattle Times, James Woods, editorialized that such poverty “adds nothing to the beauty of the landscape and gives no pleasure to homeowners anywhere within range of vision.” He then urged readers to remember that there are good poor people who are poor by fate of circumstance and bad poor people who choose poverty because “they found it an easy way to get along without undue exertion.” He goes on to fret, how can a city plan for public housing and “segregate a shacktown population” to ensure only the deserving poor benefit?
A Beacon Hill resident complained to the City Council, “Beacon Hill people must look down on these unsightly shacks. People who live in these shacks get their food from Garbage cans,” before pivoting to that favorite cudgel of the middle class, “Our children at times come across these men.” Others claimed that shack residents were breaking their windows with slingshots and making harassing phone calls. Testifying to the City Council, SPD Chief William Sears was more blunt, calling an encampment on 6th Ave and Lander St on the city’s south side “a breeding place of crime” which he blamed on an “influx of Southern Negro ex-convicts.”
Such fear mongering and pearl clutching, bearing an eerie resemblance to the anti-homeless crusade in the city today, was not enough to overcome the social and political organization of the urban poor at a time when the New Deal was dragging the political center to the left. But in 1941, with the impending war providing cover, the city was able to move in and destroy encampments, usually in the name of expanding naval warehouses and other military ventures.
The city was once again made safe for home values and real estate interests. Still, urban poverty and homelessness would persist.
“Open Lawless Behavior”
It’s 2016. City Council member Mike O’Brien stands in front of a hostile crowd at the United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood as a woman describes her harrowing experience. She had found a “large pile of poop” in nearby Woodland Park. After calling 911, she did not get the prompt police response the emergency called for. Others followed, complaining of the “open lawless behavior” they attributed to the homeless. Haranguing O’Brien and other public officials, attendees shouted, “Give them a bus pass out of the city!” and “They need to be arrested!”
It was a meeting of a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance (NSA) made up of homeowners from Ballard (median home value $777,500), Queen Anne ($1,056,100), Magnolia ($936,100), and various other north Seattle neighborhoods. When O’Brien answered accusations that Seattle police had been issued a “stand down” order with regard to the homeless—an article of faith among anti-homeless crusaders in Seattle—with, “The police are not going to arrest someone for being poor,” the crowd of wealthy middle aged white homeowners exploded.
“We’re talking about criminals,” Harley Lever, head of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, says after grabbing the mic, “What specifically are you going to do to purge the criminals out of here.” The crowd applauds. In a moment prominently featured in Seattle is Dying, a woman at the meeting chides O’Brien, “Do you think it’s funny?” before clarifying who the real victims are, “Do you think it’s funny the way we are living?”
Blanket Based Terrorism and Other Fantasies
The anti-homeless movement in Seattle thrives on the hyperbolic conflation of homelessness and criminality. While they talk of the deserving and undeserving poor—anti-homeless firebrand Harley Lever estimates 60% of the homeless are in the latter—it quickly becomes apparent that merely being visibly homeless is a crime in their view. “The real homeless you don’t see,” Eric Johnson narrates in Seattle is Dying, “Out of work truckers and construction workers that run into bad luck don’t live like this, in tents on mudpatches. This is something else, this is drugs.”
Fellow KOMO reporter Matt Markovitch agrees with Johnson, “People are choosing this… The people you see in the camps, many of them are choosing to live this way.” It is a convenient fairy tale for those unwilling to deal with issues of inequality in the city, and it has become the cornerstone belief of the anti-homeless movement.
Safe Seattle is a Facebook page created by Lever where local homeowners gather to spin fantastical tales of homeless criminality. Ari Hoffman, a City Council candidate, made considerable waves in March when he shared a post from the site that alleged a homeless man was beheading people in Seattle—the story was fabricated out of whole cloth. Safe Seattle spawned the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and it’s more recent clone organization Speak Out Seattle. It is a place where hatred of the homeless is stoked to ridiculous levels.
When a homeless person(s) left a pair of blankets in a park in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood (median home value $737,300) over Memorial Day weekend, denizens flocked to the Safe Seattle Facebook group. “The problem is not so much that the neighbors see the campers,” a member explained, “but that the campers can observe them and their children, even inside their homes.”
Feeling “unsafe” in their own homes, “several neighbors called 911” on the blankets, but police were not dispatched. One response to the post described the behavior of the blankets as “terrorizing” and “manufactured chaos.” A more pro-active member suggested that they “report it as a terrorist threat” to police. “We’re at the point,” another stated ominously, “where the people need to start taking matters into their own hands.”
As ridiculous as this group’s antics might be, they have become a major player in Seattle city politics with the support of local news outlets.
Mainstreaming the Anti-Homeless Crusade
After Harley Lever suffered a rather embarrassing defeat in the 2017 mayoral primary, receiving a paltry 3,000 votes, his anti-homeless crusade was rejuvenated during the cynical debate over the Seattle head tax. In short, the head tax was an already compromised and extremely modest tax aimed at large companies in the city that would raise revenue for homeless services. Amazon quickly became the posterchild of the tax.
In the days leading up to the vote on the head tax, Jon Talton of the Seattle Times chided Council members for bullying Amazon, which he argued had given Seattle “an unprecedented gift” by locating here. He questioned prioritizing funding for the homeless over Amazon as a major mistake, calling it “a staggering act of ignorance and destructiveness” on the part of the Council that might have “long-term consequences to the city’s economic brand.”
After the Council passed the head tax unanimously, the Times published four editorials in as many days, all opposing the tax. The intense reaction was a result of Jeff Bezos’ threats to shut down construction projects and move Amazon out of Seattle. But the editorials took on the pseudo-populism of the anti-homeless crusaders.
The Times editorial board asked when Mayor Jenny Durkan would “stand up to the Council’s extremism?” Jon Talton fantasized about “a hard-left movement [that] arose with the activist foot soldiers, infrastructure and energy to win municipal elections” that had caused a “tectonic shift in Seattle politics.” He lamented that while these radicals “might represent a minority of voters,” they are the only game in town. “Voters don’t have any alternatives.”
Similarly, local architect Christopher Kirk was given room in the city’s only daily newspaper to muse that the city government “has become bizarrely left-wing, routinely ignoring public opinion and advocating socialist ideology.” He suspects policies aimed at alleviating homelessness must be unpopular, after all, none of his friends or neighbors “agree with any of the city’s major plans or programs.”
At the end of his editorial, Talton directly hammers on the anti-homeless program. He begins by dragging out this old gem: “I’m suspicious of the self-reported numbers claiming that 70 percent of the unsheltered are ‘from’ King County.” It is a firmly held belief among middle class urbanites that while every city in America might have homeless people, none of them are in fact “from” those cities. They imagine an army of bindle sack laden hobos wandering the country, looking for soft targets to invade.
Talton then transitions to the question of weeding out the deserving poor, after all many homeless don’t want “what most people would consider a home, much less a job.” This old saw of course is meant to depict the homeless as a separate species from the rest of us looking for a “tolerant city with generous people, abundant services, a stood-down police force, legal pot and decent weather.” Finally, he warns that “no wall keeps a mobile unsheltered population from coming here – and in greater numbers if no-strings Freeattle is guaranteed on the taxpayers’ tab.”
It was a carbon copy of the anti-homeless bigotry found on places like Safe Seattle, laundered through the city’s largest newspaper in order to give it a sheen of legitimacy.
It took less than a month for the City Council to completely collapse and vote 7-2 to repeal the head tax. It was seen as not just a victory for Amazon, but as a major victory for the city’s anti-homeless crusaders. In Seattle is Dying, Eric Johnson notes that “the tide had turned against Seattle’s proposed business head tax to pay for homeless services and affordable housing… And for a moment in time anyway, it felt as if something had changed.”
This momentum would allow Johnson to articulate the bold agenda for eliminating the urban poor that takes up the final third of his film.
“An Answer Waiting for the Right Question”
As Seattle is Dying draws to a close, a drone rises up over a series of white institutional buildings tucked behind a double layer of razor wire fencing. Eric Johnson narrates, “Look at this place. Look at all the buildings and infrastructure.” The buildings are the remnants of the nation’s last island prison located on McNeil Island in the Puget Sound.
The prison closed in 2011, but more than 200 sex offenders are still kept on the island in a controversial indefinite detention after serving their prison sentences. Accessible only by passenger ferry, McNeil Island serves as a hole into which these people can be dumped and forgotten about. “What you’re looking at is McNeil Island,” Johnson continues, “You might call it an answer waiting for the right question.”
And this is the point of the anti-homeless crusade. They want to take the homeless, who they see as an eyesore and a drain on their property values, and disappear them. Prison is their ultimate solution. For these crusaders, homelessness is not a product of inequality, but a personal defect that can only be eliminated by removing the person.
Will anti-homeless groups convince the City Council to give them what they want and expel the urban poor from the city? Only time will tell. But history tells us one thing, the stubborn problem of homelessness will not be so easily vanquished. It is baked into the formation of the urban environment under capitalism. In Seattle, the defenders of order have burned homeless encampments, have bulldozed them and yet the problem of homelessness and urban poverty has never gone away. Will they be able to resolve this contradiction through mass internment on a prison island? History says no, but it doesn’t say they won’t try anyway.