Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

A plan for failure

Compassion | Seattle fights homelessness with ideas that don’t work well
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 8/28/19, 05:20 pm

Seattle is spending $50 million to build housing for the homeless, but the cash is only a drop in the bucket—and the wrong bucket, at that.

“The homeless problem is more about mental illness and addiction than it is about physical buildings,” said Paul Guppy, vice president of research at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle. “The basic public misperception is this idea that building affordable housing will solve the homeless problem, and that’s just not true.”

Seattle has about 12,000 homeless people.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Seattle has the third-largest homeless population of any major city in the country, falling behind only New York City and Los Angeles. Activists in the city regularly promote more affordable housing as the solution, pointing to rapidly rising rents driven by booming development and business in the region.

Local politicians have floated a lot of ideas to fix the problem.

Last year, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative party promoted a plan to tax big businesses like Amazon to build more housing. The council adopted her proposal but repealed it four weeks later amid widespread opposition.

Mayor Jenny Durkan earlier this month signed housing legislation to divert $50 million in sales taxes to build homes for low- and middle-income families. The initiative, called “Housing Seattle Now,” takes advantage of a new state law that lets city governments spend sales tax money on affordable housing.

“Seattle needs to act with urgency to respond to this crisis, and we know what works to solve homelessness: permanent supportive housing, with wraparound services and medical care for those who are disabled or mentally ill,” Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda said in a statement.

But building houses won’t necessarily fix homelessness.

Guppy described the $50 million initiative as “a symbolic gesture to try to manage the political controversy.” In a city governed almost entirely by radical Democrats, homelessness has stirred up an almost unprecedented controversy heading into city council elections in November, he said.

“The first step in solving these intractable issues is to address the real problem,” wrote Christopher Rufo, a research fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Wealth and poverty. “Addiction is the common denominator for most of the homeless and must be confronted honestly if we have any hope of solving it.” He argued homelessness in Seattle is “an addiction crisis disguised as a housing crisis,” pointing out that King County, home to Seattle, cited the growing homeless population as a major problem in its lawsuit against opioid distributors.

In a policy recommendation released by the Discovery Institute, Rufo suggested a new approach focused on getting the homeless into shelters, providing more support for those suffering from addiction and mental illness, and enforcing camping restrictions. He argued the biggest problem is not a lack of housing, but a lack of relationships. And that problem can’t be solved by continuing to pour money into the same old intended solutions.

Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay A U.S. government holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas

Updating the rules

The Trump administration last week announced a new rule that will replace the Flores settlement, an agreement regulating the detention of migrant children.

The new regulations, posted on Friday, will allow the federal government to license migrant shelters and determine how long to detain families together. The administration said the changes will provide higher standards of migrant care because the process to certify shelters differs between states. U.S. government officials also pointed out families in detention tend to see their cases resolved more quickly than those released on parole. But opponents argued the federal government has a horrible track record of caring for migrants and giving it more control is dangerous.

The Flores settlement, a 1997 agreement between the government and immigration activists, regulated detention conditions for unaccompanied migrant minors. Among other things, it required the government to provide safe and sanitary conditions, counseling and education opportunities, and appropriate recreation for the children, releasing them as soon as possible. In 2015, a judge ruled Flores also applied to accompanied migrant children and established 20 days as the maximum time the government could detain children with their parents. Much of the recent controversy over detention conditions revolved around whether the government is complying with the Flores settlement.

Now, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials are taking that question off the table. But first the rule will have to survive court challenges: Twenty states, including California and Massachusetts, filed lawsuits almost immediately to block the move. —Charissa Koh

Ticket to ride

More than 2,000 Central American migrants have accepted a free ride home instead of waiting for the results of their immigration cases, according to the UN International Organization for Migration. The U.S. State Department is funding the 10-month Assisted Voluntary Return program, providing airplane or bus tickets for migrants who want to return to their home countries.

Immigration advocates warn the program violates the United States’ responsibility to avoid returning migrants where they fear persecution. Others speculate the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, forcing migrants to wait in Mexico for their immigration hearings, is driving them to leave. Departing before their court hearing could result in deportation “in absentia” and make any future attempt to settle in the United States much harder.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is ending a program that allowed migrants to enter and work in the United States while they or relatives received life-saving medical care. Earlier this month, immigration officials sent letters notifying families participating in the program they had 33 days to depart the country. Anthony Marino at the Irish International Immigrant Center said the decision could affect about 20 families with children fighting cancer, HIV, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, and other serious conditions in Boston. People reported receiving similar letters in California and North Carolina. —C.K.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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