A homeless tale of two cities


Development is booming.  Rents and home prices are skyrocketing.  And our neighborhoods are changing because of it.

A “State of Emergency” has been declared in response to the out-of-control homelessness problem.  A mayor is under siege.

Sound familiar?

The newspaper recently reported that several Honolulu City Council members have returned from a trip to Seattle to investigate that city’s approach to addressing homelessness and that they were very impressed with much of what they saw.

It turns out that the delegation returned just days before Seattle media launched an avalanche of coverage of their town’s homelessness crisis.  Some of it is quite interesting, and includes accounts of how the problem became so bad there.

After an arsonist set fire to an old residential hotel in 1970 and killed 20 people, Seattle enacted an ordinance that sharply restricted residential occupancy of buildings that lacked certain fire safety features.  One consequence was that lots of low-income housing quickly disappeared.  Noncompliant buildings remained empty while visible homelessness increased.

The fire “allowed people who might have had ulterior motives to cloak themselves in the gown of morality and to express concern for the safety of people living in sub-standard housing” to “expedite getting the folks out of there and knocking these buildings down so you could capitalize on the property.”

Meanwhile, the job market changed and the pace of redevelopment quickened.  Efforts to preserve affordable housing faltered, and requirements that developers provide more housing were defeated or left unenforced.

Cutbacks and policy changes closed mental health facilities and responses were insufficient.  Some of the most vulnerable people ended up out on the street.  The community was shocked and wondered, “Where are all the nuts coming from?”

Emergency room workers began including the notation “PLS” next to names in their logbook — short for Poor Lost Soul.

Sleeping near Queens

Other factors, like a terrible heroin abuse epidemic, made things much worse.

Now, many in Seattle say things are as bad as ever, or worse, and the mayor is under lots of pressure to get things under control.  The problems are too big to ignorePeople wonder if they’re getting their money’s worth for emergency spending to address the crisis.

It’s worth reading and thinking about.

And here at home, a controversial bill that’s meant to reform some services provided to the homeless, but that critics fear could reduce emergency shelter space and leave more people on the street, did not appear on the governor’s veto list the other day.  That means it will become law with or without the governor’s signature.

We could be in for a long, bumpy ride.





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