Christopher F. Rufo joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss an urban struggle with street homelessness and the political fight around it in the Pacific Northwest’s largest city.
Known as the “Emerald City” because its surrounding areas are filled with greenery year-round, Seattle has recently seen an explosion of homelessness, crime, and drug addiction. Municipal cleanup crews pick up tens of thousands of dirty needles from the streets, and tent-villages have become a regular presence.
Seattle’s political debate on the question has been maddening: city officials who propose practical solutions to remove individuals or encampments arouse fierce opposition from progressive activists. Ultimately, courageous political leadership will be needed if the city is to solve its homelessness crisis.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is your host, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. The cities of the Pacific northwest have long been a magnet for street people. In 2017 we did a podcast with City Journal writer Michael Totten on Portland's challenges with homelessness, but today we're here to talk about its next door neighbor: Seattle, Washington. Over the past half-decade, the Emerald City has seen an explosion of homelessness as well as crime and addiction, and the situation doesn't appear to be improving anytime soon. In the Autumn 2018 Issue of City Journal, Seattle-resident Christopher Rufo documents the city's political struggle to deal with the crisis, in an essay entitled "Seattle Under Siege." Chris joined us on the podcast from his home in Seattle and our conversation begins after this. We hope you enjoy. Hello again everyone.
Brian Anderson: This is Brian Anderson, editor of city journal. Joining me on the show today is Christopher Rufo. Chris is the executive director for the documentary foundation and a research fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Wealth and Poverty. He’s directed three documentaries for PBS and his next film, America Lost. It tells the story of life in three struggling American cities, Youngstown, Ohio, Memphis, Tennessee in Stockton, California. But here we're going to talk about his first major essay for city journal, a story entitled “Seattle Under Siege.” It appeared in our Autumn 2018 Issue. Chris, thanks very much for joining us.
First question: just how bad is Seattle's homelessness problem? What kind of impact is it having on quality of life generally in the city and what's the mood of the city's residents like yourself? So it's actually three questions to get us going.
Chris Rufo: Sure. Well, you know, the, the idea of the 10 blocks podcast is really apt because I'll tell, I'll tell you how people feel. Just within 10 blocks of my house here in Seattle, Washington, north of the ship canal, we've had an explosion of homelessness. It's gone up 400 percent in the last year alone. And this has had tremendous knock-on consequences. We've had a gentleman, arrested for armed robbery who was camping behind a daycare. We had another gentleman who set someone on fire a few blocks the street from my house and there's just been a constant slow rolling explosion of homeless encampments, property crime and addiction. I recently gave a presentation and here in the Ballard neighborhood, and I took a show of hands, had about 100 people and I said, "who's been the victim of a property crime and assault or another kind of low level offense that was homelessness related?" And about nine out of 10. So 90 people out of 100 raise their hands. So we've created a situation in Seattle that is, I'm verging on catastrophic and people are tremendously concerned.
Brian Anderson: In your essay, you describe the political debate around the homelessness crisis in the city as being divided into four broad categories. All of them variants of liberal or left-leaning thought. Do you want to say something about the kind of political culture of Seattle and how that's feeding into this crisis?
Chris Rufo: Yeah, I think the main problem that we see in Seattle is that our homelessness policies are ideologically driven and I've divided up into four categories. We have the socialists contingent, they have a councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who's a member of the Socialist Alternative Party, and they keep hammering away at this idea that homelessness is a housing problem and that will only solve it by building public housing, which ignores the overwhelming evidence that's been stable in the academic literature since the 1990s that about 80 percent of people who are on the streets, uh, struggle with lifetime drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, uh, which are the biggest contributors to homelessness and really can't be solved just by building housing units. The second is what I call the compassion brigades. These are people for whom compassion is the highest virtue and actually the only virtue in how they make policy.
Chris Rufo: But the fatal flaw in that point of view is that they measure compassion by inputs. How much money are we spending? How much do we care? How good do we look, um, in, in our policy rhetoric? And then they ignore the, the consequences and the disastrous policy affects, um, you know, in the, in the puget sound region and King County, which is the most populous county in Washington state, total public and private spending on homelessness is now more than a billion dollars a year. That's about $80,000 for every homeless man, woman and child that's spent every year. It's extremely compassionate, but it's extremely ineffective because actually the problem has been getting worse every year. Uh, the third one is the homeless industrial complex. Anytime there's a billion dollars a year in spending, that means that people are making a tremendous amount of money. And in the City Journal essay, I highlight one organization, one of the largest recipients of city contracts is called the DESC.
Chris Rufo: And this started as a very small nonprofit. I'm helping people, in the 1970s, get off the streets, get them fed, get them sheltered, and get them on the path to independence. Now it's kind of this sprawling behemoth that employs more than 900 people. They pay salaries oftentimes above $200,000 a year and they're sitting on $113,000,000 of downtown real estate. These are major interest groups and their incentives are not to make the, are not to solve the problem, but to perpetuate the problem because there's this perverse mechanism by which they get, they get bigger contracts, the more homelessness there is, so in a deep economic way, their incentives aren't aligned with solving the problem. And then finally something that I think might be new to, to even to city journal readers, um, there's this burgeoning movement of what I'm calling addiction evangelism. Uh, in the past, people had the addiction model of recovery, of sobriety, of getting people back and healthy.
Chris Rufo: But in a city like Seattle, there's a movement to not only decriminalize addiction, but to actually publicly subsidize it. There's a movement led by a quote unquote harm reduction, uh, groups that are really pushing so-called safe injection sites to allow addicts to go to a government funded facility to shoot up heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines under the supervision of a, of a, of a nurse. Um, the theory is that it will reduce overdose deaths, but actually they've been trying that in Vancouver, Canada for the past 10 years and it's had no impact on reducing addiction and it's actually created a what a magnet effect that's drawing people in from outside. And Seattle actually recently after the piece was published, went a step further and the city council just approved a one point $3,000,000 budget to approve mobile heroin injection bands. So a city funded van will be essentially moving from place to place around neighborhoods, allowing addicts to jump in, inject heroin under the nurses' supervision and jump out. And the more I'm talking to people, I'm just everyday folks, uh, law enforcement officers, neighbors, attorney's service workers, construction workers, once they actually find out what's going on, they're shocked and appalled. But we have such an ideologically driven public policy in Seattle that's driven by activists that whose, whose, whose interest is so great that they control the policy debate even though they represent a tiny fraction of the population.
Brian Anderson: I'm sure many of our listeners are aware, Seattle is synonymous these days nationally with its big, very progressive minded corporations that were founded in the area. Amazon, of course, and Microsoft and Starbucks, being the big three. Um, you know, I'm curious, has there been any push from these very powerful business groups to address the homelessness problem? Um, or if they stayed out of the debate or have they joined the wrong side on it?
Chris Rufo: So that, that's a great question. And this is one of the greatest surprises that I found over the last few years observing this phenomenon. Um, we have a huge business sector, high tech, uh, we have great manufacturing companies, consumer companies, shipping companies, and in theory, the of Chamber of Commerce class could be exerting a massive influence on public policy. But what I think has actually happened is that they've been cowed by activists. People are so afraid of crossing the activists, of having the wrong opinions of, of going against the grain, of the prevailing political orthodoxy that even these giants like your Microsofts and your Amazons and your Boeings and your Starbucks really have refused to engage and refuse to participate. Um, they, they kind of do some obligatory spending on homelessness, but they aren't advocating for the kind of common sense. I'm a stronger public policies that I think they would. And I think what, what's really happening is that even though these are companies with a clear economic interest, um, they've essentially been put in a, in a, in a kind of a fear mentality.
Chris Rufo: And, and not to mention that a lot of the folks, you know, Seattle, I think Seattle was something around 10 percent Republican, 90 percent Democrat. Um, so the, the, the political center of gravity is very far to the left. And uh, companies have been, the activists have successfully bullied these companies into silence and to not engage in. And even during the head tax debate last year, which was a attacks that the city council passed and then repealed, um, the, the inside baseball that I've heard is that the chamber of Commerce almost didn't get involved with the effort to repeal a head tax that would tax all of their, uh, all of their employees. And um, and that just shows you that there, there is, I think at one at one time, a tremendous reluctance but also a tremendous potential. And I think that if business, the situation gets bad enough in business, gets engaged, uh, we may be able to see some changes even in Seattle.
Chris Rufo: In terms of changes. What's your view of some, some of the kinds of policies, uh, at work in other cities that have had some success in Reducing Street homelessness? Here I'm thinking of, of San Diego or, or Houston or perhaps even New York go though are our problem here is, is growing, you know, certainly over the last three or four years. I think that if you look at the kind of broader landscape of American cities, many have done a great job at Reducing Street homelessness and I think it starts with, you have to build that quickly. Temporary emergency FEMA-style shelters. That's what San Diego did. They built a, using all private philanthropic donations. They built 900 shelter beds in just eight weeks a while here in Seattle. We're talking about these massive public housing projects that will take decades. San Diego did something very smart. They created the shelter beds because you have to create somewhere to go for all the people that are sleeping on the streets.
Chris Rufo: Um, and they did that first and then that allowed them to actually enforce the law, which I think is the second step. And I talked with many police officers here in Seattle and they're so frustrated because the message from the top is don't enforce any of the, uh, don't, don't enforce the law against public camping, but also don't enforce any of the related crimes that are highly correlated and associated with homelessness. A littering property crime, uh, you know, public drug consumption, vandalism. Uh, and, and we've essentially decriminalized that entire class of low level offenses, but that has to be the second step. So first build housing, second, enforce the law and get people off the streets and into housing. The third step is provide services. I think that everyone in Seattle and across the country as Americans, we're a, a generous, uh, compassionate people. And if someone is suffering from an addiction, if someone is suffering a temporary economic hardship, if someone is suffering from a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, we should really put, pull out all this, pull all the stops and do everything we can to help them.
Chris Rufo: And then the fourth, I propose a couple of new ideas, um, which is create a jobs program. There's a great nonprofit in Seattle called the millionaire club and they kind of do a work first approach to homelessness where they immediately get people, um, who are experiencing homelessness. I'm cleaning up the streets, working in stadiums, doing kind of a public public works projects. And I'd say that if you can offer an immediate $15 an hour job, which is the minimum wage in Seattle to every person that's struggling with homelessness, you're giving them an opportunity so you provide housing, enforced a law, provides services, and then provide opportunity. Because I think one of the critical judge philosophical mistakes that we have in Seattle is that we think the job has done when we get people off the streets and into housing, my view is that you actually want to go a step further and get people on the path to independence.
Chris Rufo: You've got to give them an opportunity to then become self sufficient. And I think that if you've, if you've really spent a lot of time with, with the homeless and with successful programs, you can see incredible, remarkable transformations and that really you have to set the right tail, lost the right ends. And I think that you have to set a higher standard for people even who are at the bottom of society. You have to tell them that you have to provide them with a message that you can do it. You can recover, you can get back on your feet and you can be successful. And I think that we really have to change how we think fundamentally about the homelessness crisis. If we want any, if we want to have any hope for resolving it grows. So just to change registers a little bit. You had launched at least the beginning of a campaign for city council, uh, this past year and a had to pull out or decided to pull out to.
Chris Rufo: Do you want to describe that experience a little bit? Yeah. You know, I think that, uh, you know, Seattle is, is struggling with this homelessness crisis and I felt like, um, some new ideas were really necessary and a for about a year. Some of my colleagues and mentors and neighbors and friends had really encouraged me to run for city council to try to provide a counterweight to some of the policies that have been so disastrous over the last decade. And, um, I, I put my hat in the ring early and I got tremendous support from across the city, from a lot of people in neighborhoods who are fed up with some of the policy of failures that they're seeing every day. Um, but I, I got the, a very quick education in how activists pressure groups work. And, uh, in, in very short time period as my campaign was gaining some momentum, um, I started getting barraged by harassment, by threats.
Chris Rufo: I'm one individual from an activist group had posted, um, hundreds of messages, a threatening messages over the period of a few weeks. Um, they had gone after my wife attempting to get her fired from her employer. She works at Microsoft. Um, they had gone, they had been posting white supremacists content, uh, to my family. And I'm, I'm a, I'm a biracial family, interracial marriage. And uh, they have mixed race kids. Um, and uh, and then the final straw is they actually went after my kids, um, they started posting hateful messages to my eight year old son school, facebook page. And, uh, um, and, and, and not only that, they, they, they let people know that they knew where I lived and, um, and really just kind of uh, engaged in a reign of terror. And, uh, I very regretfully withdrew from the race because it was a decision that I had to make for the best interest of my family.
Chris Rufo: And I, I felt conflicted because I deeply want policy change. But the political environment, as you've seen with in Seattle, as you've seen with Andy knows, reporting for city journal down in Portland, um, is saturated with the threat of violence. And, uh, I think that we have to really resolve that deeper cultural issue and we have to push back against this kind of a totalitarian impulse in our, in our biggest cities if we want to have successful candidates that are running in the center or even the right of center. And um, I decided that for the best interest of my family and also for the broader question, I wanted to really shift my focus back to the cultural side. And hopefully that if we can figure out some strategies to combat this kind of violence and intimidation, um, in the longterm we can see some improvement.
Brian Anderson: Finally, Chris, you're, as I mentioned in the introduction, a documentary filmmaker, you have a new film coming out that will be of interest certainly to city journal readers. It's called America Los. Do you want to take a moment to just talk about that a little bit?
Chris Rufo: Yeah. So, America Lost is a feature length documentary feature. I'm exploring life in three, a what I'm calling forgotten American cities. Uh, Youngstown, Ohio, the quintessential rustbelt city, Memphis, Tennessee, urban, southern African-American city, and then stopped in California, which is a, a tremendously interesting city. It's a kind of a mixed racial city, a quarter white, a quarter black corner, Latino and a quarter Asian. Um, and a representative of the interior of California in stark contrast to the very prosperous coastal cities. And I spent about three years in these places really trying to understand what went wrong and if there's any hope for reviving these places.
Chris Rufo: And I kind of tested out some of the policy ideas and I really started thinking, well, what were the public policies that led to the decline of these once prosperous American cities? And then over time I realized that there are these deeper economic and social changes since the 1960s really, that have devastated these cities. I'm well beyond the reach of our public policy and that really became the focus. So I, I look at some of family life, I follow them over the course of about three years as they're struggling through these, um, in some cases apocalyptic conditions, um, and I really look at the kind of social, cultural, and even spiritual dynamics at play in these cities that have been truly left behind in our modern American economy. And, uh, I think what I've really learned is that, um, we're still struggling with this transition from the modern industrial economy to the postmodern postindustrial economy.
Chris Rufo: And this has created kind of a bifurcated world where I'm sitting in Seattle, Washington. I'm within walking distance of, you know, 40,000 Amazon employees. Um, but then I fly out to Youngstown, um, and it looks like Nagasaki after the atomic bomb drop in World War II and there's this great tension between that people are really feeling between the prosperous cities where wealth has become more concentrated and then these cities that in my best analysis have failed to make the transition into from the modern into the postmodern world. Um, and uh, that's, I think one of the most critical questions that we face as Americans, uh, looking forward to the next 20, 30, 40 years.
Brian Anderson: It's a theme that we've been exploring a city journal over the last couple of years, including a special issue that we put up a in 2017 called the shape of work to come. Don't forget to check out. Christopher Rufo is wonderful and important essay "Seattle Under Siege." You can find it on our website, www.city-journal.org, you can follow Chris on Twitter, @Rufodox. We would also love to hear your comments about today's episode on twitter at City Journal. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Chris for joining us.
Photo by David Lee / FlickR