OPINION: Seattle doesn’t have a ‘trash’ problem, it has an equity problem
by Elizabeth Kirk
When Mayor Harrell campaigned on “clean up town” – I hope he didn’t mean to sweep people and issues under the rug.
I’m so sick of reading about dumpsters in Seattle, when what the locals are really complaining about is the existence of homelessness. Waste is not the problem, but rather one of the many unpleasant aesthetic consequences of unprecedented poverty and inequality.
Take a minute to imagine not having access to a trash can. In fact, imagine it. In fact, go look in your trash. There’s that cup of yogurt, a bottle of water, a pair of worn-out shoes, a bottle of shampoo, or an old newspaper. Now imagine that you also don’t have regular access to a toilet, a compost bin, or a car to haul old furniture to the landfill, like the estimated 11,751 people homeless in Seattle right now. So yeah, no kidding, Seattle has a lot of public trash.
But it’s cheap to say Seattle has a litter problem or even to say Seattle has a homelessness problem. Seattle has an inequality problem, a privilege problem, a NIMBY problem, and an obsession with funding cheap aesthetic solutions instead of addressing root causes. And while yes, of course we want less waste, I hope Seattle’s new mayor and his administration will focus on the goals of compassion, fairness, and dignity first.
To that end, Mayor Harrell should address the root causes of homelessness and wealth inequality: economic growth, lack of housing units and an overstretched social safety net. The city’s homelessness webpage, not updated since 2018, continues to cite mental health issues, substance abuse and violence as underlying causes for people living without housing. But experts continue to show that these issues are contributing factors at best, and more likely just scapegoating. Increasing access to these services is not enough to reduce homelessness.
A Seattle study by McKinsey makes it clear: “People point to alcohol abuse and, in the case of veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder, as possible root causes. In fact, the majority are not drug addicts and very few people cite drug addiction as a root cause of homelessness. Instead, McKinsey writes, “Economic growth in the region is a leading cause of homelessness. While the region is accumulating impressive numbers in terms of job creation and economic growth, its housing growth has not kept pace. The gap between housing supply and demand has driven prices up to the point that the poorest people simply cannot afford housing without public assistance.
But building affordable housing takes time, and rebuilding a drained social safety net costs money. Seattle can’t end homelessness overnight, or in a single campaign cycle, which never appeals to politicians.
During the campaign trail, Harrell voiced support for Charter Amendment Measure 29, notoriously known as Compassion Seattle, which would have increased the number and rate of encampment sweeps. Now in office, the mayor should completely change course. Instead, Harrell must implement options to reduce damage by slowing the pace of encampment sweeps and increasing transparency about where homeless people can find alternative shelter. The City should also prioritize moving assistance to safe locations, provide free access to storage, and prevent the loss of personal property during sweeps.
Continuing to underfund solutions and ignore our homeless neighbors has tragic consequences, including dramatic early death rates, as reported by a University of Washington study and local organization Homeless Death Counts.
As citizens, instead of focusing on aesthetics, we should focus on creating an inclusive city. We should reach out to self-help groups helping our homeless neighbors, donate to shelters and small home villages, like Rosie’s near UW, and vote for inclusive zoning measures that make Seattle affordable for everyone. . We need to do better to create a Seattle that prioritizes and centers people, not horrors.
And if you still can’t get over the litter problem, arrange to pick it up — adopting a street is free.
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Elizabeth Kirk is a second-year master’s student in public administration at the University of Washington, where she studies urban policy, social justice, and poverty reduction.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Linda Parton/Shutterstock.com
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