Sunday, April 21, 2019

Seattle is Dying? Clearing smoke, breaking mirrors

Homeless camp in Philadelphia
by Gregory Saville

Johann Schropfer was an 18th Century charlatan and swindler famous for his projections of "ghosts" in smoke-filled rooms during seances. That trick was the origin of the smoke and mirrors scam, an illusion perpetrated by someone with something up their sleeve - in Schropfer's case, fraud.

A friend recently texted me the TV documentary Seattle is Dying about homelessness in Seattle. The website of the Seattle KOMO TV station that made the film says: "It's about parents who won't take their children into the public parks they pay for. It's about filth and degradation all around us. And theft and crime."

Homeless shelter in Canberra, Australia
- photo Creative Commons, John Scotas

There's nothing new about blight and fear in urban America. We've blogged on homelessness for years and have been working on the International CPTED Association homelessness committee to develop strategies for CPTED practitioners.

Nor is there anything new about Seattle's homelessness problem. Social workers, police, and others who work with the homeless have justifiably complained about insufficient support and ineffective actions. Politicians struggle to find answers. No doubt this is serious.

But is Seattle's homelessness any different from other places? Local media are supposed to focus on local stories, hopefully, so some good comes out of the coverage. Consider the Los Angeles story about Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician befriended by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote articles and a book on his story (later featured in the 2009 film The Soloist). That turned into millions of dollars in city support for the LA skid row.

What's different in Seattle? Local media now claim Seattle's problem is the worst in the country. Is it?

Homelessness in Toronto


Then I saw a Fox News broadcast about the KOMO documentary and heard this from a right-wing pundit: "Seattle is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is among the most liberal and as a direct result of that Seattle is now a haven for homelessness and drug use." That, says Fox News, is the reason for Seattle's problems. That is also, I suspect, how a smoke and mirrors illusion starts.

Here are lessons to help you smash those mirrors and clear that smoke:
  • Lesson #1: Crime stats around homelessness are notoriously difficult to collect. Those cited in the film are sloppy enough to make a criminologist cringe. 
  • Lesson #2: Homeless stats are even more difficult. Some use nightly street counts, others use shelter counts. Problem is, eastern cities tend to offer mandatory shelter beds for every homeless person (due to more extreme winter weather), whereas many western cities do not. That means homeless counts are inflated in some cities and not in others. Blame the weather, not the politics.
  • Lesson #3: Then there is what criminologists call the base rate problem. To equate a homeless population with a city population base depends on whether you include the inner city, the metro area, or other geographies.  

Sleeping homeless on the street outside a resort in Honduras


Here are some actual stats for 2016 - 2018:

In other words, cities like Miami, Tulsa and Oklahoma City have homeless rates much worse than Seattle. Interestingly, Tulsa and Oklahoma City are among the most conservative cities in the country and Tulsa has a homeless rate double that of Seattle! The KOMO documentary fails to mention that. Why?

Sleeping spot for a Denver homeless person


KOMO News 4 is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, among the most infamous media conglomerates and, according to some political scientists, a close ally of the Trump administration.

Political researchers have studied Sinclair and their outlets and concluded Sinclair has engaged in a litany of biased practices in news reporting and faced intense scrutiny from media critics, as well as some from its own station employees, for the conservative slant of their stations' news reporting.

The Nobel winning Center for Public Integrity has repeatedly raised the alarm about bias at Sinclair stations.

And now the KOMO/Sinclair conglomerate tell us "Seattle is Dying". Is this a case of Fox News pundits using smoke and mirrors for another attack on liberal cities at a time when political polarization is epidemic?

Homelessness truly is a serious problem. It deserves proper research and someone telling the whole story. The suffering of those on the street - and the frustration of well-intentioned professionals like social workers, police, and others - deserve no less. As we have advocated repeatedly, homelessness is a modern scourge we must solve.

To offer up a smoke and mirrors claim that "liberal" cities are the culprit and then use a documentary that ignores crucial homelessness data in other cities makes me wonder; Would Johann Schropfer be impressed?

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Unknown said...

I agree that Stats are difficult. Not only for experienced researchers but definitely also for the press. I would like to focus on solutions first. Of course housing policies, but I found a wonderful solution in Hannover Germany. Every night after the underground metro systeem stops one station is openend for all homeless people. They get a simple meal and bed. In the early morning there is a breakfast and a cleaning of the station. A human centered aapproach!
Paul van Soomeren

GSaville said...

Thanks Paul. Yes I agree, difficult stats (or misusing stats) is a big problem. And I agree Housing First is probably the best long term program. But that example from Hannover Germany is very interesting - ready made shelter from the elements, and the ability to bring services and food. I wonder if that would work in North America?