Like a lot of US cities, Seattle followed a federal mandate to implement a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, beginning in July 2005. Now, in the tenth of its ten years, homelessness is not over. Ironically enough, it has grown steadily over the last decade. In the last few years, the evidence has become impossible to ignore. People huddle in our doorways in the morning. Tents and camps spill over onto almost any level patch of green space in the downtown area. Even the most blinkered among us begins to suspect that we live in the midst of a slow-motion economic crisis—an economy that rewards some of our neighbours richly, others not at all.
According to the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, more than 24,000 residents will experience homelessness in any given year. On any given night in Seattle over nine thousand people will be homeless—that’s a fourteen percent increase over the previous year. Not coincidentally, rent in Seattle has increased by almost that much—eleven percent—since 2010. That’s more than any other large city in the country. In fact, Seattle has become the fastest growing city in the country. What I’d like to do here is to sketch out some provisional theses for future work on the relationship between poverty, shelter, and the growth of ostensibly “world-class” cities like Seattle.
It is precisely the failure of Seattle’s ten year plan that raises these issues, and therefore, also raises the possibility of a more radical, relational, multiscalar approach to ending the crisis of homelessness. My thinking here comes out of five years of ethnographic research in Seattle with shelterless residents, advocates, and the anarchist soup kitchen called Food Not Bombs.
Ostensibly, Seattle’s original plan emphasized the construction of new affordable housing and new pathways to permanent housing, while streamlining or shrinking the existing emergency shelter system. The Committee, a “broad coalition of government, business, faith communities, nonprofits, and homeless advocates” claims some successes—for example, in developing new housing units. But it has equally been the subject of a range of harsh criticisms. They range from relative complacency and underfunding to misguided priorities, inadequate representation, and selective representation of its data. (I’ll come back to some of these in a moment.) For now, it is enough to point out that Seattle’s affordable housing stock still, according to advocates, falls dreadfully short of demand, and the number of shelterless people continues to grow. The Committee has acknowledged these developments, but none too loudly.
The larger context of the plan’s failure, conspicuously absent from the Committee’s public statements until recently, has been Seattle’s ongoing transformation into a global city. Global cities, according to Saskia Sassen, who coined the term, are not defined by their “world class” amenities or standard of living. Rather, they are cities that have come to perform key command functions of the global economy: while manufacturing is decentralised, casualised, and feminized throughout the globe, global cities agglomerate the informational skills and infrastructure that make that decentralization possible: telecommunications, finance, accounting, marketing, information technology, and so on. These white-collar industries themselves depend on low-waged service industries, from janitors to restaurants, and so Sassen postulates that the distribution of income in global cities is polarized. It resembles less a normal distribution and more a camel with two humps, huddled at either end the income spectrum.
Such a city is Seattle. As information technology and other white collar industries boom, the median income has climbed to $70,000. The highest 20 percent of income earners averaged $248,000 per annum in 2013, up $15,000 dollars from the previous year (ibid.). The bottom 20 percent averaged just $13,000 (ibid.). In global cities, however, the cost of living and the qualitative dimensions of the city’s life are largely dictated by the top twenty percent. Indeed, Seattle might be argued to be in the throes of what Harvey Molotch called the “growth machine,” as new housing in excess of demand seems to be paradoxically raising the cost of shelter. Seattle’s rising tide has not floated all the boats. Growth and development are not natural allies with any plan to end homelessness.
The absence of this context from the city’s ten-year plan indicates a fundamentally unrelational way of thinking about homelessness and its solutions. Indeed, the plan established its original targets without any allowance for Seattle’s potential growth, or its implications for housing development, income inequality, public spending, or homelessness. As if homelessness existed in an ontological vacuum, quite apart from the rest of the city. A range of advocates have challenged this unrelationality over the last decade, however. Early on, they successfully opposed the plan’s intent to phase out emergency shelter as shelter-dwellers were moved into long-term housing—arguing that this amounted to a profoundly myopic zero-sum game when there were already several thousand more shelterless people than there were shelter beds. Further, others have suggested that the amount of new low-income housing reported by the Committee failed to take into account the growth of the city’s median income (low-income is defined at 30% of Area Median Income, which, as we’ve seen, remains far out of the reach of the bottom twenty percent of income earners), not to mention the equally rapid loss of existing affordable housing stock to development, as Seattle Housing Authority cedes the land to eager developers. Finally, at the urging of the recent movement by homeless activists to “Occupy the Committee to End Homelessness in King County,” the Committee has begun to include more meaningful input from shelterless people themselves, and to shift its emphasis from a singular concentration on low-income housing to a more diverse cross-section of services and constituents—from homeless youth to car campers—and even systemic root causes, such as education and jobs.
These discussions are deeply encouraging, and point the way to more holistic, relational principles (emerging from a more relational conversation, that finally includes homeless people) for overcoming the current crisis of homelessness, not in a vacuum, but as it is shaped by the political economy of the global city—an approach which does not take the city’s growth and redevelopment as a given, but which rather aims at a new, more compassionate definition for what really constitutes a “world-class” place to live.
(This essay was originally published in Anthropology News as “Ending Homelessness in the Global City”.)