Notes from Jonathan Martin’s October 11, 2018 Address from Spirit of Hope

Let me tell you a short story: a woman had a successful career in engineering. She lived a tidy, fulfilled life of work, love and travel. Her Facebook feed was sprinkled with those humble-brag photos we all know - mimosa in the Greek isles, adorable thoroughbred dogs rolling on an emerald green lawn, in her partner’s embrace, their heads tilted just so. And then, in less than a year, she lost it all. A workplace trauma metastasized in a full blown anxiety disorder. Breakup, job loss, eviction.

Those are elements of a traditional heartbreaking feature story, the type you’re used to reading in a newspaper like those I’ve worked for 20-some years. In fact, I’ve written that story, many times.

But a few months ago, there she was, on stage in front of 300 people and a live on-line audience, at an event my team at the Seattle Times hosted. She had a very different story to tell. She had lived in her little white Mazda for seven years – seven years - and described the complicated social architecture of homelessness.

She was fiercely resilient and as fragile as an eggshell. She managed her anxiety, and the seemingly chaotic life of a vehicle camper with dignity and ingenuity. She knew where she could find odd jobs to pay for gas, where to find a shower, where she could safely park for the night in the neighborhoods around Seattle’s Green Lake park. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand, because her story popped the bubble of so many assumptions we hold of homeless people.

I think about her story often as I help the Seattle Times shape its coverage of homelessness.

I’ve covered human services for most of my career, and continually fear that compassion fatigue will cloud readers’ eyes and our stories will become, to quote Bart Simpson, blah blah blah.

That has not happened. The region is wrestling with rise in homelessness in interesting ways. Yes, there is frustration and confusion. Some cities that seem to define success as Greyhound welfare – a bus ticket to anywhere else. But every day we see people leaning into the problem. If you are here tonight, I bet you are one of those leaners.

We see waves of volunteers, weekend do-it-yourselfers offering to hammer out new homes or to cook a meal for a bunch of street kids with face tattoos. Folks are dropping backyard cottages into their bungalow’s backyards and welcoming in homeless families. Our readers are diving into research literature to understand complicated social problems at the root of homelessnes, and asking their elected leaders why they’re not more aggressively pursuing more solutions.

This has been my year as a sort of informed tourist on the new soil of the Puget Sound’s homelessness epidemic. It as interesting and provocative of a year as I’ve had my 20 as a journalist. The number of homeless people sleeping outside has doubled in the past five years statewide; on any given night, there are more unsheltered people than live in Burlington.

What’s going on? Right? That’s the big question. To understand and explain and investigate this, my team at The Seattle times has dug deep into the region, and visited the entire West Coast – from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. – and seen the way that the explosion in homelessness along the Pacific states transforming those cities, including Seattle, where I’ve lived for most of the last 28 years.

My four takeaways from this year in a strange land.

We have a definition problem. When we say homelessness, what we’re really describing is the end result of a pile of intractable problems, from untreated and stigmatized mental illness to the opioid crisis. But as many people say in surveys that they are homeless because of low wages as because of substance abuse. Did you know that average wages, after accounting for and adjusting for inflation, are lower now than in 1970?

Sprinkle that pile with escalating housing prices. The central Puget Sound, especially Seattle, has won the economic lottery with its hub of trained high tech workers. But that asset has put a starter home out of reach for many millennials not sitting on a pile of stock options.

Let’s be clear: When we’re talking about homelessness, we’re really talking about is extreme poverty. Instead of calling my team Project Homeless, we probably should call it Project Extreme Poverty. Doesn’t quite have the ring to it. But precision of language is important. When we label all those the drivers of extreme poverty as “homelessness,” we create an expectation that a roof alone will fix the problem.

It certainly helps, of course. But making the solution seem tidy – just build a roof, and walk away - creates a feedback loop with the public. And that sets false expectation, like the 10 year plan to end homelessness, which has to be worst marketing slog on I’ve ever heard.

To solve homelessness is to solve extreme poverty, and that’s a thing we’ve never done in America.

My team is digging into potential solutions, and before every story, we try to get clarity: what are we really talking about? Is this a story about the 40 percent or so of the homeless population that have serious untreated substance abuse? Is this a solution to house runaway kids? If this is a story about family homelessness, are we really talking about domestic violence. Clarity. Because if the public is going to buy into a solution what is, - in reality, extreme poverty -  we better be clear.

There are solutions. In those trips up and down the West Coast – and around the Puget Sound – we’ve seen lots of interesting ideas that are making a difference. In San Diego, we met Ester and Richard. She was a Starbucks barista, him, an Uber driver. But they couldn’t afford housing, and they lived in a Jeep Cherokee they called “She Hulk” while trying to raise a toddler.

In Seattle, they’d be left to fend for themselves. San Diego has a simple model, filling up the parking lots of churches and business and nonprofit agencies at night with families sleeping in cars. They pay for case managers to help untangle their problems and get housed. And they make a clear choice – you can’t stay here, but you can stay here. It’s cost effective, and effective.

In Tacoma, we met Tre-Vonne. He was raising a daughter who needed a heart transplant while working as a barber and security guard. He owed a bunch of money to his old landlord, and that prevented him from getting a place for him and her. He needed just a little boost to divert them from shelter. In my life, that would be called a credit card. With the help of a new strategy, called diversion, Tre-Vonne got money for a damage deposit. Just like that, he and his daughter weren’t homeless.

In Vancouver, outreach workers found an old oilfields roustabout named Richard sleeping in a tent near the waterfront. Vanouver has some of the most expensive land prices in North America, but the city went big on modular housing, and brought down the cost of new projects to one-fifth the cost of traditional methods. Those outreach workers offered Richard a little efficiency apartment, and there was one less tent in Vancouver.

Yah know thing common to each of those cities? They picked a strategy and got everyone on board. In San Diego, that meant hard decisions, about where people could park. In Vancouver, they cut through bureaucracy like a samari, and switched up their zoning code, despite some opposition. There are solutions, but governments have to be committed to make big, hard decisions.

Another takeaway: this isn’t going to be solved in silos. Do you know who the homelessness czar of Washington state is? Who is in charge of homelessness in King County, with one of the worst homelessness problems in America? No? Me neither – and I probably should know! There is no one person in charge. As far as I can tell, there’s also no coherent strategy to end homelessness in Washington, or Central Puget Sound, or in King County. The authority is spread like butter across agencies and fiefdoms, leaving lots of finger pointing but no plan.

Extreme poverty and homelessness don’t read maps. It doesn’t end at one city’s border or another. It is a regional problem. Right now, there are case managers in Seattle, holding rental vouchers paid for with city of Seattle dollars, trying to find apartments that are affordable to their clients. They’re placing people in Puyallup, and North Bend, and, I bet, in Skagit County.

We do regional planning in transportation, and economic development, and business. I don’t know what you think of Sound Transit, but say this: it is a three-county effort to solve a regional problem. In homelessness, there’s nothing like that. Why is that?

Another takeaway: Homelessness is full of fake news. Here’s what I mean. My team recently asked our readers what question about homelessness they wanted answered. We got close to 1,000 questions! We’re going to be at this for a while!

Overwhelmingly, people were convinced that a) their home city was a magnet for migrating hordes of homeless people from somewhere else, and b) those hordes were migrating there because of the services they offered. When we went to answer that question, we checked in with surveyors who work in a dozen West Coast cities, and ya know what? Everyone had the same concern.

Here's what the data says: about 4 out of five homeless people are homegrown. That holds true in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and a bunch of cities with lots of services. Of the out-of-towners – that 20 percent – about 20 percent of those people say they migrate for services. This data isn’t perfect, and some of it’s self-reported, so take it with a healthy grain of salt.

When I think about migrating homeless people, I think of Byron. He lived in western Montana, at times was homeless, living in his truck. When Seattle passed the highest minimum wage in the nation, he thought $15 an hour sounded great. He went West. He crashed on his brother’s couch. He worked at a restaurant. But Byron learned that $15 an hour in Seattle didn’t go far. That friend’s couch eventually got cold. His drinking picked up. And, a year after his big move to Seattle, he was homeless.

What does that story tell you? It tells me that people who find themselves homeless move for a lot of the same reasons that I moved to Seattle – a better paying job, be closer to family, Seattle is cool place to be. 

Ask yourself, how far are you from that happening to you? Four out of five Americans live pay check to paycheck.

My last takeaway: I have to remind myself this is not normal. The tents have become so routine that on my daily commute I find myself trying to write on original story for each homestead. I am an enthusiastic camper, and know the cheap brands with poles break in a heavy rain, and see them being distributed, one by one, by an activist group on a rainy morning in Pioneer Square. I saw an expensive brand the other day, squatted firmly next to a bus stop in a neighborhood of affluence, and imagined a backstory, one that involves me. I see a short journey, from my good job, and smart wife and beautiful kids, and our little bungalow home, all the way down the economic ladder - in a fast slide, to that red Marmot brand tent, tent stakes driven in deeply to a park overlooking the Space Needle.

I urge you to not become immune or to become cynical. This is not normal. We are living at a moment in time of overall economic prosperity, although that prosperity is not even spread. Our state is struggling with an opioid epidemic. Its mental health system has never been robust, and right now it is just short of a hot mess. Our housing is getting more expensive. These are difficult problems, but there are some solutions, if we are willing to lean in.

OK, one more takeaway, and forgive me an indulgence. Journalism needs you too. There are half as many reporters working now in the Central Puget Sound as there was a decade ago. I’m lucky enough to work for the last major metro newspaper on the West Coast owned by a family, but my salary is paid by community and philanthropic grants, because the paper could not afford to have a homelessness team without them.

I won’t ask what you think of “the media,” and the talking heads on TV cable news, in this unique political moment we’re in. But know this: the hardworking folks as the Skagit Valley Herald have as much to do with Anderson Cooper at CNN as your auto mechanic does with Elon Musk.

Journalism is vital to communities like this one because without factual reporting, we lack the capacity to share ideas and good news that bind us together. Elected leaders operate without accountability. Democracy dies in darkness.

Journalism is not free. Support a local news outlet you like. Subscribe. Read.

Thank you for having me here tonight.