Coronavirus Exposes Failed Progressive Homeless Policies | Opinion

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed progressive policies on urban homelessness as abject failures. In our most densely populated cities, homeless men and women have become vectors of the disease, exposing the general public and each other alike to a potentially deadly virus.

For years, city leaders across the country have adopted a rather laissez-faire approach to addressing the homelessness crisis. Activists have called for an end to "sweeps", which include social workers and cops clearing dangerous encampments while offering services to those impacted. Instead, activists enabled by increasingly progressive city councils, push for services to be delivered to the encampments—including portable toilets, trash pick-up and even mobile heroin injection sites.

Meanwhile, politicians eye funding towards "affordable housing" measures, an increasingly meaningless idea that simply demands government agencies take a heavier hand in building and maintaining housing for homeless and low-income residents.

Consequently, too many homeless were on the streets when the coronavirus pandemic hit. And without consistent access to everything they'd need to protect themselves from catching and spreading the coronavirus (soap and water, masks and online or media resources on mitigation tips), not only did many catch the virus. They're spreading it, too—so much so that some cities have now completely stopped the sweeps, just as activists called them to do before the pandemic, arguing that bringing sick homeless patients into shelters will just prolong the outbreak.

Now, the homeless encampments are growing, sometimes taking over neighborhoods.

In Seattle, one neighborhood saw alarming encampment growth. And as the encampments grew, so too did crime. In one 28-day period, Seattle saw a 21 percent increase in burglaries. In the West Precinct, which includes the downtown core, burglaries jumped an astounding 87 percent.

The increase in encampments and crime caught off guard the residents of Ballard. The residential Seattle neighborhood, boasting breathtaking views of the Puget Sound and a laundry list of trendy restaurants, was simply overwhelmed by the influx of homelessness.

Residents could no longer enjoy the picturesque neighborhood. Instead, they witnessed trash piling up, used needles near parks and schools, and human waste on sidewalks. In the last several years, the neighborhood became a hotbed of homelessness, pitting mostly wealthy residents against activists who almost wanted to see homeowners deal with homelessness as a punishment for their home ownership.

But the encampments have now become too much. "I believe the community is at a point where it's every man for himself," a resident told KOMO TV.

Residents may start a neighborhood watch program. Some are arming themselves with handguns for protection. Others won't walk alone at night. And the encampments in Ballard? Not only were some of the homeless dealing with the coronavirus, but there was also an outbreak of 14 cases of Hepatitis A—finally forcing the city to intervene and break up the encampment.

Unfortunately, as was the case in Ballard, most homeless don't take up the city's offer of support. They know there's no consequence for refusing help.

Instead of a mixed carrot-and-stick approach, using police discretion to leverage punishment and induce the homeless to seek municipal services, progressive politicians have passively requested the homeless to enter into the system. If they're not ready or willing to get help, police are seldom allowed to engage at all. This approach keeps them in the street. It's what made them so susceptible to the coronavirus.

Outside of Seattle, cities in neighboring Snohomish County have had tremendous luck tackling homelessness. The homeless get to choose a path to subsidized services that gets them off the streets—or they go to jail when they break the law. Snohomish County prefers the homeless take services but, unlike in Seattle, the county is not scared to put them in jail if need be.

Many homeless folks didn't take offers of help and were arrested. Then, law enforcement officers offer the same people the same choices the next time they break the law: services or jail. When they're ready for services, it's what they get. In the city of Marysville, they've seen tremendous results in getting the homeless off the street, while experiencing a significant drop in crime.

"Help means an initial assessment, and then a drug detox, or a substance abuse detox," Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring told my Seattle-based radio show. "After that, a 30- to 60-day long-term rehabilitation program. And then if they graduate from that, they move into transitional housing and job training, hopefully ultimately get a job and be at least somewhat—if not fully—self-sufficient."

So what's the problem in Seattle? Fear and ideology.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is terrified of progressive activists threatening her re-election campaign. Durkan ends up attacking the homelessness problem with toothless policies aiming to make everyone happy: for example, clean-ups, but without the threat of arrest, so the homeless often just create new encampments instead. In the end, the policies are ineffective and end up angering both sides of the issue.

The Seattle City Council, which boasts two outright socialist council members, six rather extreme progressives and only one moderate Democrat, is driven purely by ideology. They've tried to gut the budget for Seattle's Navigation Team, which is responsible for cleaning up encampments, arguing the homeless have nowhere to go. This isn't true—the Team won't sweep encampments unless the city has shelter available. And this is where ideology comes into play.

Homelessness in Seattle
Homelessness in Seattle Courtesy of Jason Rantz

The Council, and to a large extent the mayor's office, actively keeps the homeless on the street, using them as props to secure ideologically driven affordable housing policies. The more visible the homeless, the greater the urgency, they argue, for their progressive policies. Some of it is stalled because, as one might expect, their policies are financially untenable. So they look for new revenue sources in the form of job-killing business taxes.

Last year, the Council abandoned the dubiously titled Amazon "head tax" after Seattle residents revolted, threatening a referendum. This year, the Council came back with a referendum-proof "Amazon tax" that is currently in limbo over open-meetings laws that the coronavirus crisis currently prevents.

The Council has also asked the federal government for financial help. They're urging the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to give them federal land for pennies on the dollar to create low-barrier shelter and housing right in the middle of a residential neighborhood that doesn't want it. I've previously asked HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson to swiftly reject this request.

But as the pandemic crisis shows us, we can't kowtow to activists or wait for unrealistic housing policies. This just kept thousands of homeless on the streets, where they can't be helped.

If we brought the homeless fully into the system before the pandemic, they'd no doubt be better off. This approach would have given them the treatment they demand, the job skills they need and the access to health care services that could keep them healthy.

The sad current reality is that there's little to be done for the homeless now that the crisis has hit. But we should learn some lessons. Once the crisis is over, it's time to get them into services and shelter. Activists proudly declare that they stop sweeps because it lacks compassion. Well, that compassion is killing people. Rather than use the homeless as props for ideologically driven policy, we should do what actually works: leverage them into the system where they can be babysat into getting on the right path.

Jason Rantz is a frequent guest on FOX News and is the host of the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH Seattle, heard weekday afternoons. You can subscribe to his podcast here and follow him on Twitter @jasonrantz.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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