Is Sacramento Dying?
Film shows how we can avoid Seattle’s mistakes
By Cecily Hastings
When I heard about the hourlong documentary film “Seattle Is Dying,” I felt a certain dread. Listening to a radio interview about the film, I was struck by the bleakness of Seattle’s homeless situation. It took me a week to make time to watch the film. After viewing it, “bleak” wasn’t strong enough to describe the problem.
The film was produced by television station KOMO in Seattle. It was the third part of an informal series developed a few years earlier as the homeless situation grew worse in that city. The film opens with a bold statement: This is about an idea. For a city that has run out of them. What if Seattle is dying? Can it ever recover?
The documentary starts with the premise that a majority of citizens in Seattle are angry, embarrassed and deeply saddened to see one of the most beautiful cities in the world reduced to a dangerous and disgusting mess. The decisions made by civic leaders to cope with homelessness are why many residents are falling out of love with their hometown.
Business owners and citizens are upset. They believe they have rights too. But no one seems concerned about those rights. “We have lost all power in the situation,” one business owner says. “Why can’t we enforce the laws? This is not right!”
The film shows townhall meetings descend into rage and mockery as citizens laugh at officials who tell them to call 911 to report complaints about the homeless. Crowds cheer at the suggestion by citizens that laws should be enforced. One woman says police are frustrated and tells folks to vote out politicians who created the mess. “How can watching human beings live and die in filth and madness be the right thing to do?” asks one man. Another starts a Facebook photo page to document the filth and sadness.
Seattle spends more than a billion dollars each year on a homeless population that is currently estimated at 16,000. In 2016, the population was 10,000, says Sacramento City Councilmember Jeff Harris, who toured Seattle three years ago.
This year, Seattle is spending an average of more than $62,000 on assistance to each homeless person. These costs are paid from city, county and nonprofit budgets for medical and mental health services, outreach, drug and alcohol intervention and treatment, food and supplies, trash clean up, shelters, public health intervention, needle clean up, public property repairs, fencing, small houses, and much more. Law enforcement dollars are consumed dealing with the problem.
The more money that is spent, the bigger the problem seems to get. Add in the horrendous human suffering, and the total cost becomes incalculable.
Only one major city in the U.S. has more property crimes per capita than Seattle at 5,258 per thousand of population. That city is San Francisco with more than 6,000.
But here’s a telling statistic. Of the top 100 repeat criminal offenders in Seattle, all live on the streets. This group is responsible for more than 3,600 crimes annually. As we see in the film, many are emboldened that they can flaunt the law.
The filmmakers tracked Seattle crime from 2006 to 2016. In 2006, only 25 percent of criminal arrests were not charged by the district attorney’s office. But by 2016, more than 46 percent were ignored or never charged.
A third of the remaining 54 percent of those crimes were dismissed. Another third were never resolved. Only 18 percent resulted in convictions. After plea deals, only a fraction resulted in serious jail time. Clearly, very few people are held accountable for their crimes in Seattle.
The situation terrifies cops. They’re afraid for their own safety, their jobs and pensions, and retaliation. They’re frustrated because violent criminals are not kept in jail or are given ridiculously low sentences. “We arrest dangerous people for good cause and they just are bounced back on the streets like a revolving door,” one officer says. Criminals have effectively conquered the criminal justice system.
Police believe their efforts to keep neighborhoods safe are futile because of misguided attempts by leaders to be “compassionate” to the criminal class. Good cops are leaving the force.
Citizens and law enforcement agree on one thing. When lower-level crimes and acts of incivility stop being enforced, the levels of more serious crimes grow higher. Shop owners—faced with dwindling sales because of the internet—are plagued by savvy criminals who know how to keep theft values below what will prompt an arrest. Added insults are homeless camps adjacent to stores and property crimes committed by campers.
People have lost faith in their government and civic leaders. Less than a month after the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a “head tax” ordinance that would have levied a $275 per-employee tax on Seattle businesses making more than $20 million a year, the council voted to repeal the $75 million business tax after citizens rebelled.
Residents are asking if maybe the billion dollars Seattle spends each year could be redirected toward a tough-yet-compassionate approach. While the situation in Seattle is devastating, I was heartened that folks there are angry enough to demand more for their tax money, and more from their leaders.
I also wonder what it will take for Sacramento citizens to speak out in favor of a “tough love” approach that requires criminals to face consequences and seeks to end the path of destruction homelessness brings to our city.
Councilmember Harris watched “Seattle Is Dying” a few weeks ago and implored his council colleagues to see the film. With a homeless population of around 3,600, Sacramento might still have a chance to head off the wreckage faced by Seattle, Harris believes. But we are headed in the same direction.
Harris says the situation worsened after California voters passed Prop. 47 in 2014. (The proposition reclassified some nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors. These offenses include shoplifting, writing bad checks and drug possession. The law allows individuals to steal up to $950 repeatedly, with only misdemeanor consequences.)
And the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last September in Martin vs. City of Boise that governments can’t punish homeless for sleeping outdoors or on public property. This decision makes it very difficult to enforce our camping ordinances.
“These two situations have seriously depleted our tool box for addressing homelessness,” Harris says. “In addition to shelter beds we need an enforcement component as well. There is a huge amount of crime perpetrated by and against the homeless population, which is mostly very vulnerable.”
Harris says law enforcement officials tell him as long as Prop. 47 is in place, our city’s “hands are tied” to deal effectively with the homeless situation. He believes efforts may be underway in California to overturn the law, but he isn’t optimistic. And given our state’s progressive political leanings, reversal seems unlikely.
Our state’s political leadership hails from the city that’s become synonymous with filthy streets and property crime: San Francisco. Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein were mayors there. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris was San Francisco district attorney.
Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert—and just about every other DA in California—opposed Prop. 47. Schubert told me last year there was no doubt the felony reductions contributed to the region’s homelessness problem.
“Prop. 47 also took away the tools we had to incentivize folks to accept treatment programs,” Schubert said. “Incarceration is an important tool to help drug users get into treatment. Prop. 47 makes it more difficult to get those folks treatment.
“We are definitely seeing a serious uptick in reported property crimes in the county and all over the state. And that is just with reported crimes. Many victims don’t even bother to report crimes because there are no consequences.”
Schubert added, “I’ve attended community meetings in diverse areas all over the county, and the complaints are always the same: homeless populations increasing, plus more garbage, drugs and alcohol and crime on the streets.”
Councilmember Harris believes local media in many cases have not been truthful about our city’s situation. Now in his second term on the City Council, Harris has become an expert on homelessness. He is passionate about helping resolve the problem. He accepted our invitation to write an article and set the record straight in an upcoming edition of Inside.
In a recent conversation, Harris shared a few devastating and heartbreaking stories of life on the street, especially involving women. Most of us would agree there is nothing compassionate about placing folks who are simply unable to afford or find shelter into the same category as drug and alcohol addicts, mentally ill people and criminals. “This must be incorporated into the triage process,” Harris says. “And at this point in Sacramento, it is not. We must change our approach or we may very well end up like Seattle.”
I encourage our readers to watch the film “Seattle Is Dying.” It’s very sad, but it is vital that Sacramento residents become educated and involved. Otherwise, we can’t complain if our civic leaders replicate the near-complete collapse of social order in Seattle.
Cecily Hastings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.