A locally-produced news story about Seattle’s homeless problem is a microcosm of what Leftist governance will do to a community.
You may already have heard about the hour-long special a local Seattle station did about the homeless crisis in that city. The video is very well done, although a bit heavy on the banal philosophical moralizing and curiously quiet about the immediate cause of this problem (which I won’t be quiet about in this post).
If you haven’t yet watched the video, I suggest that you do. It’s an hour well spent. I’ve embedded the video immediately below. I’ve followed the video with my observations:
The images are not new to me. As the video points out, San Francisco, my natal town and a mere 12 miles from my house, is in worse shape than Seattle. More than that, I was present at the genesis of this urban decline because I grew up in the City during the hippie area. Haight Ashbury, a former working class neighborhood that shaded into very poor inner city housing, was a microcosm of what whole cities have become: drug addled people using the streets and Golden Gate Parks as their home, with all the anti-civic behavior that entails, such as public filth (feces, urine, vomit, fleas, lice, etc.), car break-ins, robberies, muggings, and just a general degradation in the standard of living for those taxpayers still trying to live a traditional life.
I don’t know if San Francisco initially put up a fight against these behaviors, but I do know that, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the City took a hard Left turn, City Hall turned a blind eye to the lawless behavior driving this civic collapse. It helped that the problem was confined to a few specific neighborhoods: the Haight, the eastern end of Golden Gate Park and, of course, the usual suspects in the Tenderloin area south and west of downtown.
There’s no doubt that deinstitutionalization has a lot to do with the terrible problems we see today. In the years leading up to the de-institutionalization movement were pretty dreadful places. Two movies — The Snake Pit and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — capture some of the horrors of mental institutions.
They were dirty (in part because it’s hard to keep seriously mentally ill adults from soiling their environment and in part because there was no impetus to clean them), patients were subjected to awful “experimental” treatments, and there was simply a lot of brutality involved, both because of the aforesaid difficulty handling mentally ill people and because, sadly, sadistic people were attracted to working around made-to-order victims. These institutions were also a convenient way for families to rid themselves of difficult family members. Something had to change.
I found a great timeline here about deinstitutionalization and I’ve cherry-picked some of the (to me) more interesting facts:
1955 – The number of patients in public mental health hospitals reached a record of 558,000. They suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression. Many had organic brain diseases such as dementia and brain damage from trauma. Others suffered from mental retardation combined with psychosis, autism, or brain damage from drug addiction. Most patients were not expected to get better given the treatments at the time. Congress passed the Mental Health Study Act of 1955. It established the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health to evaluate the nation’s mental health situation.
1962 – Ken Kesey published “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.“ It was a fictional story about abuses in a mental hospital. The author dramatized his experiences as a nurse’s aide in the psychiatric wing of a California veteran’s hospital. The book helped turn public opinion against electroshock therapy and lobotomies. These were procedures commonly used at the time.
1963 – President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act. It provided federal funding to create community-based mental health facilities. They would provide prevention, early treatment, and ongoing care. The goal was to build one for every 125,000 to 250,000 people. That many centers would allow patients to remain close to their families and be integrated into society. But it ignored statistics that showed 75 percent of those in hospitals had no families.
1967 – California’s Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. It limited a family’s right to commit a mentally ill relative without the right to due process. It also reduced the state’s institutional expense. That doubled the number of mentally ill people in California’s criminal justice system the following year. It also increased the number treated by hospital emergency rooms. Medicaid covered those costs. Other states followed with similar involuntary commitment laws.
1977 – Only 650 community health centers had been built. That was less than half of what was needed. They served 1.9 million patients. They were designed to help those with less severe mental health disorders. As states closed hospitals, the centers became overwhelmed with those patients with more serious challenges.
1990 – The Food and Drug Administration approved clozapine to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia. That strengthened the prejudice against hospitalization of the mentally ill.
2004 – Studies suggest approximately 16 percent of prison and jail inmates or roughly 320,000 people were seriously mentally ill. That year, there were about 100,000 psychiatric beds in public and private hospitals. In other words, three times as many mentally ill people were in jail than in a hospital.
2009 – The Great Recession forced states to cut $4.35 billion in mental health spending in three years.
The material I snipped out mostly discusses various federal laws that tried to make mental health care a community issue while moving money hither and yon. Somehow mental health always got shortchanged.
Again, the Bay Area was a good early warning system of what was to come. I attended Cal from 1979 through 1983 and avoided Telegraph Avenue as much as possible. It was a haven for the homeless and many were manifestly mentally ill. Some just quietly muttered to themselves, but many had manic, violent arguments with invisible people, and would confuse passers-by with their invisible opponents. I saw the same thing in Austin, when I was at school there, for “the Drag” (Guadalupe Street) was a small scale Telegraph Avenue.
When I started working in downtown San Francisco, in the second half of the 1980s through the end of the 1990s, it was more of the same. Scattered throughout Market and Montgomery Streets were mentally ill people, sitting or lying in their own filth, begging and scrounging for food in garbage cans, and frequently covered with oozing sores. As long as they were not an immediate threat to themselves or others, they could not be taken off the streets on account of mental illness, and of course San Francisco had long since stopped enforcing its laws against loitering, begging, or public urination or defecation.
I remember having conversations with my friends (all of whom were Leftists in those days) and all of whom felt that these people, while pathetic and irritating, had a right to live as they wanted. I also remember having conversations with my parents (who were old-fashioned Democrats and sane) and we agreed that it is a cruel society that allows mentally ill people to live as these people did. There had to be a better way.
My parents and I were aware, of course, that drug and alcohol abuse played a large role in the problem. Some people behaved as they did because that was the effect active drug use had on them; some behaved as they did because drugs had literally driven them insane; and some people behaved as they did because they were mentally ill and they took street drugs as a form of self-medication — except that the drugs simply made their madness worse. We felt compassion for them, but we also felt compassion for those (such as me) who had to run the gauntlet of these people very day. It was disgusting and frightening.
Regarding drugs, back in the 1980s, law enforcement still took drug possession fairly seriously. However, thanks to a growing generation of young people for whom pot was a normative part of their college educations, the push to legalize drugs — and, in the meantime, to ignore laws making drugs illegal — meant that there was no push-back against the drugs driving the homeless problem in San Francisco. Moreover, as states have legalized drugs, the tacit approval has increased drug use and increased drug problems. Moreover, at least one author has done the research showing that legal marijuana doesn’t just drive up petty crime, and drives up the scary crazy violent crime.
(Incidentally, in the interest of full disclosure, while I strongly disapprove of recreational marijuana use, especially by young believe, I believe in exploring marijuana’s medicinal possibilities. Of late, I’ve used legal CBD to great effect to control both arthritis pain and migraines, without even touching the hallucinogenic aspects of the drug.)
Sometime after I stopped working in downtown San Francisco and moved to a nice clean suburb, governance in major urban areas became more and more left wing. It’s true, as the above quoted material shows, that money to treat mental illness and substance abuse started drying up with the recession. However, the reality is that, also beginning around 2008, with Obama’s election and the beginning of unbridled Leftist ascendance in America’s cities, the new approach was to make addicts and clinically insane people comfortable on the streets. We were told that it was morally imperative for us to give them safe places to shoot up and to ignore their petty crime.
We were also told why we should use this approach: It was the fault of stable middle class people (mostly white) that addicts and the mentally ill lived on the streets as they did. It was our systemic racism, classism, and economic inequality that was the real problem. The mental illness and substance abuse were symptoms that should be ignored or accommodated.
Thanks to this openly expressed hard-Left belief system, what you see in the above Seattle video is the pretty much the norm through Democrat-run cities. I fault the video because it assiduously avoids making that point. Many of those angry citizens you see in the town meeting were screaming at the government they elected:
Earlier this year, national media described Washington as “the epicenter of resistance to Trump’s agenda” after the state became the first to challenge Trump’s targeted travel ban and a federal judge in Seattle ordered a national halt to the ban’s enforcement. Seattle-area tech corporations vocalized support for the legal efforts.
“There’s a little bit of … reinforcing feedback that’s happening,” Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien says of the city’s population growth spurring progressive politics, while people around the country have been “flowing in the opposite direction.”
Political momentum among Seattle progressives reached a milestone in July, when the nine-member City Council – one member of which belongs to the Socialist Alternative Party – unanimously passed a proposal to impose a citywide income tax on wealthy residents to generate revenue to lower property taxes and provide affordable housing, among other funding goals. [That’s what the construction workers were yelling about in the video.]
Voter statistics exemplify the phenomenon. In Seattle’s King County, for instance, Clinton won 72 percent of the vote, outperforming Barack Obama’s 69 percent in 2012, The Seattle Times reported.
Roughly 8 percent of voting Seattleites voted for Trump, one of the lowest percentages of any major U.S. city, an analysis by the newspaper found.
During Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, he applauded Seattle for the minimum wage change and other progressive milestones, such as the election of U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who shares similar political priorities, including lowering student debt and reversing climate change.
Sanders won in a landslide victory in Washington Democratic caucuses last spring, taking more than 70 percent of the statewide delegate count compared to roughly 30 percent for Hillary Clinton.
The current approach to homelessness is 100% in line with the voter’s world view. Seattle did its virtue signaling, and the nation’s drug addicts and mentally ill people responded enthusiastically.
No wonder that, in hard Left coastal California, Oregon, and Washington, the citizens are not yet willing to acknowledge that their ideology spawned this catastrophe. Tent cities, medieval plagues, violence, filth, rats, drugs, crime, etc. — it’s all Democrat-caused.
Still, maybe the very real muggings these frustrated citizens are experiencing will be their political “mugged by reality” moment. Maybe they’ll figure out that the rule of law is a good thing, that societies survive best with norms that benefit the middle class taxpayers. Maybe they’ll recognize that pathological altruism is more pathological than it is altruistic. Maybe they’ll examine their closely held belief systems and cross the Rubicon into a new world of conservative beliefs.
Certainly those construction workers in the video had a moment of complete reality clarity. We need more of that if we want to survive as a society. The Rhode Island experiment that the video describes is a step in the right direction: don’t ignore the laws; enforce the laws, and then add in compassion and common sense to help at least the drug addicts walk the straight and narrow.
One more thing: As you can see in Venezuela, once Leftists gain full power, the downfall happens very fast. I was in Seattle in 2010 and there was nothing like this on the streets. The level of decay, chaos, crime, etc., has flowered in less than ten years. (The same is true, incidentally, for the Bay Area. I go into the City infrequently, and it really seemed as if, from one visit to the next, the entire system had collapsed.)