“We need to knock off this enabling business,” Commissioner Gary Edwards said, adding that “they have chosen a deviant lifestyle, and if we endorse it, and don’t hold them accountable, they will continue to come.” 1
In towns and cities across the US, sidewalks, overpasses and wooded areas are home to an ever-increasing population of people excluded from “normal” socioeconomic life. Ever-increasing is the key word here.
A generation ago there were panhandlers, people living in the street, seen more as an irritant than a problem. Maybe then the claim that these people were living on the streets of a city like Olympia because Olympia was “too welcoming” could have seemed plausible.
Not now. Olympia’s significant population of homeless people is matched and exceeded by homeless populations in cities and towns up and down the coast: Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Portland and on south. Whole towns’ worth of people living without stable housing.
They cannot be dismissed as vagrants who chose homelessness as a lifestyle. They are young and old, men and women, families with children, children on their own. The recently homeless and those who have become accustomed to that status as the years passed.
Many are “graduates” of foster homes. That means that their birth family for whatever reason was unable to raise them in health and security. Others have untreated chronic illnesses, including mental illness and war or workplace disabilities. Many did not complete a high school education, which means that their fate as workers is directed into service jobs that pay the federal minimum wage, a laughable $7.25/hour for the last 18 years. Even if increased to $15/hour —continually resisted or delayed in behalf of business interests—would do little more than prolong the day-to-day struggle.
Even with a white-collar wage, there are families and single parents who lose the struggle to maintain a stable household with children in a “homeland” where the costs of childcare would take half the paycheck. Living in the car with the kids can be a devil’s bargain—give up the house so you can cover the rest of your expenses.
What’s missing here is even a whiff of acknowledgement of the complete disconnect between the price of housing and the radical inequality of income across the land.
You can’t “cure” homelessness
Seeing homelessness as the problem has lead Olympia and other governments, as well as countless nonprofits and nice people, to spend money on police enforcement, arrests and street engagement: municipal programs; warming centers, shelters and beds; encampments, sanctioned and illegal; transition services; collections of “tiny houses;” housing and rent subsidies paid to landlords and so on. Since 2006, Thurston County has spent nearly $35 million dollars to support projects and programs to reduce homelessness.
Yet the number of homeless people in our community continues to grow. In 2005, Thurston County leaders established a benchmark to measure the success of their efforts to address homelessness. They set a target of reducing homelessness by 50% (to 220 people) and the homeless population in public schools by 50% (to 327 students) by 2015. This didn’t happen. In 2018, 835 people were counted as homeless in Thurston County. This was a 56% increase, or 301 more people, than were counted in 2017. The number of homeless students in 2018 rose to 1670, more than 10% above the previous year and a 155% increase since the 2006 baseline of 654 students.
Individual behavior vs social conditions
The most recent report (2018) on Thurston County’s count of homelessness spoke to “causes” of the huge increase in homelessness. Participants in focus groups viewed rent increases and limited housing availability as the culprit. Many also recognized the presence of addiction (drug and alcohol) as well as mental health as major causes. Homeless people themselves, responding to a county survey, listed job loss or unemployment, eviction or other loss of housing, rejection by the family or domestic violence.
Except for rent increases and limited housing availability, these “causes” all look to individual circumstances. What’s missing here is even a whiff of acknowledgement of the complete disconnect between the price of housing and the radical inequality of income across the land. Rent increases and housing availability have a disparate impact in the reality of systemic barriers and gaps in wealth.
In my college sociology course, we read the work of Emile Durkheim and one conclusion of his stuck in my head: social phenomena have social causes. When hundreds and thousands of people experience the same situation, it’s a social phenomenon. You won’t be able to get to the bottom of why it’s happening if you keep searching for the answer in “individual choices,” “bad behavior,” or even “bad luck.”
Moving in tandem: poverty-housing prices-homelessness Thurston County prides itself on its healthy median household income—it was over $66,000 in 2018 (as reported by Thurston Regional Planning (TRPC)). On the other hand, a “living wage” calculated for one adult in Thurston County at $12.56 brings in $24,000 – less than $2000/month—if it is full-time. A lot of low-wage jobs in Thurston County are not. In any case, $2000 is an amount unlikely to sustain a $1000 monthly rent and still have a job. The discipline required would be beyond most of us, and the slightest glitch would result in eviction.
Median income—touted in discussions of “affordability”—is completely misleading in terms of low-income ability to rent or own a home. Real estate tracking data (Sperling’s Best Places) calculate that 18% of Olympia’s people earn under $20,000 per year. TRPC shows that the number of individuals living in poverty keeps increasing. According to the 2013-17 American Community Survey data, 11.6% of Thurston households lived with less than even the stringent federal poverty level. This is reflected in the possibility finding a home: “Since 2014, the [Housing Affordability Index] for first-time homebuyers in Thurston County has been considered unaffordable, and affordability continues to decrease.” Affordability for first-time buyers in 2018 was the least it has been since 2006.
Market forces: the problem not the solution
In 2018, staff and officials at the City of Olympia ushered in a city-wide rezone that permits builders to construct more and bigger multifamily units on close-in lots. Although the authors say the new law “supports housing affordability for households across all income levels” the regulations include nothing to achieve that. Instead, the law relies on “market forces” to produce more “affordable” housing. Market forces are determined by profit maximization, not by meeting the need for people to have a place to live.
Even taking the median household income as a guide, the definition of “affordability” leaves behind half of the population. Housing is “affordable” when a middle-income family (around $66,000 if we use the median) can carry mortgage payments on a median-price home ($320,000 or so)
Right now “market forces” are busy constructing luxury apartments and condominiums in downtown Olympia and Tumwater. New infill so far consists of single-family homes at or above the median price, with multi-unit structures slated to be priced in that range as well. Older, lower-priced rentals in downtown are being replaced by high end and luxury buildings. This month, the Angelus Apartment building was sold for $1.9 million. Rents there were $750 for a one-bedroom and “haven’t been seen in Olympia for probably 15 years,” according to a city official. The new owners plan to renovate and bring rents closer to market rates; the median apartment rent is currently $1700/month.
Living in poverty means living largely in exclusion from the mainstream culture. In an economic system driven by profit—everything that can be priced is for sale: water, education, health, elections…shelter. The market works according to the amount of money and power you control. How much money determines how well it works. Even members of the middle-class recognize that their position and their possibilities are at risk. Suicide rates, domestic violence, the opioid epidemic—the increase in homelessness—testify to this.
A social solution for a
Closing the wage gap—once there was not such an enormous gap between those at the lower end of the wage scale and those at the top. It’s not that we don’t know this: exploding income at the top, declining union membership and wages, a minimum wage stuck at $7.25 since and restaurant workers at $2.13. salaries ranging around $35,000 for retail and service jobs, work in the “gig economy,” part-time and on-call jobs, reliance on debt to make ends meet. It’s that the corporations driving our economy have gained so much power that their leaders so far have been able to deny directly and indirectly a meaningful share of wealth to those who produce it. The result of the malaise outlined above, affecting much of society and pushing the lease-favored out the bottom and into the street.
Provide housing outside of market forces—if we will not address the wage gap, we could address the need for housing and community. Housing built by municipalities worked up through the end of WWII, but afterwards various forces combined to segregate and starve many public housing projects. Market-oriented “replacements” like rental assistance and vouchers have failed spectacularly in recent years, with long waiting lists and no guarantee of stable rates. One or two low-income projects like the Billy Frank Apartments are exceptions rather than policy. “Tiny houses” lately attract public money, but they are temporary expedients with no prospect of reducing homelessness.
Any hope of affecting the phenomenon of homelessness depends on construction of housing that is protected from market forces—or on a structural realignment of wage and income levels to meet prices shaped by market forces. The answer to the phenomenon of homelessness must be one or the other—or better, both.
1 Commissioner Gary Edwards quoted in reference to the homeless in the May 3 Olympian.
Mary Jo Dolis is the penname of an Olympia resident who has lived in the same house since 1986. Her family lived in more than 15 houses in 4 states before she was 16 years old.