Seattle isn’t Dying. The Severely Mentally Ill are Suffering
A piece of “journalism” recently served to ignite a white hot flame in my gut, nurturing a burning desire to stand here on my little platform and shout at the devil of Ableist privilege.
Said catalyst was the “documentary” produced and broadcast by Seattle’s local Sinclair affiliate, KOMO, despicably entitled “Seattle is Dying.”
Eric Johnson, the person behind this disgusting smear of people with a severe mental illness, wrote, “Seattle Is Dying. It’s a harsh title. Someone on social media even called it a “hopeless” title. I’ll admit to you that I wrestled with the name for some time. Too dramatic, I wondered? Too dark? In the end I went with it because I believe it to be true. I believe that Seattle is dying. Rotting from within.”
Seattle has the third largest population of homeless people in the nation. And they are struggling with how to manage the problems that come with a fairly large number of people who are incapable of living within the basic social standards of everyday human interaction, securing and maintaining a residence, personal hygiene, securing their basic needs, observing standards of decency (the documentary mentions defecating, urinating, and masturbating in public), and even functioning at a fundamentally reality-based cognitive level. They are struggling with large tent cities that include large volumes of garbage, along with biohazards like used hypodermic needles.
Are these legitimate concerns and issues that need to be addressed? Absolutely.
However, the title of the “documentary” is absurdly hyperbolic. Seattle has approximately 12,000 homeless people (per KUOW in Seattle). Metropolitan Seattle has a population of about 3.8 million people and is home to Starbucks, Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft. If .3% of its population is causing such a large city with several major corporations to “die,” it’s extremely fragile.
“Seattle is dying” is also inflammatory, serving to underscore the already distorted and contemptuous view of people who are homeless in a “culture” that worships wealth and success.
While the “documentary” itself maintained a facade of objectivity, what resonated most deeply for me was the objectification and demonization of people in Seattle who are homeless. There was little effort to reveal their humanity or to portray them with a measure of sympathy or empathy. Sinclair’s agitprop was all too transparent.
One of the more infuriating aspects was witnessing the Ableism of the people featured who live with the luxury of relative mental health who were so angry that “disposable” people were inconveniencing them and creating problems in their community, and who were suggesting that the solution is to crack down on them and incarcerate them.
Several days after watching this abomination, I posted a teaser and link to an NPR article that covered this propaganda piece on “Inspiration and Emotional Courage: Mental Illness, Addiction, & Recovery.” I included this observation as a header:
“Seattle isn’t dying. Those of us with a mental illness are tossed away like garbage if we lack the resources, endurance, support of good people, and/or fortunate breaks (or miracles, if one is a person of faith) to keep our heads above water in a survival of the fittest nightmare.”
It was at this point that the Ableist comments began to appear. (Don’t bother looking for them. I deleted them. This is an advocacy site for the vulnerable. Not a debate forum).
The core issue here is that we have a national social crisis in how we treat people with severe mental illnesses. Homelessness is a de facto “solution,” that admittedly is affecting people in Seattle in an adverse way. However, their discomfort and inconvenience is minor compared to the abject misery of the homeless people who live in agony and perpetual misery.
People with a severe mental illness (like myself with Bipolar Disorder) are left to sink or swim (fortunately, I have swum so far) by a society with a hyper-competitive, hyper-individualistic, survival of the fittest ethos. News flash: Clint Eastwood talks to chairs, John Wayne’s real name is Marion Morrison, Charlton Heston died without a gun in his cold, dead hand, and at least 4 Marlboro men have died of smoking related diseases.
JFK had the well-intentioned, but really bad idea of closing most of the mental institutions and replacing them with community-based mentally health care. The Reagan Administration repealed the 1980 Mental Health Systems Act that was to fund community-based care. Incarceration and homelessness have become the nightmarish reality for a disturbingly high number of people with severe mental illnesses who are not able to find a competitive advantage to employ or a lifeline to grab.
While Sinclair is promoting the false narrative that “Seattle is dying” and vilifying the severely mentally ill, they are the ones who are suffering the abject misery of their diseases and are dying on the streets or behind bars.
HUD estimated that there were 554,000 homeless people in America in 2017.
“According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill. “(National Coalition for the Homeless)
We (people with a severe mental illness) only represent 6% of the overall population, but we comprise 25% of the homeless population. That’s about 140,000 human beings.
And, “one study found that 28 percent of homeless people with previous psychiatric hospitalizations obtained some food from garbage cans and 8 percent used garbage cans as a primary food source. (Mental Illness Policy Org).
Garbage cans as a primary food source!
Yet the Ableist citizens of Seattle, who aren’t living the excruciating mental agony of Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, and who live comfortably behind their white picket fences -eating tasty, sanitary food, sleeping in safe, comfortable beds behind locked doors, enjoying indoor plumbing, electricity, and cable, think their city is dying and “rotting from within” because a significant population of transient people with severe mental illnesses who lack the ability to function according to society’s standards has taken up residence in their city.
A large contingent of these privileged Ableists want to punish, not help, the “visibly homeless” who have dared to step out of the shadows. They are calling for cracking down on them with harsher sentencing for relatively minor offenses.
Jailing the mentally ill is no more humane than leaving them to fend for themselves on the street. According to the Bureau of Prisons, there were 2.2 million Americans incarcerated in 2018. 20% of jail inmates and 15% of prison inmates have a serious mental illness (Treatment Advocacy Center). In penal institutions, their immiseration intensifies immensely due to a lack of treatment, victimization by predatory fellow inmates, and solitary confinement.
Yes, Seattle has a problem. As does the rest of the US.
However, the problem isn’t that either are “dying” due to the existence of people with severe mental illnesses who have no choice but to live on the streets.
The problem is that a large number of the most vulnerable members of our society -those with chronic severe mental illnesses- wind up caged like zoo animals or roving the streets like feral dogs.
The answers to our collective problem are here:
As a nationwide community of human beings with a conscience, we simply need to find the compassion and the will to implement them, in Seattle and throughout our country.