Is Seattle Dying?

Especially given our line of work at SYM, everyone seems to be wondering what our thoughts are on the documentary. While SYM isn’t taking an official position on an issue as nuanced and complex as the solution to homelessness, we do find it important to address the uncompassionate rhetoric being used for a very human issue and hopefully bring a more human voice to the conversation. The following is an opinion piece by one of our staff. While this does not reflect an official position of SYM, we find it valuable to share this perspective.

If you’ve been around Seattle the last three months, you have likely been inundated with chatter about how “Seattle is dying.” For those who haven’t seen it, the Seattle is Dying documentary is a KOMO News embodiment of the anger held by many Seattleites toward the persistent issue of homelessness. They take the perspective of affluent, housing-secure Seattleites and tourists who see the city they once found beautiful to be decaying with crime, drugs, rampant litter, and people with mental illnesses tarnishing the serenity. There’s a lot to unpack there, a lot of powerful emotions and assumptions that seem to tell the whole story when isolated from other voices. The documentary does an effective job at communicating the deep-seated ire and fear that many Seattleites bear, but fails to adequately represent any dissenting voice. The people experiencing homelessness who were interviewed were quite evidently cherry picked to insinuate a unanimous agreement on the issue, when they certainly don’t represent the majority of people who are experiencing homelessness or who work with them.


Seattle is Dying begins with shots of homeless encampments with large piles of trash, underscored by the horror film soundtrack that lingers as a thematic backdrop for the entire documentary – textbook fear mongering. To be fair, this is an effective strategy; fear is a powerful human emotion that can take us out of our rational, higher level functioning by driving us into fight or flight mode. In politics and debate, the use of fear is effective in keeping people from considering the larger, more nuanced picture. By doing so, the creators of the documentary can skip the incredibly important and complex context that precedes and circumscribes the issues addressed in their critical look at our city. 

 One of the most frequently overlooked aspects of an issue is context. While jumping straight into dissecting the problem can seem the most direct approach, understanding the cause and the broader social, political, economic, and cultural setting is vital for a comprehensive and balanced understanding of any issue. The historical context of Seattle is one of colonialism and uprooting of indigenous Coast Salish peoples in order to make room for the Western city many take for granted today. One reason why this history of displacement and erasure is so important is because modern Seattle lauds Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks as being its iconic and esteemed “residents.” Because they provide a meaty backbone to our city’s economy, their best interest becomes conflated with our city’s best interest. The rapidly expanding city is accommodating the influx of young tech workers, not its longstanding residents with housing instability. They, the “homeless,” don’t contribute much to the economy. They don’t vote in overwhelming margins. In short, there is very little political or economic incentive to listen to their voice or prioritize their needs. Seattle’s 2015 state of emergency over homelessness likely had less to do with addressing the inhumanity of allowing fellow humans to go without basic needs being met, and far more to do with the discomfort their presence causes to the affluent residents and economic sector of the city. As a result, the city will “throw money” at the problem by clearing camps and putting up fences (which does nothing but threaten the safety of people experiencing homelessness) rather than investing in low-barrier housing, social work support, and accessible treatment programs.


Throughout the documentary, people experiencing homelessness are framed as subhuman and dangerous. They are “lost souls who wander our streets, untethered to home or family or reality.” This could not be further from the truth – Seattle is, for many of them, their strongly held home. Others who share their experience of homelessness or housing instability will often make up a “street family,” having bonds that can run deeper than many families of blood or marriage. And regarding reality: who is more out of touch with reality – the ones suffering from real issues, or the ones who acknowledge the problems around them just enough to be turned off by the presence of suffering people?


The documentary also divides those experiencing homelessness into two categories – those undeserving of their homelessness and those who caused it upon themselves. What this does is justify the dehumanization of those experiencing homelessness and focus on “how deserving” they are of their suffering rather than focusing on the broken systems that let them get there and keep them there. The issue of homelessness is primarily one of systemic failure, not one of personal choice. Roughly 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, meaning that at any given month, if they lose their job or if they face unexpected costs (medical bills, driving infractions and insurance spikes, etc.), they could end up temporarily or perpetually homeless. A central premise of the documentary is that the “bad ones” amongst those experiencing homelessness are the drug users. However, the most recent statistics on illicit drug use amongst Americans show almost one in ten U.S. adults struggle with some level of substance abuse, regardless of housing stability. This number escalates when you include alcohol, of which 27% of U.S. adults reported binge drinking in the past month. Drug use is as big a concern for the entire U.S. as it is for those experiencing homelessness. It is also important to recognize that many people experiencing homelessness who use drugs or alcohol began to do so to dull the pain, physical and/or emotional, of their situation.


Seattle is Dying as a whole effectively communicates a message that people experiencing homelessness are addicted, mentally unstable, violent, and dangerous. As mentioned earlier, the documentary uses fear mongering to brand people experiencing homelessness as the problem, rather than the systems and social structures surrounding them (housing shortages, economic inequality, institutional racism). This is not to say that the entire message of the documentary is invalid, only that it needs to be thoroughly analyzed through a critical lens that understandings the myriad of factors and realities at play. The conclusive suggestion of the documentary was, in essence, to send those experiencing homelessness with illicit substance addictions to a former-prison-now-rehab facility. This quick fix model is notably simplistic. For starters, there are no federal standards for counseling practices or rehab programs. As a result, “the vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care,” as concluded by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The private sector of rehab and addiction treatment can be very lucrative, providing the private rehab programs incentive for creating cycles of high recidivism. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the issues with the current system of drug treatment.

Treatment and care for people with drug addictions must be thoughtfully and humanistically done, in line with the current research on drug rehabilitation. Addiction treatment cannot be seen as a quick fix; it is instead one component of a bigger, more holistic solution. The research is clear that the most important facet of individual recovery is connection. It is through meaningful relationship that individuals find the incentive and support to overcome their addiction. Moreover, the focus of any truly comprehensive approach must ultimately be focused on systemic change. While it is always important to provide loving care and support to those currently experiencing addiction and homelessness we need to recognize that they are not the problem themselves, but rather symptoms of a greater issue. The real disease is economic inequality, systemic racism, and white supremacy. These are at the root of the housing “crisis,” the root of homelessness and while there are hundreds of empty apartments and condos, mass poverty when there are more than enough resources to go around, and the reason our nation defunded successful drug rehabilitation programs to make way for more prisons. It needs to be called out as such. Only when we name the root of the problem can we begin to comprehensively dismantle it and move toward change.

So, in the end, as well-intentioned as one may find Seattle is Dying to be, it is pointing us in the opposite direction of where we need to go. We cannot demonize and otherize those experiencing homelessness. That will only ever exacerbate the problem of homelessness. We all must build relationships and engage with those experiencing homelessness, to learn from them and to connect meaningfully with them. We must personally commit to educating ourselves through articles, books, TED talks, and conversations with the true experts of their own homelessness. As we equip ourselves with knowledge and edify ourselves with relationships, we can begin to shift the culture from fear toward compassion. As much as fear divides us, compassion will convict us to change the systems that benefit us into structures that defend the inherent dignity of all people. Those of us in affluence need this as much as our community members experiencing homelessness. I truly believe that we cannot fully love our own humanity until we love the humanity within everyone. A systems change that refuses to deny anyone a life worthy of their humanity will help us all be more human. Indeed, those of us in affluence may be the ones most in need of change.


Interested in learning more? Here are just a few of the many worthwhile resources:

- Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond



- The House I Live In (2012) (documentary on the harms of the war on drugs)