If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
In an interesting turn of events, Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston apparently decided to respond to some perceived slights regarding Chronicle owner and publisher Chad Taylor's call for Centralia to do better. Previously he authored a "note" on the ongoing drama of Centralia's homeless endemic of which I wrote something about here.
I'll be honest, I'm sort of burned out in my effort to respond to the ongoing political volley that is the homelessness situation. There are several reasons for this: 1.) I actually have a day job and family obligations 2.) Some of our politicians can generate more terrible hot takes than any one person can respond to 3.) A non-insignificant number of our local politicians have no desire to work in good faith on this issue. There's more to that last point I would eventually like to address but for now, I'm sidelining it.
So why do I find myself at the keyboard again, ready to spill more digital ink on the issue? Maybe it's because last week was Holy Week. Perhaps the passion, betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a needed reminder of the hope-against-hope calling that Christians embrace against the more-often-than-not injustices of the day-to-day world. Perhaps it's something far less noble, more of a mild annoyance thing. Who knows? Let's chalk this up to miracle or whatever.
Having gotten that out of the way and now turning my attention to the mayor's commentary, I'd like to state from the outset that there's plenty to agree with in it. I don't envy the work of politicians and I'm sure they're aware that any decision they make is likely to leave someone unsatisfied. Still though, I found enough to take issue with so it seemed worth doing.
Smith Johnston was kind enough to boil her response down into four actions that the city is taking to address the homelessness issue. She refers to this as a "nuanced response".
She begins with policing and code enforcement:
Action 1: Active policing and code enforcement. The publisher highlighted one day’s worth of police activity as an example of the problem. This is also an example of the solution.
She goes on to write:
The activity log is evidence that they are addressing problems and not waiting for them to escalate. Let’s be clear: the people who are on our streets creating problems represent a small but highly problematic percentage of people in our city. Many, many homeless people are working hard to get in a better situation, often working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet. We can’t lump all homeless people together. But for those violating our laws, we can actively address criminal behavior.
The activity log she's referencing is the Centralia Police Department "Policy" Activity / Press Log. If you follow the police activity logs, you would have noticed one very particular busy day where almost the entirety of the log was addressing issues/calls regarding incidents with homeless persons. I believe the particular log in discussion was from March 27th. At the time, I went back through a months worth of logs to see if they ever provided the same level of detail and it was obvious that this was a unique deviation from previous reporting.
While writing this, I tried to go find and link to the aforementioned busy day activity log and was a little dismayed to discover that I couldn't find it any more. As a matter of fact, every log between October 18 - March 31st is now gone. Odd. Below is a screenshot of the Archive Center with the last 6 months of logs.
Leaving aside the apparently missing data, there is a subject here that I would like to bring up: possible collusion. It struck me as very opportunistic that our local police department would all of a sudden get VERY specific in their activity logs at a time that the Chronicle decided to use those very same logs for their commentary. This "Publisher's Note" is the very article that Smith Johnston is responding to.
It's interesting to me that our local law enforcement was so zealous in their desire to highlight and platform the housing situation of so many of these calls. While homelessness is not a protected class, imagine if we replaced the "homeless" attribute with something else? What if we replaced "homeless" with "gay" and "transient" with "Muslim"? Would these activity logs read differently?
7:22 a.m., March 27, in the 900 block of Harrison Avenue: “Officers were called to check on a gay male panhandling who appeared to be passed out. When officers arrived the male was
8:32 a.m., March 27, in the 1100 block of Harrison Avenue: “Officers were called to an ongoing problem of Muslim subjects trying to live in the parking lot where employees park.”
Absolutely! I would think people would rightly be angered by the unnecessary inclusion of these attributes. Futhermore, did the CPD actually verify that these people had no address or place to stay or was it simply assumed based on appearances?
Wouldn't it be more appropriate for our police department to stick to the infraction of the law rather than these other attributes? Maybe, maybe not... but I can't help but feel this is just naked exploitation for political purposes rather than simply informational.
Aside from all of the political maneuvering, I agree with Kelly Smith Johnston here. Active policing and code enforcement is a necessary part of responding to the issues that come with homelessness. If we have the laws on the books, we need to be enforcing them.
Action 2: Blakeslee Junction encampment. This area includes a private property owner who lives on the property, WSDOT owned property, railroad-owned property adjacent to it and, until last month, was in the county’s jurisdiction.
She goes on to detail the efforts of Centralia working in conjunction with other organizations to make a case that Blakeslee Junction be considered a public health hazard while also attempting to relocate and find services for the homeless that reside there. This is also worth doing so I don't find a lot to disagree with here. I do find it odd that given the last 6 months of rhetoric around how terrible Blakeslee Junction is, that it took annexation by the city to apparently progress this issue.
Action 3: Funding. There are literally millions of dollars coming into Centralia to address homelessness. Most of these are state dollars or federal dollars administered by the state.This money goes to rental assistance, mental health, emergency shelters, substance use disorder and other services. Centralia controls exactly 0% of this money.
She goes on:
County health is responsible for a large percentage of it, and often, state dollars are granted directly to service providers, so we are trying to get a handle on what is being spent in Centralia and how.
We are following the money and creating lists of who the funders are, where the money is going and how it is being used. We’ve invited funders to come to town to visit and share with them what is happening and ask them to use their money wisely.
Now this is a very interesting use of our city's time and resources. We apparently have money in our area earmarked for the following items that she's listed:
The crazy part of all of this is that she herself claims, "County health is responsible for a large percentage of it" and "so we are trying to get a handle on what is being spent". Seems like she has her answer right there, no? How is it that the county, as I'm assuming the fiscal agent for these items, cannot provide her the information she's seeking?
Regardless, the key concept here is "earmarked". As in, I believe these funds she vaguely references are geared toward very specific services. It's hard to know because she doesn't doesn't really say anything very specific. Which leads to a few questions that, sadly, our mayor doesn't really address.
In short, I'd be very interested to better understand why this initiative is worth time and resources from the City of Centralia. It would be interesting for our city council to spell out WHAT the issue is exactly, WHY they need to pursue it, and HOW they would do things differently.
Until then, this looks an awful lot like and fishing expedition with some scapegoating on the side. Something along the lines of, "if only we could control these funds, things would be different".
Given our political leaders' misrepresentation of $22 million in Covid relief funds, I can't say I have a ton of faith that they'll be able to navigate these waters.
If I had to read between the lines here, I'd likely figure that our mayor, and by extension, our city council, believe that the existence of these services or the operation thereof, are making our homelessness issue worse. I'll address that more directly later. Or perhaps they feel that this money could be used in other ways that they could get to control. Given that the money is likely earmarked for a purpose other than what the city council would want, I'm not sure what the value is in pursuing it. It doesn't likely exists for other purposes.
Having said all that, I'll close with this: go ahead. Track down all the money and all the contracts and all the service providers. Figure out what you can control and what you can revoke and do so. You're literally the authority here and if this is what you consider a "nuanced" response to homelessness, then by all means. If the solution to our problems is consolidation of money and power to a few, then make it happen. Quickly.
Action 4: Local Partnerships. Centralia has for years carried the burden of providing services for most of the county. I am proud that Centralia is a caring community and has done so much for those in need. At the same time, we can’t continue to have all of the services located here. As more and more people are in need, we need our neighbors to join us. We are working with the county to build a better shelter near Yardbirds, outside of Centralia’s downtown core.
She's not wrong. If more municipalities participated in addressing the issue, perhaps the tide could turn on this seemingly intractable issue.
She ends her four part action plan with the following words:
Any discussion of homelessness and crime is fraught with tension. People are angry and concerned by the uptick in crimes. I am too. I’d love to be able to point the finger and blame someone, some group, some organization and say they’re the reason we have problems. But it isn’t that simple.
Good words indeed. And she's certainly right, it isn't that simple. Which is in part why I'm so dismayed at her and by extension our city council's naive response if someone were to judge by the above mentioned actions. So let's get into that.
Aside from a brief discussion on a homeless shelter, Smith Johnston really doesn't have anything to say about addressing our fundamental problem: affordable housing.
It goes without saying, but a shelter is, by definition, not housing. It's certainly a part of a multi-pronged solution, but it cannot and will not fit the bill for what is essentially a housing issue.
I have written about this before and more than one occasion but suffice it to say: every issue we are currently experiencing regarding homelessness, mental health, substance use disorder, and so on all start with housing. More importantly, affordable housing. These issues cannot be untangled and addressed until the housing needs are met. It's literally the starting place for Maslow's Hierarchy of needs:
And yes, I recognize that there are valid criticisms of this hierarchy but none of that has to do with the lower "basic needs". Moreover, continued research has shown that housing is THE critical first step toward better outcomes.
Back in the day, Slashdot was the place to visit for all of your technical news and what-not. If anything about that site has remained with me all these years it's the constant refrain of "correlation is not causation" on near every post having to do with research or science.
The phrase "correlation does not imply causation" refers to the inability to legitimately deduce a cause-and-effect relationship between two events or variables solely on the basis of an observed association or correlation between them.
Wow. Fascinating stuff. But it pertains to our discussion here. When Smith Johnston, and many of our other elected officials, discuss homelessness, what I often see is a confusion of correlation and causation.
You see, there appears to be a group of well-connected, elected and unelected persons, who have something of what I would call a "naive" view regarding homelessness. From here on out, I will refer to these united persons as "The Coterie". Cabal might be a better term but Coterie has a certain "je ne sais quoi" about it. They look at services provided and have placed the blame squarely on the service for the apparent need.
For instance, if someone provides food to those who are experiencing food insecurity, the thinking goes like this:
"The only reason people are experiencing food insecurity is because services are providing them food. If those services didn't exist, neither would the population needing them exist."
It sounds really ridiculous when I spell it out but, literally, that's how some powerful people in our area view the issue.
They also have a strong tendency to confuse mitigations with solutions. You see, in my previous example, providing food to those experiencing food insecurity is a solution that is obviously not working. Even though nobody in their right mind would consider a food bank a solution. So they contend we shouldn't be doing it. At no point in this conversation, do they stop and ask why ANY person is experiencing food insecurity. Only that the presence of a mitigation (food banks) somehow makes the problem worse.
Let's try an analogy. Like all analogies, it will break down but the idea behind it is the same. Let's say we have a high occurrence of people getting cancer. Not just in our area but all over our nation. Let's say that in response to this troubling trend, cancer treatment clinics and services start popping up all over. Soon, we find that people experiencing cancer become more visible in our community due to this work as they congregate to these services.
Now imagine The Coterie sees this and is dismayed. Having a bunch of sick people walking around isn't good for business and makes our town look bad. So they decide to put a concerted effort into demonizing and discouraging chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. After all, if these services didn't exist, neither would the population. They might even say things like "this solution isn't working" and "we need more accountability because many are still cancerous or dying". They might even start calling them "cancer pimps".
Now what does this ridiculous analogy have to do with correlation vs causation? Everything. It's obviously stupid to blame chemotherapy and cancer treatments for causing cancer. Chemotherapy and other treatments are just that, treatments for a condition. Sometimes they are successful and sometimes not. Sometimes they just buy more time for the patient.
Now the analogy breaks down because people who discover they have cancer likely want to get treatment and restored to health. But what if a component of cancer was that those who had it didn't recognize their need for treatment? What if they were "service resistant" due to an ongoing feedback loop of trauma caused by actually having cancer?
Let's put that aside for now (I've addressed it in previous "letters") and return to The Coterie.
What if experts working in the field of cancer research, discovered that the cause of much of the cancer in our area was driven by carcinogens in our food and water supply? What if The Coterie ignored that data, dismissed the experts, and decided to double down inconsistently on cancer therapy providers. Well, maybe that's exactly what's going on here.
A HUD report from 2019, studying encampments and people experiencing homelessness had this choice quote:
Researchers generally agree that increases in homelessness are first and foremost the result of severe shortages of affordable housing, combined with a lack of political will to dedicate sufficient resources to address this problem. According to a key informant who is helping communities understand how to deal with encampments, when people are in crisis, their decisions about where to stay represent pragmatic choices among the best available alternatives, based on individual circumstances at a particular moment in time. Encampments form in response to the absence of other, desirable options for shelter. (p. 4)
Furthermore, a recent book entitled Homelessness Is a Housing Problem has a ton of data and research on the topic. A few choice quotes are as follows:
These findings are consistent with past research, which has found that drug use and dependency are not related to overall levels of homelessness. Their implications are clear: Disproportionate rates of drug use fail to explain why certain regions see high rates of homelessness. Many drug users in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles may experience homelessness—and many may not. In all of these cases, though, overall drug use in these areas is not materially different from that in other places with far lower rates of homelessness. Accordingly, we can only conclude the disproportionate rates of homelessness in cities like San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Seattle are not driven by more drug users residing in these locations. Something else is happening here. (p. 90)
What about other factors...
In this chapter, we investigate numerous—and popular—individual explanations for homelessness. In a strikingly consistent fashion, none of these explanations (poverty, unemployment, mental illness, drug use, and race) explains regional variation in rates of homelessness. Homelessness is low where poverty and unemployment are greatest; neither drug use nor mental illness reliably explains regional variance; race remains an individual risk factor for homelessness that fails to explain city-to-city variation. (pp. 93-94)
What does the book have to say about policing?
Despite arguments to the contrary, existing literature fails to confirm the argument that more aggressive policing and enforcement solve homelessness. At best, criminalization of homelessness relocates a housing crisis from one region to another. (“Out of sight, out of mind” hardly constitutes a comprehensive response to housing instability.) (p. 120)
So what did their studies find:
In study after study, the most effective treatment for homelessness is housing. In some cases, this housing comes in the form of rental assistance; in others, it might be a subsidized housing unit with supportive services. In all cases, the housing unit in question is the difference between a homelessness crisis and the time and space needed to get back on one’s feet. The evidence is also clear that attempting to resolve one’s serious mental illness or substance use conditions in isolation fails to resolve one’s homelessness crisis, because safe and stable housing is essential to a healthy and productive life. Treatment of individual pathologies will not end homelessness. Providing housing as a human right, not as a good or service available only to those who can afford it, is the key. (p. 63-64)
So what does the best research we have on the topic indicate:
A central debate in homelessness policy over the past two decades has pivoted on the question of which of these needs ought to be met first. Here, the best research appears to suggest that the most promising intervention for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness is the provision of housing itself under a supportive housing model (including via the Housing First approach), in which support services are voluntary as opposed to mandated. In contrast, researchers have found the treatment-first model—in which serious mental illness or substance use disorders are treated prior to housing program participation—to be less effective than public and nonprofit programs that provide housing without any requirement for treatment. Ultimately, most contemporary scholars and policy analysts have concluded that permanent housing programs with voluntary support services offer the most effective intervention for single adults experiencing homelessness. (p. 64-65)
So the question being asked is: how are we doing? Well, it's not good. As I spelled out in a previous article, Washington state is experience housing affordability and availability issues. We're the dark red state in the upper left:
In short, for every 100 of our extremely low income ($27,750/yr) renter households we only have 30 units available. It doesn't look all that great for our very low income ($39,450) households either.
Now ask yourself if the four actions above, as detailed by the mayor of Centralia and by extension the Centralia city council, address the actual cause of homelessness, i.e. - housing? Expand that further and ask if any local municipality is making any headway under their respective jurisdictions to do what they can to address the housing affordability and availability issue. I'm not talking about shelters here. I'm talking about the full spectrum of housing solutions.
I'm going to hope that somewhere in this mess, someone, at some level of responsibility, is tackling the underlying issues that exacerbate the housing situation and they just happen to be super quiet and plodding along with their head down getting it done.
I'm afraid what I see however is The Coterie confusing correlation with causation, mitigations with solutions, and symptoms for causes. What's worse: The Coterie is in charge. They run the show. They are literally "the power". And they've decided to spend their efforts demonizing services and pursuing funding outside of their control against pursuing solutions that experts have been sounding alarms about for awhile now.
It's been roughly six months since Lewis County has passed it's ordinance regarding homelessness on county property. We have the same shelter now as we did then. We have one promised but not ready yet.
Sadly, we've actually had MORE people displaced since that time: Motel 6, OYO, the Blakeslee Junction and Peppertree fires, encampment sweeps, and more. We're deeper in the hole than when we started.
What's crazy is The Coterie is actively pursuing investments in future industries (Hydrogen, WinCo, etc). Which is great and all but without addressing our underlying housing affordability and availability, is only going to make the situation worse.
The Coterie has been on a pretty high horse lately railing against services that are funded by federal and state money. The long arm of socialism and all that. Must be a case of "socialism for me but not for thee" I guess.
You've probably heard of the Apocalypse right? The end of all things? Judgement day? What you might not be aware of is that the greek word that Apocalypse is derived from is "apokalupsis". It literally means "an uncovering, unveiling, revealing, revelation".
I think our homelessness issue is something of an apocalyptic situation. Not in that it is a portent of the end to come but more of a revealing of our margins slowly being eroded away. We can deny it. Or scapegoat it. Or criminalize it. I'd rather we mitigate it and work toward solutions.
This letter hit a little bit harder than I was going for. In all honesty, I'm not trying to be so acerbic. I have however seen a lot of bad faith responses to this very particular topic and sadly those responses seem to be carrying the day by some influential people in our area. I'd like to remind my readers that I write to work out my thoughts and that all of the opinions here are mine. Caveat emptor.Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash