Sean Swope, Bob Newhart, and Fighting Trauma with Trauma

2022-10-21 Word Count: 3009 Reading Time: 16m


See You There!

The meeting for public comment and the vote for Ordinance 1338 will be on Oct. 25th @ 10AM at Lewis County's Historic Courthouse. Given the short amount of time left, this will likely be my last article that directly discusses this local issue before the vote.

Here's a list of what I've written on the subject so far:

The Commentary

In this article, I want to address the entirety of the issue as I see it and respond to some of Swope's most recent commentary in the Chronicle.

The most obvious difference between this commentary and Swope's past comments are in tone. Perhaps because this is his written word and not him just talking in public meetings. It was a nice change, though the content of his message, while packed with the right words, still falls short of a coherent justification for what he wants to do.

Let's open with a quote:

"The removal and cleanup, while critical to the safety and welfare of the individuals suffering there and the community at large, is dealing with the effects, not the root causes, of what we truly face."

I'm not surprised to find that I agree with Swope here. As a matter of fact, most of his concerns and struggles with homelessness and the conditions of encampments are something that all parties likely agree on. He's right in his assessment that these things are symptoms, or effects, of a greater cause. Where Swope diverges from the conclusions of qualified researchers in this field, is how to go about addressing these concerns in a way that will lead to the most effective positive outcomes.

The next paragraph in his commentary is where I'd like to focus the majority of my attention. So I'm going to skip it for a moment and address what he has to say here:

"I cannot help but conclude that efforts of short term assistance, addressing immediate short term needs (needle exchange, etc.), while well intended, kind and objectively noble in purpose and implementation, simply delay or even promote the inevitable harmful and deadly outcomes for those sought to be helped."

I include this quote for one reason only: Swope still does not show an understanding of the purpose of harm-reduction methods. He keeps referring to it as though it's a solution or some strategy that addresses the underlying factors. His failure to better understand the issues at play is one particular reason I have little confidence in his methods. I've written about harm reduction efforts in the articles listed above so I'm not going to get into it here again. Suffice it to say, if I'm in a boat that is taking on water, bailing the water out would not be considered "promot(ing) the inevitable harmful and deadly outcomes" of sinking. It would however be a reasonable method of mitigation. Buying time to find a solution or get help. I can just picture Swope sitting in a boat filling with water, telling the others that are bailing that they are just "simply delaying" the problem, if not actually making it worse. This analogy breaks down here in that ultimately we are talking about people, not boats. And those people can choose to "sink their own ship" but I'll get into the reasons for that in a bit here.

The Issue At Hand

With those points out of the way, we can finally address Swope's "pièce de résistance":

"I have taken the time to visit these encampments. I have interacted with those struggling at Blakeslee Junction and other sites. I have come to the irrefutable realization that the vast majority of those “choosing” to remain there do so as a result of addiction."

I'm going to get right to the point here: even if addiction is the primary factor in people choosing to live in encampments, Sean Swope is still, despite his best efforts and protestations, ONLY ADDRESSING A SYMPTOM OF A LARGER PROBLEM. That's right, my argument is that, Swope's comment above about his encampment sweeps likewise apply to his conclusions regarding addiction in that they are dealing with an effect, not the cause. In short, Swope has still not managed to understand the complexities of the multiple risk factors involved in homelessness.

On this, I can't say that I'm surprised. He's shown over and over again his complete disregard for expertise. Directly relating to this issue, he has, against an advisory board consisting of qualified experts in their field, decided in two separate instances here and here to ignore the highest ranked candidates and instead chose lesser ranked candidates.

Needless to say, I'm not surprised the entirety of Swope's decision making process seems to consist of traveling to an encampment and "eyeballing" it.


Many years ago, Mo Collins did a skit on MadTV that featured Bob Newhart as a therapist who only charges $5 dollars per session and the sessions only last 5 minutes. I would definitely encourage you to watch it here:

Basically, the premise of the skit is this poor woman visiting a new therapist whose primary means of therapy is to simply yell, "STOP IT!" when she discusses her fears.

"You don't want to be like that right?"

"No" she responds. "Then stop it!", he replies.

Now, I'm not sharing this video because it's amazing and Bob Newhart is an American icon (though all of that is true). Nor am I trying to indicate this is how Sean Swope is dealing with our homelessness issue. What I do want to point out in the absurdity of this skit, is that the therapist in this scenario appears to have little concern for WHY the woman has these fears. He does ask if someone has ever tried to bury her alive but even then he dismisses all of those things for his preferred therapeutic method: STOP IT!

When Sean Swope ignores the expertise and the statistical data regarding the effectiveness of sweeps, or the current best practices of addressing the thorny issues of homelessness, he's not entirely unlike Bob Newhart here. In both scenarios, they are only addressing the symptoms of a deeper cause.

Let's Look At Some Data

There's a ton out there on what methods regarding homelessness are showing good results. There's also data from various considerations, such as individual, structural, and so on. There's also a lot on the contributing factors that increase the risk of becoming homeless.

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)


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)

I know what you're thinking, "Mitch, this must have taken you years of research and first hand experience to gather all of this data." No. It just took a small commitment of time to look into the ongoing conversation that experts in these fields have to say. And of course, you know, reading a few books on the subject. This strikes me as the bare minimum our leaders could at least do before, oh I don't know, bringing forward proposals for new laws that will displace an entire population while having little to no available housing with the exception of a night-by-night shelter and darn it if my english teacher friend isn't gritting her teeth at this run on sentence.

I haven't even touched on how the most successful strategies for all of these issues is one where the person at risk is involved in the decisions regarding their treatment options. Swope does not respect the agency of the population he's trying to "help". He's largely concerned with their location... not their situation.

So What Would Be Ideal Moving Forward?

For starters, ditch the ordinance. I think I've gone to great enough lengths to show how this ordinance not only fails to address the underlying issues, but only exacerbates an already terrible situation. Not to mention, this ordinance has no jurisdiction as the encampment in discussion is currently on state land so it won't even deal with the issue Swope wants.

If Swope, and our other leaders who have abdicated their responsibility to him, do manage to clear the encampment, they'll be displacing near 20 some individuals. Those people have jobs, pets, and belongings. Forcing them into a shelter will increase their burden and raise barriers to any recovery efforts they could likely engage in.

So drop the ordinance. Spend the county's efforts collaborating with service providers and outreach personnel. Provide the current encampment materials to mitigate health concerns (sanicans and garbage services). All the while, work creatively to develop housing options not only for these people but also for those who are near risk of being homeless soon.

Develop trauma-informed policies rather than Swope's preferred approach of...

Fighting Trauma with Trauma

I've written about trauma-informed care in my review of Grace Can Lead Us Home. While written to Christians specifically, this book is a great resource on the complexities of homelessness. Go read that linked section but I'll try to briefly outline it here.

That book defines trauma-informed care like so:

The most important aspect of this methodology regards the first word in it: trauma. Trauma is the result of “exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.” When we recognize the role that trauma plays in shaping people and their behavior and responses to help, it fundamentally changes the way we see and treat unhoused people. In short, it enables us to love better. One training on trauma-informed care I attended described this as “unconditional positive regard”—not unlike the way we understand how God loves. (p. 80)

My contention in all of this, is that Swope, and our leaders, are still only addressing the effects of a system that churns out people who ultimately are mis-functioning due to a lifetime of accrued trauma.

Earlier I used the example of bailing out a boat. I briefly talked about the self-destructive nature of those trying to sink their own boat. Why would anyone desire to sink their own boat? It's insane. I would wager, a lifetime of accrued trauma is why. The same applies to those who would willingly live in an encampment.

When Swope "eyeballs" the situation and arrogantly proclaims it's primarily addiction that is causing these woes, he completely ignores the also very real reality that the trauma of homelessness alone can lead to addiction. Cause and effect go both ways on these seemingly intractable problems.

Declaring homelessness illegal, sweeping encampments, and forcing a population out into an area already experiencing housing unavailability is simply fighting the results of trauma with more trauma.

In Conclusion

It's not my opinion that Swope, or any of our commissioners, are evil. I also doubt Swope is some completely depraved individual. From all appearances, he seems to be a dedicated husband and father. Perhaps Swope is a man who is simply accustomed to getting his way. Those who are used to life on their terms typically have no desire to receive advice or find nuance in the complexity of reality. There's nothing to be learned if you think you are the smartest person in the room. Power is an addiction all its own.

In the words of Henri Nouwen:

"What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life." - Henri Nouwen

If I had to wager, I'd say that the outcome of this ordinance was decided long before those commissioners will take their seats on Tuesday. It would bring me the greatest amount of joy to be wrong on that, but I don't think I am.

They can, and likely will, deny the agency of this population. Still, we can give voice to the voiceless. Like the parable of the persistent widow, who lived in a certain town with a judge "who neither feared God nor cared what people thought", we can keep being a pain in the ass about this until justice is grudgingly granted.

I'll leave you with these words from Fr Gregory Boyle, in his book, Tattoos on the Heart:

"You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash