Smoke bellows skyward near an overpass on the outskirts of this Pacific Northwest city.
Flames become evident as you get closer, as do the fire trucks and the firefighters putting out the blaze at the centre of a homeless encampment that is affixed, favela style, to the under-shoulder of the crossing.
And they are everywhere in and around Seattle, just as they are in Portland and Phoenix and San Francisco and, well, just about every major metropolitan area that there is in the U.S. You encounter the homeless and mentally ill at almost every turn here. People tucked inside sleeping bags find solace where they can. I recently turned a downtown corner only to find a man urinating on a busy sidewalk.
I have been coming to this city for the better part of 40 years now. It has always been among my favourites in the U.S. But it is a different city now, a city in trouble, much like the others I’ve mentioned. Violent crime bolted to its highest level in 15 years in 2022. A once bustling commercial stretch of businesses along 3rd Ave. is now empty and boarded up.
The threat of more businesses leaving, among other things, has created a crisis at city hall. Business taxes are the lifeblood of a city. When they shrink, so do the services and programs they help fund.
It has led to an exodus of people, not just from condominiums in the downtown core, but from the city and even the state.
When people don’t feel safe, they leave. More people left Seattle in 2022 than moved in, according to data recently provided by the National Association of Realtors. The same thing happened the year before.
It also doesn’t help that the latest national survey measuring sadness levels in American cities found Seattle at the top of the list – again. In February, about 45 per cent of surveyed adults said they were dealing with feelings of depression – a number that usually improves during the summer months when it’s not constantly pouring. (Vancouverites can relate).
Again, these problems exist in places such as Portland, once the progressive-minded darling of America known for being a haven for eccentric hipsters – a place spoofed in the sketch comedy Portlandia. Now, its crime rate is rising rapidly, with cities like Seattle, just three hours down the I-5, regarding it as a cautionary tale.
It is easy to look at what’s happening down here and think: yes, but that’s the U.S. Everything is bigger and badder and more screwed up. But that would be a mistake. All the problems plaguing these cities are, to some degree, becoming intractable issues in Canada as well.
There is a sense in Seattle, and in some of the other American cities I have been to in the last couple of years, that civic leaders didn’t appreciate the full extent of the problem they had on their hands until they were confronting a full-blown homelessness crisis. (Sure, the pandemic exacerbated problems. But they were there before it arrived.)
A year after Seattle’s city council and community groups devised an ambitious plan to house everyone living on the street, the program has reached only 10 per cent of those in need of long-term housing. It’s taken much longer to hire and train staff than was anticipated – something Canadian cities can learn from.
Drugs, of course, are also at the root of many of the problems.
Seattle’s drug court has had mixed success, although many citizens agree with its premise. Those found guilty of a crime connected to a drug condition are given a choice of prison or a roughly year-long drug treatment program.
While it has helped some people get off drugs and find meaningful employment, the program has failed many others, some multiple times. A person can spend a year severing their addiction, but if they don’t have a reasonable path to a normal-looking life, they will go back to what they know.
I couldn’t help but feel that this is a city someone like federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre could thrive in politically, because everything actually does seem broken here.
But everything isn’t broken, of course. The city still has a strong economic foundation and offers a home base for several multinational tech companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. Although, the recent announcement by Amazon that it was laying off 9,000 additional workers worldwide did nothing for the city’s fragile psyche.
Bottom line: Canada needs to regard what is happening in the metropolitan United States as more than just a wake-up call. We need to look at it as a portent of the future if we don’t regard what is happening here as the national emergency that it is.