Our response to “Fight for the Soul of Seattle”

A recent project by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, “Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” conflates and simplifies complex issues, mischaracterizes DESC’s mission, and ignores our successful track record housing and supporting some of the city’s most vulnerable and marginalized people. The producers of the show never reached out to DESC to request information or an interview.

We have deep expertise on these topics, and would have provided details about our work and pointed them to decades of research on proven interventions in addressing homelessness, drug addiction, and other behavioral health issues.

Given we were not granted the opportunity to do so in the piece, we wanted to set the record straight on several important issues:

Dodge Nearing Jr. might still be cycling through state hospitals, rehab, his parents’ house and the street without permanent supportive housing.

Involuntary commitment is not the right solution

When someone is experiencing serious mental health and substance crisis or impairment on our streets, we do need to intervene and provide the help that they need. People can do much better when the right care and supports are provided to them. But the answer is not jail — it is housing. And once a person is stabilized in housing, it creates the opportunity for them to benefit from counseling and treatment and other services, all of which we work every day to provide to our clients.

For well over a decade, we have opened up our low-barrier approaches to housing and support to researchers at the University of Washington and DePaul University. Every single research study conducted at our sites has demonstrated that the more you respect people’s autonomy and meet people “where they are,” the more they stay off the streets, the less they drink, the fewer problems they have, and the more money taxpayers save on publicly funded services.

We have helped thousands of people with these evidence-based approaches. They have demonstrated they can make long-term changes to their lives. But for every person we help to stabilize and thrive, more come along with serious unmet needs. 

Forced treatment was abandoned because it doesn’t consistently help people and it often hurts them. DESC’s clients are no strangers to treatment, both voluntary and forced. Most have been through treatment and incarceration repeatedly. The fact that people attempt treatment over and over shows they are seeking change. But the treatment isn’t always able to overcome the complexities of serious brain disorders and lifetimes of trauma in one fell swoop.

Coercive treatment is not a new and innovative idea as “Soul of Seattle” suggests; it was the dominant approach for decades. It was not abandoned because of misplaced liberal compassion. It was abandoned because research showed it was not only not helping people, it was actually hurting people 33-80% of the time. To date, there is no evidence to support the idea that coercive treatment or the criminal legal system are effective treatments for substance use disorders, mental illness or homelessness.

Listen to Susan E. Collins, PhD, talk about why coercive treatment doesn’t work

She’s featured in the “San Francisco conservatorship” portion of the program

The Housing First approach

The repeated failure of coercive approaches is why we developed the Housing First model in the first place: providing people with safe housing without preconditions that they make clinical progress or stop using substances. While viewers may be inspired by some cherry-picked stories of people who were repeatedly arrested and overcame substance use disorders, we’ve seen, over and over again, that there is no amount of forced treatment or incarceration that consistently improves the lives of people with severe and persistent mental illness and substance use disorders.

We keep people housed in order to provide stability and keep them close to counselors and case managers. This give us more insight and more opportunities to intervene, the exact opposite of “looking the other way.” We prioritize people who need our help the most and relentlessly give them resources to improve their lives, including access to mental health and substance use disorder counselors, support groups, medication assisted treatment, healthy meals and job-training.

Meeting people’s basic needs and surrounding them with care brings the greatest and most long-lasting improvement. Evidence, data and facts should be the backbone of policies and social service strategies, not feelings and stories.

Volunteer fluffs pillow over new bed at The Estelle housing
A volunteer makes the bed to welcome a new tenant home to The Estelle

DESC’s work at The Morrison

“Soul of Seattle” presents DESC programs as the source of problems on Third Avenue. But there are many reasons why the area has a high concentration of troubled people. DESC programs no doubt help to make the block a place where homeless people congregate, but so does the proximity to the county jail, the persistent, decades-old drug market at the end of the block, longstanding use of City Hall Park adjacent to the Courthouse as a place for alcohol and other substance consumption. These problems are as old as Seattle’s original Skid Road, which was right in this area.

But what is different now from decades ago is that with our population and growth boom has also come thousands more people who are suffering on the streets than in any period before. Multiple studies have connected this increase to the rising cost of housing. And when you have many more people suffering, you are going to see more problems in the areas where suffering people congregate.

Crisis events, including medical emergencies which are the single largest reason for police responses on the 500 block of Third Avenue, are an indication that people are suffering and aren’t getting all of their needs met.

There are numerous, growing and longstanding causes for these issues, including a global pandemic that has hit poor people especially hard, and made relocation of people living outside a public health threat for them and everyone else in our community.

Working with the police

At DESC we recognize that law enforcement has an important role in public safety, and police should be called on to intervene in dangerous behavior and situations. We also recognize that police are not the right responders to all social problems. 

Our society’s inability to provide for the basic needs of people who are poor and are living with disabilities leads to so many unnecessary outcomes: homelessness, repeated trauma, psychiatric crisis events and long-term substance addiction.

Police are repeatedly called on to address these issues. Yet there’s widespread agreement even among police officers themselves that they don’t always have the best tools to intervene in behavioral health crises. As long as the police are involved, the tools at our disposal will continue to be “jail or no jail,” when the toolbox should be widened to include counseling, referral, de-escalation, medical intervention, and of course, long-term support and housing.  

Listen to our own Brianna Niemi talk about the work of DESC’s Mobile Crisis Team

She’s featured in the “Seattle’s Mobile Crisis Team” portion of the program

Provide treatment on demand

We agree with “Soul of Seattle” that our state’s mental health systems are woefully underfunded and are failing to meet people’s needs. People seeking voluntary treatment for mental illness or substance use should never be turned away. We will continue to fight for more resources for our clients and for all members of our community.

DESC’s role in our community

We are proud of the role DESC has played for four decades in providing shelter and moving thousands of people off Seattle’s streets and into stable supportive housing where they can begin to address the complex web of issues and obstacles they face, including substance use disorders and other behavioral health issues, poverty, and trauma.

This is not easy work, and it will never be simple, but we are hopeful that when people take time to understand our approach, they will embrace our vision of a city where all people — no matter how much they have struggled or how difficult their problems seem — have a chance to live a dignified existence with a roof over their heads.