Homelessness in Seattle: My Suprising Return Home from Germany

I am only three weeks returned to Seattle.  Since returning, the city shocks me day by day with the fast transition and change.  In many ways it does not look the same.  Buildings that were under construction when I left 1.5 years ago are complete while double the number are now being built.  Everywhere I look there is a crane.  Large skyscrapers are being built and 6 story apartment buildings in my neighborhood are being developed.  The traffic seems to be doubled from what it once was but that could be me simply overreacting as it was clearly shit two years ago.  Most of my favorite restaurants are still here but the meals seem to cost an extra $5 more than the last time I ordered.  This is not a bitch session about the ever changing city of Seattle.  I moved here 6 years ago and my experience is nothing compared to those who grew up in this city for 20, 30 or 40 years.  In many ways, the growth and bustling of Seattle is what attracted me and my wife away from the dying cities of Ohio.  However; the thing that has most taken my breath away is the sheer number of those struggling to make it in Seattle and the unbelievable growth of homelessness.

Let’s take a step back from that last statement.  There are thousands of people in this city dedicated to ending homelessness doing fantastic work.  In fact, there is a distinct possibility that these help agencies and consortiums have actually decreased the total number of homelessness since I left.  Perhaps for every homeless person housed another two arrive to our city or are made homeless because of job issues, mental health issues or the outright ridiculousness of the cost of housing.  Either way I am well aware of the efforts of the local government, non-profits and other agencies working hard to combat homelessness.  With that cleared up, I am still out of my mind shocked at what I am seeing in Seattle.  Maybe I should walk you the reader through what could be the cause of my shock.

In 2014, I moved to Germany on a German Chancellor Fellowship.  My aim in Germany was to study and research social housing and homelessness from a German perspective.  I also took this opportunity to reach out to other European Union countries to study policies, issues and best practices.  My home city Hannover allowed me the opportunity to not only meet with experts but to feel the issue.  I met with the Executive Director of the local homeless newspaper “The Asphalt” in October of 2014.  While visiting, he explained the homeless situation in Hannover and walked me around the so called homeless hotspots of the city.  There were no doubt homeless people and the train station seemed to be one of the main meeting points.  There were clearly other spots within the city where you would find homeless people.  The newspaper gave the homeless an opportunity to sell the newspaper and make some money.  With all of that said, the number of homeless in Hannover-a city of 550,000 people seemed to be less that what I see on a daily basis in my neighborhood of Queen Anne.  Am I overstating?  Yes.  However;  maybe not by that much.

I am not going to lecture on how Germany is better than the USA on taking care of its citizens.  Our countries are not apple and oranges.  That is clear.  I can say that Germany is much different in the way it views taking care of citizens.  Let’s start with taxes.  My pal living in Germany is earning a decent salary but paying 45% of what he makes in taxes.  In the USA, a similar person would probably pay 25% or less.  It is pretty easy to start spotting the differences.  More taxes, more resources to house people.  Outside of social housing companies, Germany also has Wohngeld. Wohngeld is similar to the Section 8 program in the USA.  The city pays a private landlord some money to house a low income person.  On top of this program there is the so called Harz IV social program.  This gives a minimum amount of money and resources to low income families or persons to help ensure housing, food and travel are covered.  It is not a lot but it is usually enough.  This does not count other religious organizations or non-profits but to be blunt, the government handles the bulk of the work when it comes to helping homeless and low-income.  I spoke with the Director of the European Homeless Observatory last year and he informed me that “The German government fills the role where in the USA many foundations are trying to impact homelessness.  It makes more sense for the government to address the problems of homelessness than a foundation who can pick and choose problems.”  I will not argue for or against his idea but it does go back to the differences in tax code.

I am not writing this blog to yell, lobby or even start a conversation about solutions for homelessness in Seattle.  Those conversations have been happening for a long time and the people involved have forgotten more about homeless prevention and care than I have ever learned.  I am writing today just to express the shock of one Seattle citizen who stepped away from his city for a year and a half to return to a city that clearly has a lot of citizens suffering and living in poverty sleeping rough.  What makes me the saddest is seeing how many of these citizens are not able to care for themselves.  I am talking about people with severe mental issues.  My walk to work is 1 mile.  I pass at least 8-10 homeless people and of that number at least 40%-50% seem to suffer from severe mental illness.  Maybe I forgot how bad the issue was before I left?  Maybe living in Hannover, Germany opened my eyes to how bad the homeless issue is in Seattle?   At the end of the day, I am left asking if there really is any way the city, state and federal government will ever truly impact homelessness in a joint way that will make a tremendous impact?  I hope so.

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