In a 1897 Post-Intelligencer piece, Arn S. Allen proposed a cruel approach to the “human wreckage” who allegedly “scorn honest work in this fair city.
In a 1897 Post-Intelligencer piece, Arn S. Allen proposed a cruel approach to the “human wreckage” who allegedly “scorn honest work" in this fair city. EDB3_16 / GETTY

A fascinating artifact was unearthed in the Seattle Times this weekend — no, not that "rant and rave" letter from the Bellevue reader who wrote in to boast of harboring fantasies about murdering vulnerable road users, though that piece at least provided some insight into the mind of the average Times reader.

Direct your weary eyes instead to Saturday’s “Two Truths” piece, which focuses on the existence of income inequality downtown. There are many people downtown who are extremely destitute, troubled, and in desperate need of help — but the problem is that rich people don’t like to look at them.

I call this article an “artifact” because it represents the latest installment in a genre of reportage that has appeared in local media for over a hundred years, going back at least as far as an 1897 Post-Intelligencer piece headlined “Good Medicine for Hobos.” The solution someone proposed to end the homeless crisis in the late 19th century? Forced labor.

Before and after.
Before and after.

Back then, as now, the writer does not quote a single marginalized person, though we do not want for soundbites from the wealthy. This weekend’s Seattle Times piece conveys the thoughts of a retired couple “seen on the rooftop deck of their downtown Seattle high-rise;” the president of the Downtown Seattle Association, who pulled in nearly $340,000 in 2019; a 77-year-old fine art painter; a doctor/condo-owner; the associate creative director of an ad agency; and a twenty-something digital marketer, who to her credit wishes she knew how to clean up the needles on the street.

All of these people are very concerned about the state of downtown and wish that somebody would do something. The solutions they present: Calling the police, hosing down the alleys, ignoring the sounds of screaming, and joining the rest of the Times’ readership on the Eastside. (The reporter quotes no people who themselves are unhoused, so there’s no way we can possibly know what solutions they feel would be helpful. Oh well.)

The reporter does quote Mikel Kowalcyk, an outreach manager with an organization called REACH, which establishes relationships with people who need help and then connects them with appropriate services. For all the hand-wringing about "open-air drug use, lawlessness and filth" in the article, in two sentences Kowalcyk manages to explain both the problem and the solution.

“On a good day, there are only eight or nine [open beds in shelters],” she’s quoted as saying, but there are “hundreds of referrals that get put in a day… People want to come inside, people want a better quality of life. We don’t have the resources to match the needs.”

Ah. There it is. “Resources,” a tactful nonprofit way of saying “money.” That’s the solution, of course. REACH and organizations like it need more money. More beds, more healthcare, more substance use treatment, more clothing, more food, more office staff, more case workers, more nurses, more professional development, more recruiting top talent and making sure they don’t get burned out and flee. Solving problems is expensive. Fortunately, we are rich (downtown rent is somewhere north of $3,000 per month). Unfortunately, we don’t like taxes.

Instead, we’re still pursuing one-size-fits-all punitive solutions. The Times notes that the Downtown Seattle Association spent a half million dollars to hire off-duty police officers to patrol the streets, as if that’s ever lifted a person out of poverty. A police spokesperson for the SPD laments that they can’t arrest people for simple possession of drugs anymore, “which doesn’t leave us a whole lot of options.”

That’s a fun way of saying that police cannot conceive of solutions that do not involve arresting someone. Perhaps cops should not be contemplated as part of a solution at all — especially since, as the article notes, downtown crime has dramatically decreased in the last two years.

After all, what does anyone expect the police to do, throw tear gas at people in crisis until they stop being poor?

Looking to law enforcement to lift people out of poverty rather than spending money (or “resources,” if that makes you feel better) to help people in crisis echoes the solutions described by that Seattle P-I article published 124 years ago.

In that piece, Arn S. Allen, the general secretary of the Charity Organization Society, proposed a cruel approach to the “human wreckage” who “scorn honest work.” All a “hobo” needed, he wrote back then, was “work, and the jail with a stone pile attachment” — that is, forced labor. “Hard, uninviting, unremitting toil,” the P-I endorsed. (Paging burger prince and former right-wing radio host Saul Spady, who proposed sending the homeless to farm jail.)

"A city’s attitude should be that of relentless hostility” towards the homeless, Allen wrote, adding that Seattle must resist providing the homeless with handouts.

Well, look at us today. Mission accomplished. Arn S. Allen would be proud.