If you care about poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or the morale of law enforcement, I hope you find some time to watch this excellent documentary, regardless of where you live. If you live in Seattle, this is required viewing in my opinion. KOMO News in Seattle does an outstanding job exposing the depth of our homeless problem in Seattle, and it’s inextricable link to addiction. It’s raw, difficult viewing, exposing visually and viscerally, the rise in homelessness and its attendant trash, human waste, and crime. The affects of our city’s laissez faire approach to petty crime and drug use is exposed, and an anonymous survey of Seattle Police reveals frustrations to the extreme over new policies of tolerance regarding drug use, illegal parking of RV’s, property destruction, and so much more. The lack of consequences and accountability for offenses have created a culture of anarchy and disregard for the law, resulting in Seattle being among the national leaders in property crimes last year.
The weight of these revelations should feel like a gut punch to anyone loving Seattle, and Christ followers, who are encouraged by Jeremiah to “work and pray for the blessing of the city in which they live”, must allow themselves to feel the pain of that punch in the gut. The crime, the trash, the human lives imprisoned by poverty, addiction, and despair — this is our city!
I can tell you, as one who travels for work, that it doesn’t need to be this way. Large urban cities across the globe are dealing with the same growth pains, the same income inequities, but they’re dealing with it better than we are, because our way of dealing with it seems to be driven by a thoughtless “tolerance” that, while emotionally appealing to many in our city, is neither loving nor just.
After the revelation of problems like these, the conversation often denigrates as people move to their respective corners and either advocate for continued tolerance or “crack down” with retributive justice. Put another way, we’re arguing about whether to spend more money on tiny houses or just sweep everything clean, locking up violators and throwing away the key. Thankfully, the documentary points us to a third way, by showing a Rhode Island program that’s essentially an expression of restorative justice. Violators of the law are cited, as violators should be if law is to have any meaning. They’re arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. But the goal of their time in prison isn’t retributive; simply a punishment to ‘get them off our streets. It’s restorative. It includes a program to treat the addiction. There are mentors who stay in contact with the person once they’ve served their time and are free. There are check-in centers on the outside where they can continue to receive the meds that are freeing them from addiction. And of course, woven through all this is the investment of healthy relational capital, the very thing that nearly 100% of the homeless people living on our streets and battling addiction demons are missing.
We are reaping the fruit of what our hyper-individualistic culture has sown, as the number of people who’ve no “tribe” to walk with them through life’s painful valleys continues to rise. Our entire culture needs to look in the mirror and ask whether the rising relational poverty all around us is worth it because, though its beyond the scope of this post, the reality is that our current cultural values fracture and isolate us. In the meantime, though, Rhode Island has decided to intervene and provide the relational capital offenders so desperately need. They offer a model:
Arrest offenders. Provide addiction treatment and counseling. Provide follow-up after care upon release. If Seattle began to think this way, act this way, the landscape of our city would change, literally – the landscape itself would change.
“Leave them alone” isn’t love. It’s cowardly enabling, made all the worse by a city council that sometimes won’t even look up from their phones during council meetings to listen to offer common respect to law abiding citizens seeking to engage democracy. Talk about relational poverty!!
“Lock them up and forget about them” isn’t love either. It’s self-righteous anger that fails to see what people ultimately need isn’t just punishment, but intervention. I counted at least five people in the Rhode Island story who said, in various ways, “the day I got arrested was the best day of my life… a turning point… it saved me life… I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been arrested.” Those testimonies don’t happen when people are locked and forgotten. They happen when they’re locked, treated, and equipped to return to culture and live whole lives.
“Actions have consequences” and “We’re committed to making this moment of your failure a catalyst for your transformation” IS what love does, and what people in crisis need. What’s more, this documentary shows Seattle that it’s doable — but it requires third way thinking, and that’s a rare commodity these days in a world where the political right and left both seem to see their ways as the “only way”.