Ask most people if public begging is a problem in Seattle and they'll say no. Compared to most cities, they'll say, the panhandlers are low key, polite, and not especially numerous. I admit to drawing from a sample of less than ten here, so this isn't exactly science, but for normal people, the panhandling "problem" isn't really a big issue.
And yet the Downtown Seattle Association can't stop talking about it. Why? While press flak Anita Woo talks about how panhandling drives away convention center business, this can't be the whole story. Business downtown is booming. Ask anyone.
So what's really going on here?
The DSA being a forward looking group of folks, I'd say the answer lies in the future. We need to look at what's being built.
As downtown Seattle becomes an enclave of urban affluence, with new developments sprouting up like forty story mushrooms beneath the biggest wettest cow pie you've ever seen, price tags range from expensive to stratospheric. And as the well-to-do discover urban living, they bring their suburban comfort zones along for the ride.
One barrier to downtown living is the perception that it might not be safe. With big money betting on the idea that the super rich — along with the merely affluent — will make the downtown their home, the DSA's preoccupation with squelching visible poverty makes a bit more sense.
A quick look at the new downtown reveals what's at stake.
There’s the Escala at 4th and Virginia, slated to open in 2009. "Anticipate perfection. Embrace elegance. Experience grandeur," says their website. This 30 story glass tower at 4th and Virginia has 275 condos for sale, going for a million dollars or more each. Amenities include a 24,000 foot members-only club, with a private theater, fitness area, restaurants, and wine caves where residents might store their private collections in convenient locked cases. The website's virtual tour seems to indicate that each unit comes with its own trophy wife at no extra charge.
The Cristalla, just a half a block down the street from our office, has units that go for over $3.5 million. In these, a column of water drops from the ceiling to fill the generously sized bath tub. When Real Change moved in back in '94, Belltown was pleasantly seedy. Now, the seedy have been priced out by the greedy, and we're hanging on by our fingernails, possessed of the sure knowledge that our very excellent deal will one day come to an end.
The Four Seasons, going in at 1st and Union, bills itself as "Seattle's Signature Address," and will feature 36 private residences above a luxury hotel. Condos are priced from $2.5 million to more than $10 million. Ironically, the proximity of the Pike Place Market, the preservation of which was considered a victory for the little guy, is listed along with the Seattle Art Museum as a key amenity for the uber-rich urban dweller.
Nearby, at the Fifteen Twenty One Second Avenue Building ("designed exclusively for the confident few"), units are selling for an average of $1.8 million each. Obscenely enough, this 143-unit development is sited where the Green Tortoise Youth Hostel once was, where bunks without amenities could be had for a few dollars a night. The "confident few" are slated to begin moving in sometime around December 2008. While most high end downtown living is mixed in with condos for the merely affluent, this project distinguishes itself as an island of extreme wealth unto itself, where only the rich need apply.
You get the idea. With all this wealth comes a vision for the sort of downtown where no one ever has to feel uncomfortable. No one who’s rich, that is.
It'll be sort of like New York. But without the diversity or the people.
While prognostication is always a tricky business, some things we know. The DSA will drive toward the criminalization of panhandling, the elimination of outdoor feeding, and the removal of public toilets. While the political will for such steps does not yet exist, they're working on it.
Meanwhile, the priority for "ending homelessness" will focus on that ten percent or so of homeless people who constitute the visible urban poor, otherwise known as the "chronic homeless." This, being the federal policy priority, is where the money is, and the "advocates" have lined up to cooperate.
No matter what the issue — homelessness, education, the environment, whatever — federal funding levels are a precise calibration of maximal cooptation at minimal price. Homelessness goes for around $1.6 billion right now. Cheap.
Sadly, the philanthropic and religious communities don't seem to have discerned that the Bush administration, with their Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness, may not simply have the best interests of poor folk in mind.
If federal policy on homelessness didn't align with the interests of wealthy real estate developers, it would be a bit surprising, wouldn't it?
But that's not a comfortable thought. Better to bask in our own righteousness than to ask who benefits. Questions like that don't sit well with the folks who hand out the money.
When the DSA inevitably makes their move to criminalize panhandling in Seattle with time, place, and manner restrictions similar to those passed in Tacoma, it'll be revealing to see which side some people are on.
Silence is complicity, and having nothing to say while poor people are being further criminalized will not be a comfortable option. Not if I can help it.