When bad media gets a good answer: A thoughtful social worker takes on KIRO

Sometimes when I happen to see the nightly news, it reminds me of why I’m glad I got rid of my television set.  What passes for news is too often sensationalist, hysterical, and devoid of any actual reporting. It’s depressing. Without good journalism, it’s hard to have meaningful dialogue about complicated public policy issues.  Then, sometimes, a thoughtful person gets disgusted enough to write out a reply, which is a good reminder that we do not have to let the public discourse be so degraded, and degrading.

The following letter was written by James Watkins, a social worker at DESC, one of our member organizations.  James kindly agreed to let us post the full text of his letter, which he wrote as a personal response to the KIRO video piece. He is not speaking on behalf of his employer ~ but he is speaking on behalf of many, many people who live and work and shop and pay taxes in Seattle.  Read his letter, and resolve to write your own letter the next time something infuriates or saddens or provokes you about how people who are homeless are described in the media.

November 15, 2013
Henry Rosoff, KIRO News
2807 Third Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121

Dear Mr. Rosoff:

I work at one of the supportive housing facilities you depicted in “The Most Dangerous Block in Seattle.” Our organization cares for individuals who do not have the physical, mental, or emotional skills to care for themselves. The residents we support are chosen based on an assessment of their vulnerability; every single one of them is struggling daily to overcome a cycle of trauma, addiction, homelessness, mental illness; and many are also coping with developmental disorders, physical disabilities, and terminal illnesses.

My job is to fulfill the community’s obligation to keep its most vulnerable citizens housed, fed, reasonably clean, and safe. It is exhausting and frequently thankless work. We work hard to remind our clients that they have choices, opportunities to grow, that they have value as human beings, friends, families, and a future.

Last night the residents that I care for gathered in the TV room and saw our community sensationally depicted as a violent “underbelly”; our neighbors portrayed as dangerous criminals and drug addled garbage. We watched you question our friend on whether it was “fair” that emergency services respond in our neighborhood, and save poor people’s lives with the same standards of care as they do in the rest of Seattle.

I realize you were thinking about the financial costs of emergency services, but underneath you were asking my friend whether his life is worth its cost to taxpayers.

Could you reflect for a moment on the contempt that is inherent in asking him that question while his neighbor was hovering between life and death, receiving CPR upstairs? Could it be a surprise to you that our residents often already perceive themselves as worthless and see our situation as hopeless? Can you perceive how your approach to our story reinforces trauma and further damages self-perception? Can you understand that it drives the wedge of division between “us” and “them” even deeper, making it even harder for my friends to believe that they deserve help, hope, and redemption to the community?

To briefly answer the valid financial question that you asked so inappropriately, many studies have shown that the kind of housing and services that DESC provides not only save lives and reduce homelessness, but providing housing decreases high utilizers’ dependency on emergency services and Medicaid, and saves taxpayer’s money. As an organization and as individuals, my coworkers are acutely aware of the cost of emergency services. Support staff perform a number of crucial functions in concert with emergency service personnel: assessing situations and determining whether to call 911 or the non-emergency services of the Seattle Police Department and ambulance services, facilitating First Responders access to medical history, providing info on a client’s known history of drug abuse, and recent mental health status, all in order to decrease the number of calls made and the time that a call takes.

The organization I work for maintains 300 apartments and 200 shelter beds in the immediate vicinity of the block you depicted. They are here because it makes financial sense to focus social service efforts in one neighborhood, and in turn, there are a high number of emergency calls on this block because much of Seattle’s population of individuals with the most severe mental illness and chemical dependency problems are concentrated here.

This doesn’t, however support the claim that it’s the most “dangerous” area of Seattle. Without access to your data, I’d suggest it is likely that a large number of the “violent crimes” in your report are occurring within the supportive housing buildings themselves. These are almost entirely minor assaults, threats, disputes, and thefts, between residents or against staff that get reported for a variety of legal, liability, and reporting purposes, often submitted by staff via the non-emergency police contact number.

In addition, there are predators who come to the neighborhood to find easy prey amongst our clients. They exploit them financially, physically, emotionally, and sexually, targeting them for their chemical dependency, their hunger, their emotional need, and their despair. The average citizen walking the streets has little to fear from them. We do our best to identify these individuals and report any incidents to the police. We also have our own safety patrol and safety teams intended to respond quickly to developing situations.

Our community has profound needs. It has serious problems, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it for your upcoming exposé on the “Happiest, Friendliest, Safest Block in Seattle.” But your report chose to focus SOLELY on the negative aspects of the Pioneer Square neighborhood without fully acknowledging the social and economic roots of the problem, ongoing efforts to address our clients needs, or offering ANY suggestions or solutions (other than law enforcement, who rightly admitted that they can’t “arrest their way out of the situation.”)

The “Most Dangerous Block in Seattle” is the result of a culture-wide practice of socially isolating economically disadvantaged people who struggle with various combinations of mental illness, physical and developmental disabilities, terminal disease, and chemical dependency; then ghettoizing them through incarceration or institutionalization into an environment of desperation, and subsequently failing to provide adequate resources for treatment, education, health care and emotional counseling. And finally with reports like this, stigmatizing them through sensationalist reporting and misrepresentation making reintegration into the larger society even more difficult if not impossible.

Our residents watch the news. When they are the news, and the news is hopeless, their already difficult situation is made even worse. The way to improve conditions in Pioneer Square is not by spreading fear but by working to improve these human beings’ access to care. They are not monsters, nor leeches. They are desperate people, suffering from real diseases – biological, social, and spiritual. Offer them your hope, not your contempt. They have already had plenty of that.

James Watkins