Letter to the editor: Defining homelessness is critical to finding a solution


Edmonds has been torn by the issue of homelessness for over a year. I, as well as many residents of Edmonds, am concerned about the welfare of those who are homeless and how best to help them. In addition, they are rightfully worried about the impact of low barrier housing and homelessness on our town.

Conflicting reports about the number and kinds of homeless people has added to the uncertainty and concerns of me and other members of the Edmonds community. This has not been helped by the reports of two separate consulting firms that have produced opinions based on questionable assumptions and debatable conclusions. These reports have not even shown any clarity on the actual number of homeless here in Edmonds: are there 230 or only ten? More importantly, the consultants have largely ignored the destructive effect of homelessness that we regularly see in Seattle and other cities with the implicit and improbable promise that it won’t happen in Edmonds.

I am writing this opinion based on reports from HUD, the census bureau and other sources as well as my own concerns that we are not optimally directing our resources and efforts to help homeless people especially in our community. One of the main causes of confusion is the mistaken assumption that there is only one form of homelessness. However, there is not one form of homelessness; there are two…acute and chronic. They have different causes, involve different populations and must be addressed differently. Any effort to manage homelessness as one single matter is likely to fail. Moreover, addressing this matter as only one problem is misleading and even deceptive. Indeed, such deception has been not infrequently employed to achieve political, social and economic agendas.

Acute homelessness is usually caused by issues such as loss of job, illness, family issues such as domestic violence, or a financial change and others. Acute homelessness usually lasts a year or less. The people that are experiencing acute homelessness ordinarily do not want to be in that situation and will try to find a decent dwelling and recover their normal lifestyle. They tend not to be serious alcoholics or addicts and are able to control emotional or mental problems. In addition, the acute homeless people often live in the same communities where they have lived before becoming homeless; it is where their families and friends live and where they may have a support system.

People who are acutely homeless can benefit from job training, counseling, low interest loans as well as from community services that help them find jobs and decent places to live, often in their own communities.

Chronic homelessness is a different, more serious problem. This group largely consists of drug addicts, alcoholics and seriously mentally ill or a combination of these factors. It has been estimated that 70% or more of the chronic homeless are in this group. A smaller percentage even chose this lifestyle. They are not often “local” but will travel to the “best” and most comfortable place to be homeless. They are the unfortunate, often desperate, people we see sleeping in the streets of Seattle and elsewhere.

For the people who are chronically homeless, their homeless state is not their problem: It is the symptom. Providing them with shelter, drugs, clean needles, etc. won’t solve their problems. These acts can prolong their suffering and contribute to their ill health and premature, often violent, deaths. They need treatment. Thus, while it may seem compassionate to support their lifestyle it may actually be harmful because it but does not seriously attempt to resolve the issues that brought it about. In addition, it also harms the communities that that they consistently and seriously degrade as we have seen in Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities on the West Coast. However well intentioned, it is the wrong solution.

These two populations of homeless individuals are not mutually exclusive: acute homeless can become chronically homeless and visa-versa. There are often other factors that may be contributory. Moreover, it is also true that the majority of addicts, alcoholics and people with mental problems in America live relatively “normal” lives but are not homeless.

Ignoring the differences between acute and chronic homeless and treating these two distinct populations as one, is futile and a waste of time, resources and precious lives. In order to achieve a lasting and successful resolution to these problems, we must re-evaluate our perception of homelessness. We must work to find realistic solutions that can effectively help both the acutely and chronically homeless people in our community to relieve their suffering and to help them achieve productive and meaningful lives. Moreover, it can prevent and perhaps even repair the decay and squalor that we have seen in other communities that have been affected by homelessness.

The residents of Edmonds want to do the right thing. However, to do so there must be clarity as to the causes and remedies needed to effectively solve the problem of homelessness.

Gerald Bernstein,

9 Replies to “Letter to the editor: Defining homelessness is critical to finding a solution”

  1. This is excellent and thought provoking. It’s worth noting that the Point In Time report found only four homeless people in Edmonds, contrary to the inflated numbers in the city-paid Kone Consulting report.


  2. Mr. Bernstein is spot on here I think. The homeless and/or near homeless population that wants help has to contend with a fragmented, band-aid applying, consortium of public and private resources one can only imagine. (I’ve done charity work with these folks). The hoops they have to jump thru to get any kind of meaningful assistance is mind boggling. The much larger group of the mentally ill, addicted, and just plain unmotivated in some cases, rely on hand outs (pan handling on street corners), camping out in public places, theft and manipulation of well meaning private charities. We do not have much of that type of homelessness in Edmonds yet, but it’s pretty darn close.

    The only answer to all this is public/private regional centers where needs are assessed and appropriate actions are taken. The police have some place other than jail or the Emergency Room to take people they find in tents, sleeping in cars and on the street. Drug addiction will need to be totally decriminalized (other than supply and sale to Minors) and treated the same as alcohol addiction. In some cases decent permanent housing will need to be supplied by the state. Maybe like the Poor Farms the rural counties in the mid-west used in the past to take care of their indigent populations. Nothing else is going to work, so get used to the tents and general ugliness of illness and addiction if we continue down the same path, expecting different results.


  3. And the Compass Housing Alliance/Edmonds Lutheran Church, housing-first method is only going to bring the drug-addicted here as they do not require the tenants to be drug free or seek treatment in order to get a unit. We need a better solution.

    It’s probably safe to say the majority of Compass Housing Alliance’s clients are from the Seattle area, (Compass is a downtown Seattle non-profit organization) so we are literally bringing Seattle’s homeless crisis here.


  4. Mr. Bernsteins letter is one of the best analysis of homelessness I’ve read. Before anything can be done, we need comprehensive mental health reform. In addition, there has to be better ways to treat addiction. In these best case scenarios, living on the streets should be unacceptable. In reading similar articles in different parts of the country, it seems citizens are in general agreement that throwing money at the problem is not working and they see the problems in the same way as outlined here. It makes me wonder why there hasn’t been a real workable solution put forward by our elected officials. Perhaps too many people have reasons to continue the status quo.

    Karen Bradford


  5. Finally some intelligent discourse on this and not just ideological clap-trap. I regard the Edmond’s Lutheran project an important test case for our city. All the people living in that neighborhood deserve a constant police presence there as well as an objective outside group to monitor and report to the community as a whole, how it is working for potentially impacted long time residents near by. If the dilapidated motor homes, tents and people living in cars next to the low income housing develops, as people fear, the city needs to step in and hold the church and compass housing responsible for a solution. It’s time for the people to bring some political pressure to bare and get some real solutions going to solving this hideous regional (and national) problem. Take a drive along Ballard’s Commodore way or the road to Alki Point in West Seattle and you will see what this could become like right here in Edmonds.


  6. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when tax rates on the extremely wealthy went as high as 90%. We had to pay for WWII and the G.I. bill to restart the traditional American economy after the war economy of the 40’s. Was this fair to the extremely wealthy? Debatable question; they profited most from the booming war economy so maybe it was fair.

    During this time, we literally rebuilt Japan and Germany with the Marshall plan and other programs, put millions of veterans thru college, built thousands of schools for the baby boom generation and funded the cold war against the Soviet Union as well as building the Interstate Highway System. The only way for corporations to get out of extreme taxation, was to reinvest in their companies and create more jobs for a fast growing population.

    With the Reagan era, we saw the destruction of Unions, lower tax rates for the rich and corporations and the American Conservative Republican dream society was born, or reborn, from the 1020’s prior to the Great Depression. Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, Sean Hannity and others became the pied pipers of the dream and continue their right leaning rhetoric daily on Conservative talk radio and Fox news. This is the society that the Neo-Conservatives have craved and slowly installed to defeat the Progressive politics of the 50’s and 60’s. They now own the Supreme Court. We are now a stones throw from a dictatorship and out in the open oppression. A minority party has managed to co-opt almost the entire American Government with popular vote winning Presidential candidates losing because of the Electoral College system. We are now a stone’s throw from a dictatorship and out in the open oppression of people who choose to engage in descent or are of the wrong ethnic minorities.

    Our only hope not to devolve into a totalitarian state is the free and independent press and an almost spineless majority party. The press is under assault daily on right wing radical TV and radio.

    This is the society the right wing politicos want, so I respectfully turn over the homelessness and drug addiction problems for them to solve. I have a good life going and plan to enjoy it while I can. So break a leg, Matthew, I hope your ideology solves all our problems, but of course, it won’t.


    1. It would help your case if your first fact were true. In the same way Ron Wambolt points out that the 30 year mortgage existed since the new Deal, those loans didn’t [effectively] exist because they weren’t needed or offered very often. Tractor and equipment were what people borrowed for more significantly. Sub-Prime tractor loans were actually a major cause of the Great Depression. Yes, Top Marginal Rate was 90% under Ike, but [effectively] nobody actually paid it. The Effective Rate was actually much LOWER in the 50-60’s, even though the top marginal was 90%. Loop-holes ensured no one paid. Couldn’t it more reasonably be said that the boom in the 50’s was due to bringing our troops home and lowering taxes?

      Also, if the election were a popular vote, Trump would have won by an even greater margin. Trump easily beat 18 other candidates (including my own candidate I was a delegate for). Trump was actually handicapped in that he had to campaign to middle America, the rust-belt and evangelicals. He could of more easily adjusted his campaign to get the popular vote, he’s a populist after all – a NYC classical liberal. Bloomberg won NYC as a populist Republican. Arnold won as a populist Californian. Trump would have cleaned up if those were the rules. It’s an indisputable fact that Hillary Clinton cheated in the primaries, against basically one competitor verse Trump’s 18. Wasserman-Shultz was fired for it, then Brazil was fired for it, I speculate Seth Rich was even been killed over it.

      With UK, Barcelona [and others] leaving, the Totalitarian experiment (EU) is dying. Shop local, farm local, buy local, work local, govern local. Nationalism is the new small government in the context of globalism.


      1. I said that 30-yr mortgages existed for as long as I can remember; I mentioned nothing about the new Deal. And they were a reality for me. because I had 30-yr mortgages two or three times.


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