Safe Seattle: A recovering addict’s perspective

Originally published on Facebook
By Tristan Heberlein Special to Safe Seattle

“I’ve been in recovery from active addiction for many years. I have more first, second and third-hand experience with addiction than I would wish upon anyone.”

There’s an unfortunate dynamic that has developed in the many recent, and often heated conversations related to homelessness. There’s a generalization made around “homeless” people, as if they are one single group, with the same agendas, habits and lifestyles. We often discuss and debate what needs to change, either in policy, programs, or how they’re treated — whether it’s expressing upset that “they” are messing up our city, or the opposite generalization that “they” just need some more help to get back on track. But the problem is that they are not one solid, single group.

It’s important to note that most of the frustration expressed around the homeless by many of us lifetime residents of Seattle is not about the general homeless population. Homelessness has always existed in Seattle, but the crisis that we are facing nowadays is not a crisis of homelessness, per se. It’s a crisis of drugs, addiction, and lack of law enforcement around existing drug laws and associated “quality of life” crimes. It’s a crisis stemming from the recent lackadaisical city leadership and a letting-go of healthy, self-respecting boundaries — which has led to a massive influx of people who are escaping cities and towns whose laws and enforcement are unwelcoming of people who prefer to live in a relative state of anarchy.

There is myth floating around by some that if we just have more money for more programs and services, the issues will be solved. But these ideas are often lacking because they fail to acknowledge the many programs that do exist, which — for the person truly striving to better themselves and get off the street — actually work. They also fail to acknowledge that so many people who stay on the street do so because they repeatedly reject, deny or avoid offerings of services, including shelter, drug treatment, ongoing drug and alcohol recovery programs, mental health treatment, job training and the like — all of which are offered and available free of charge, and have been for many years. It also fails to acknowledge that the many other services offered attract people to the city whose primary goal is to take advantage of those services — who ultimately become dependent upon them — and further their systemized helplessness. It also paints those who rebel against the very basic laws of life and society as perpetual victims and removes any responsibility from their shoulders for their behavior. This becomes a frustrating inconvenience for the rest of the citizenry, but it is a death knell to most street-level addicts, whose only chance at recovery from addiction requires that they adopt an attitude of 100% responsibility for their lives.

The fact is, people who earnestly look for help changing their lives get it. There are many programs and millions of dollars spent in this city and county getting people shelter, apartments, food, clothing, dental care, detox, rehab, mental health treatment, and more. It’s not perfect, but the programs are there and those who truly avail themselves of them only stay homeless, or stay on drugs, for a short while. But those are not the homeless folks that so many in this city are at their wits’ end about. It’s the “I don’t give a ____ about you or this city, or my own life” type of street addicts, who thrive on small-time crime to support their addictions, who will continue living their aggressive and reckless lifestyle — victimizing our city — until someone else makes it impossible for them to continue.

Ideas float around that we could solve the addiction crisis by offering more money for expanded detox and rehab services. While continued — and perhaps expanded — funding for detox and rehab will probably help to some extent, the fact is, detox and rehab are not where the pipeline to sobriety typically gets broken. Some addicts do leave such programs prematurely, but most addicts fall out of the recovery pipeline after that. They fall off the proverbial wagon when they return to their usual environments and don’t usher themselves into ongoing change of thinking and social group. Addicts who succeed in long-term, lifelong recovery, are typically ones who continue to get help from the (100% free-of-charge) 12-step community (NA, AA, etc.), and to a lesser extent, churches and other recovery communities, and who continue to do the painful and difficult, but necessary work to improve themselves long after the expensive tax-payer funded detox and rehab programs are over.

I’ve been in recovery from active addiction for many years. I have more first, second and third-hand experience with addiction than I would wish upon anyone. I’ve been addicted to opiates, alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes. I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of the opportunities and constraints of available long-term recovery programs.

They are not perfect, but they are far more widespread and mainstream than at any time in human history. They have the power to help more people on earth recover from addiction than ever before. We know this because it’s happening at incredibly high rates. But since the anonymity and confidentiality aspects of these programs generally shun researchers coming in and tracking results — and shun public speaking from successfully recovering addicts — the programs aren’t as visible and noticeable to people who are not actively engaged in such recovery efforts.

Seattle alone has over 100 NA meetings per week, and over 100 AA meetings (which many addicts attend as well) per day. In addition, there are many other programs specific to various drugs, such as cocaine, meth, heroin, and even marijuana. Membership in the various programs number in the thousands in Seattle alone. Every day newcomers walk in, or are sent in via the legal system, and help is offered free of charge, for life. A great many of these newcomers were led into recovery from legal routes (arrests, plea deals requiring attendance at treatment programs and 12-step meetings, etc.), and interventions (such as by family, friends, employers, etc.). Those of us in recovery know the value of getting our asses thrown in jail when we are out-of-line with what is needed to live right — and to live well. We know the value of being confronted by our peers and family who want to set us straight and to stop robbing them of their time, energy and money. And we know the value of being threatened with the loss of a job if we don’t address our problem. It’s a crucial piece of the recovery process called accountability, and is a common catalyst for people to take the first steps in the right direction.

For folks addicted to drugs and living on the street, the only remaining accountabilities are laws and ordinances, which dictate the behavior expected of the citizenry. Under former Mayor Murray’s leadership, the City of Seattle began removing the precious and necessary accountability structures (legal consequences of possessing toxic, poisonous drugs, enforcement of drunken and disorderly conduct, enforcement of littering and camping laws, the 72-hour parking rules, and many other so-called quality-of-life crimes and violations) over the past several years. The results of this careless and lazy approach to law and order in the realm of drugs, alcoholism, and associated crime are so very painfully obvious that they make many of us lifelong citizens of Seattle cringe.

And for those of us recovering addicts, with many years of successful sobriety, it makes so many of us want to scream at the top of our lungs. Because for us, this is personal. When we have to watch our friends and loved ones fall off the proverbial wagon because of growing availability and temptations of their drug(s) of choice, it hurts. When they don’t come back into recovery because their personal anarchy goes unchecked, it hurts. We may never hear about them, and when we do, it usually has to do with their funeral.

Most people who are in recovery now appreciate the role of law and legal intervention in their personal journey into freedom from active addiction. Most of us knew of available resources, including detox programs, rehab, therapists, 12-step recovery meetings and other support groups, for years before we finally started our journey up out of the trash heap of life. We knew there was help out there, but we chose to “go our own route,” long after we realized that controlled substances and/or alcohol were kicking our asses and preventing us from being able to be who we truly wanted to be. What finally helped so many of us get clean and sober was being forced into a new way of living from the various external accountability mechanisms that our society has set up — and for many of us, legal consequences (arrests, jail time, plea deals, drug court, etc.) provided that accountability.

As for our city’s recent trends for the worst, the several-month-long survey of the homeless that Mayor Murray commissioned in 2016 — and finally published in March of 2017 — revealed a key trend that the city failed to bring to the attention to the general public. Murray’s primary message to the public, after the results were compiled, was that homelessness is on the rise in the city, and most of them were from here, and are on the streets because they simply “lost their jobs.”

The Stranger was happy to jump on Murray’s bandwagon, and further cherry-picked data that supported his agenda, when they wrote an article titled “New Survey Finds Most People Experiencing Homelessness in Seattle Were Already Here When They Became Homeless.”

But that narrative didn’t take into account the whole of the information revealed in the survey. One critical result Murray ignored was that that 45% of all homeless people in Seattle reported having lived here for 4 years or less (between 2013-2016). That is a huge influx, and way higher than the rate of increase in the general population of the city.

Also, according to the Seattle One Night Count, in 2013 there were 1,989 people living on the streets, unsheltered in Seattle. In 2016, there were 2,942, which represents a jump of 47%. Is it a coincidence that 45% of all of the homeless in Seattle reported having been here 4 years or less, and in the same time frame, the unsheltered homeless population rose by 47%? It is a curious correlation.

What is clear is that under Murray’s tenure, which began in 2014, there was a huge influx of homeless people, or people who soon after became homeless. The number of folks on the street, unsheltered, also increased dramatically, and almost by the exact same proportion. We also know from the survey report that the majority (67%) of these folks use drugs…assuming they all gave honest answers (fellow addicts know that it is a rare addict who tells the full truth about their drug use in surveys and investigations, so that number is probably higher). We also know from our own experience that the obvious blight and erosion of values that protect our society from decay is taking over (garbage and littering, used syringes, drunken/inebriated and disorderly conduct, tent fires, roadside fires, men pooping in full view of the freeway, drug use, drug dealing, inebriated men wandering across streets, others running across the freeway, and sometimes getting killed in the process, property crime, etc.).

All of those forms of urban decay have increased dramatically since 2013. There’s been lots of talk about property crime, and to bring in some perspective, in 2012 there were 32,292 reported property crimes, and by the end of 2017 that number had gone up to 37,995 — according to the Seattle Police’s online SeaStat report. That’s a jump of 5,703. Do you think people engaging in such behavior are simply “Seattle natives who simply lost their jobs” as The Stranger and Ed Murray would have you believe? Or are they people who’ve come to Seattle because they’re attracted to the reduction of law enforcement and prosecution of these “quality of life” misdemeanors (mis-demeaner, a.k.a. bad manners). Many police officers, social workers, and journalists know that this city is filled with law-breaking street folks who have come here from far away. But you don’t have to ask them, because it lies in your observations, experiences, and in your fatigue after watching sections of your city become over-populated by the anarchistic, drug-using street dwellers.

That doesn’t fly in most cities, but it’s commonplace and normal here, thanks to the recent lack of political will to enforce basic accountability measures to prevent and punish such behavior. This is a crisis that was exacerbated, if not created, by Mayor Murray’s poor sense of boundaries, when he directed Seattle Police to stop enforcing the various “quality-of-life” laws — particularly among the unsheltered homeless. And it’s a rare individual who is able or willing to vouch for Murray’s sense of proper judgement around boundaries.

In essence, Murray helped make this city the best city in the country to be an irresponsible and derelict addict. The recent and current city councils have supported such efforts. Then, not surprisingly, there was both a massive influx of homeless folks, along with a dramatic increase in urban blight. These problems are not stemming from the earnest, down-on-your luck homeless whom most of us are rooting for — but from the types who want to take advantage of our compassionate and weak leaders. They thrived in their anarchy at places such as The Jungle and Spokane Street encampments, and currently, the Licton Springs drug and alcohol abuse-friendly community that has been ruining the morale of nearby residents, businesses and school children. They’re having the run of the place and feeling emboldened and entitled as Seattle morphs into the greatest drug den in the world.

So what do we do to return the City to its former state? The primary strategy that needs to be re-employed if we are going to have any chance of addressing the squalor, filth, disgusting garbage piles, excrement runs, and associated crime of the delinquent/addict sector of the homeless population is this: In short, we need to make it more difficult to be actively engaged in anarchistic, criminal behavior, and make it easier to live in sobriety, cleanliness and respect for self and others. For example, it has to become difficult to get away with taking a dump on the embankment, in full view of I-5 traffic while high on heroin, and easier to be ushered into a shelter to use an actual bathroom, or to jail, drug and/or mental health treatment, or out of the city.

The city leadership needs to start treating heroin and other hardcore drugs like the devastating and vicious, soul-crushing toxic poisons they are, rather than another legitimate lifestyle choice. The City needs to expect that a person follows the rules of safe society, rather than ignoring its own rules while upsetting the bulk of the population who refuses to lower our standards along with them. And, finally, Seattle voters need to elect leaders with enough integrity to enforce those standards. This should all be done with a firm compassion, knowing that the actively-using addict lives on the brink of total emotional collapse every day. Because while our leaders refuse to sentence the addict to jail or prison for their crimes, they are instead sentencing them to a slow and vicious suicide.

Only by regaining a firm approach to addiction and recovery will Seattle turn the corner and begin its journey back to its rightful place as a clean and thriving city. Only then will we be able to walk into a library without feeling intimidated by the congregation of drug users and dealers hanging out outside. And only then will the addicts whose deepest desire is a life worth living finally get their backs pressed up against the firm wall of accountability so they, too, can join the ranks of the many thousands of seasoned clean and sober addicts in Seattle.