Skip to main content

Is Seattle really dying? Mayor Jenny Durkan weighs in

caption: Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney, announces her candidacy for Mayor of Seattle
Enlarge Icon
Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney, announces her candidacy for Mayor of Seattle
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan talked with KUOW’s Bill Radke about the KOMO documentary, “Seattle is Dying.”

The piece, which focuses on Seattle’s homeless crisis, is, to quote its reporter, about “citizens who don't feel safe taking their families into downtown Seattle” and “parents who won't take their children into the public parks they pay for.”

JENNY DURKAN: I watched the program, but even KOMO would tell you it's not a documentary. In fact, KOMO reporters have told me it's an opinion piece. I think that they highlighted what all of us know is one of the issues surrounding people experiencing homelessness. But it's much more complex than that.

BILL RADKE: KUOW heard from many listeners saying that the KOMO story was sloppy journalism and overheated rhetoric but that its main point is that Seattle and King County don't enforce laws against drug use, property theft, litter and trespassing, and that you're being callous in the name of compassion.

What do you say to that basic underlying frustration?

DURKAN: There is going to be a subset of these people where a criminal justice intervention is the appropriate thing for public safety and what the law demands.

Roughly 25 percent of them are found incompetent to stand trial. That means they cannot be held by a court or jail and they're turned back to the streets.

RADKE: One listener says we need to enforce the laws and that we'd be surprised at how quickly the so-called homeless population will decrease once we start doing these things.

What do you want to say to people like this listener?

DURKAN: I helped establish the first mental health court in King County and the first drug court and I helped form one of the first drug courts nationwide.

Therapeutic courts work, and having that carrot and stick where a person can participate in a program and if they don't, there's a consequence. But that choice doesn't exist in most cases that the judges have before them. People would be surprised to learn that a judge can't order someone to treatment in most cases. So we need to have more resources here.

The involuntary commitment court we have at Harborview is overwhelmed. They have more people referred than they can handle. We don't have enough beds.

I've been talking to state legislators about how we can get more resources to King County so we can make good on the promise that if someone is a danger to themselves or others, we can get them assessed and evaluated to give them the support they need.

RADKE: Referring to that KOMO program, another listener said her takeaway was there are those homeless people who are able to participate in their own recovery and move off the street and there are those who, due to mental illness or severe drug addiction, are unable to participate in their own recovery.

She wants to know when, as a society, we will start talking openly about interventions that might not be voluntary.

DURKAN: There's a very high threshold to make someone have any kind of treatment involuntarily, whether it's mental health treatment or addiction treatment. What we have to do is figure out how to get people connected with the services that will help them function better so the people in the community don't feel the impacts.

Produced for the web by Katherine Banwell. This interview was edited for length.

Why you can trust KUOW