‘Seattle is Dying’ Ignites Controversy and Fuels Transformation

Seattle is dying

Few news broadcasts focusing on homelessness have created as much controversy as the 60-minute special report delivered by Eric Johnson for KOMO-TV, which originally aired on March 16, 2019.

Though focused on the plight of the city for which it is named, “Seattle is Dying” followed a similar trajectory to much of the mainstream coverage one might find when seeking to learn more about homelessness. Instead of highlighting the immense resilience, strength and transformations at the core of this social issue, Johnson’s special report has been critiqued as being excessively dark, asking not for a compassionate response but instead a harsh and reactionary one.

One critic defined Johnson’s piece as catering to the “I don’t want to have to look at homelessness viewer.” Another writing in an article called Seattle is Figuring Itself Out writes: “Criminal activity isn’t a staple characteristic of [homeless] people,” Fischer says. “It may be more accurate to think of them as people struggling to get by.”

And herein lies ‘Dying’s’ biggest shortcoming, a lack of perspective.

‘Dying’ didn’t profile a single homeless person selling Real Change newspapers in front of their neighborhood’s coffee shop as a beloved community member. They didn’t show those who meet each morning at Urban Rest Stop for free showers and laundry, hundreds of unique and beautiful personalities walking through the door every day. The report did not mention Path with Art, a program allowing homeless people to tell their story through artistic outlets.

It doesn’t fit the narrative of evil, scary homeless crisis to show a homeless grandmother talking about how writing poetry has helped with her self-esteem as she navigates the city’s shelter system.

Second, we are doing the homeless a huge disservice by lumping everyone without a home into “the homeless crisis.”

Unfortunately, most editors would prefer a headline with such a quick-hitting phrase over the less-publishable “homeless-dealing-with-one-if-not-all-of-the-following-systematic-racism-drug-and-alcohol-addiction-mental-health-issues-cost-of-housing-increases-lack-of-healthcare-job-loss-eviction-trauma-survivor-criminal-history crisis.”

It just doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way.

Rather, it’s important to re-frame homelessness as a symptom to many of the aforementioned issues. This helps make the potential solutions to each seem less daunting. Separate individual problems have their own individual solutions.

Third, while the documentary places some at-least-partially-deserved blame on our elected officials and city administration, it doesn’t turn the mirror on the viewer and say, “You are a part of this crisis, too.”

Controversy Often Leads to Transformative Opportunities

Johnson, a news anchor and investigative reporter, has a long history of covering homelessness in his region. His previous coverage of topics such as addiction and profiles of homeless individuals and families have been important touch points in the continued conversation around solutions to homelessness.

For many, Johnson’s latest report on homelessness, “Seattle is Dying”, trades research-based solutions and insights for rough sketches based on assumptions, which unfairly characterize homeless individuals. Shortly after the 60-minute special report aired, Johnson found himself squarely in the crosshairs of a backlash. Viewers questioned his journalistic intentions, integrity and lack of compassion for the people at the core of his reporting.

“Seattle is Dying” has ignited a national conversation. While many do not agree with how Johnson portrayed homelessness, widespread debate is underway thanks to his report.

The teaser advertisement for “Seattle is Dying” shows why many eventually found the 60-minute report to be tone deaf.

Silent save for a sound which mimics a life supporting medical device, the imagery of the teaser advertisement for “Seattle is Dying” seems purposefully divisive. As the clip proceeds, scenes of urban encampments, police, street fires and people on the streets combine to create a very stark and charged emotional atmosphere.

Many found this clip triggering and it is easy to understand why.

Homeless individuals and families are often characterized in ways which rob dignity and obfuscate humanity. Instead of focusing on the myriad of interlocking systems, which have perpetuated homelessness in the United States, by looking at individual addictions and choices, it becomes much easier to blame the victim without considering the circumstances that led to homelessness in the first place.

Among the main critiques is the portrayal of all homeless people based on a select few individual profiles. Furthermore, by focusing so heavily on addiction, this report lumps together many people. This includes a great number of whom have never suffered from addiction but instead find themselves homeless for other reasons.

Johnson’s Twitter page features the teaser clip along with an active discussion from the general public’s response to the report.

One commenter on Twitter writes: “It is completely reprehensible that you recorded people with mental illness for inclusion in your reporting. All people have a right to privacy and dignity. Seattle is dying because we’ve sensationalized a problem instead of addressing it with humanity.”

Another adds: “Firstly, the exploitation of people in crisis in this clip is wrong. Secondly, it is shameful how public officials and elected have failed to adequately respond to this emergency in our city, county, and region. The critique and the shame is on those in power.”

For better or worse, Johnson’s reporting did spark a conversation to address homelessness. I bet a great number of people have become more engaged with this issue than before. For this reason, Johnson and KOMO might be celebrated for choosing a subject which many media outlets shy away from.

To his credit, Johnson has been extremely outspoken following critical responses to his report. When asked about why he chose such a “negative” title, he was quick to defend his decision: “Seattle Is Dying. It’s a harsh title. Someone on social media even called it a “hopeless” title. I’ll admit to you that I wrestled with the name for some time. Too dramatic, I wondered? Too dark? In the end I went with it because I believe it to be true. I believe that Seattle is dying. Rotting from within,” said Johnson in response to criticism for his special report.

People Are Talking About Homelessness and That Is a Plus

Catherine Hinirichsen writing for Crosscut outlined “6 Reasons Why KOMO’s Take on Homelessness is the Wrong One.” Among the central claims of that article is the idea that Johnson based his report on an idea or “foregone conclusion” as Hinrichsen calls it.

In her view, Johnson created an excessively judgemental report. He failed to consult expert testimony from government officials, healthcare providers, or community outreach groups more fluent in the workings of the landscape of opportunities and outcomes for homeless people in Seattle.

She goes on to explain how “conflating homelessness, mental illness, addiction and crime” is disingenuous. While homeless people are disproportionately arrested in Seattle, their charges are overwhelmingly for non-violent offenses like failed court appearances.

The report uses a violent assault to support the premise that all homeless people are connected to violent acts, which make communities unsafe.

Foundation for a Healthy National Debate

“Seattle is Dying” is not a strengths-based appraisal of the city’s state of affairs. It does, however, prompt a discussion about homelessness both regionally and across the United States.

The fact is, after “Seattle is Dying” aired, city officials gathered to meaningfully discuss addressing homelessness within their community. The same was repeated in Spokane where the clip prompted lively debate.

While “Seattle is Dying” may not capture the truth about all homelessness, it represents one version of truth. As a result, a healthy national debate is underway. The report creates conditions where those with insight can fill in important missing components Johnson missed.

Therein lies the true beauty of the modern media. No longer do news reports exist in a vacuum, free from public discussion or debate. In today’s media environment, people can challenge a report upon release. Even one as potentially critical as “Seattle is Dying” leads online and in-person debates around its central themes.

As it fires people up to talk about homelessness, I feel “Seattle is Dying” is an important moment. I also hope it is one we as a nation do not soon forget.

John Heinz

John Heinz


John Heinz is a masters level social worker, educator and writer who helps businesses to remember the communities they serve.

Related Topics

Get the Invisible People newsletter


Homeless man sitting on sidewalk near Skid Row Los Angeles


homeless woman in Grants Pass


Police Force Homeless Man To Relocate Twice In 24 Hours


80-year-old Woman Homeless in Sad Diego

Miss Katie


street homelessness in California - homeless people more likely to end up back on the streets rather than permanent housing after interim housing programs

Audits Expose Failure of California’s Interim Housing Programs

Seattle Serial Killer targeting homeless people

Seattle Serial Killer Brutally Targets Homeless Victims

Increased homeownership could be on the horizon with proposed plan from President Biden

Biden Proposes Homeownership Plan as Affordability Hits All-Time Low

homelessness in wealthy American cities

Homelessness is Rampant in America’s Wealthiest Cities

Get the Invisible People newsletter