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The backfires and misfires of Chris Rufo’s attempt to define homeless advocacy.

Ray Dubicki
Mar 14, 2019 · 6 min read

Before his departure from the Seattle City Council race, Chris Rufo was a new voice in Seattle’s homelessness debate. For many, his introduction included reference to his published work on the issue. Rufo’s article is a revealing look at the former candidate’s ideology and blindspots. I read it, so you don’t have to.

Seattle Under Siege” by Christopher F. Rufo appeared in the Autumn 2018 volume of City Journal. The magazine is a journal in name only, a non-peer reviewed glossy mouthpiece of the Manhattan Institute. That conservative think tank is devoted to disseminating “new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.” A disclaimer at the beginning of the magazine says signed articles like Rufo’s are the author’s opinion intended solely to inform and broaden public debate. They are “not intended to aid or hinder legislation before legislative bodies,” which is a nod to the Manhattan Institute trying to keep its 501(c)(3) status.

We’ll start with what the article does not include. There are no footnotes, references, or research citations. No charts, graphs, or data. The article’s statistics are cherrypicked from the only three outside documents quoted in the article by name: the One Night Count from 2017, the “Price of Homelessness” reporting from Puget Sound Business Journal, and the paired reports from Zillow and McKinsey & Company commissioned by King County. These form the basis for most discussions of homelessness in Seattle, but they are not presented here in nearly a complete form.

There are very generalized “police reported” and “recent federal filings” without dates or sources. Twice, Rufo references studies of San Francisco or Vancouver, but does not actually name the reports. Instead he generalizes “more rigorous academic studies” or “a longitudinal study.”

There is a reference and pulled quote from one academic book, but we will get to that later.

The article itself has three parts. The introduction begins “Seattle is under siege” and ends “map the ideological battlefield…and rethink our assumptions.” This preface attempts to contrast the rise in homeless population with the cost to taxpayers. There is simplified math of dividing the billion dollars spent on homelessness in King County across the 11,000 individuals experiencing homelessness. According to Rufo, this gives the figure that we spend “nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman, and child in King County.”

Now, the billion-dollar figure is subject to some question. Puget Sound Business Journal did some strong journalism analyzing a lot of documents to generate that billion-dollar estimate. But it’s not a number that can be simply divided per person to arrive at a shocking figure. Resources do not get distributed evenly. There’s no ties between need and access to the most funds. More importantly, three quarters of that billion dollars went through nonprofits, and the PSBJ calculation includes the full budgets of many organizations. It’s dishonest to include the cost of printer paper and leased office space in the ledger against an individual experiencing homelessness.

After laying out his purpose with these questionable estimates, the bulk of Rufo’s article is spent slotting “the ideological battlefield” into four teams: the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists. None of them is up to Rufo’s examination.

As expected in a magazine espousing “economic choice,” the socialists don’t stand a chance. “What socialists won’t or can’t see,” Rufo writes “is that their agenda cannot solve the homelessness crisis.” He calls out Councilmember Kshama Sawant by name as the mascot for team socialist. Devoting only a paragraph to the Councilmember’s ideology means that Rufo sets up a bunch of strawmen strictly to knock down. Most of this section is devoted to a lopsided account of repealing Seattle’s head tax.

The compassion brigades and their mascot Councilmember Mike O’Brien don’t fare much better. Rufo deconstructs the brigades’ “elaborate political vocabulary” that define individuals experiencing homelessness as, you know, human. He calls this “pathological altruism.”

Unfortunately, he appears to use the definition of pathological altruism from the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page without delving deeper. Pathological altruism is a concept that tries to describe genocide and martyrdom from genetic and psychological sources — objectively and morally harmful, but shortsightedly beneficial. He gets the term from Barbara Oakley’s book of the same name. Oakley’s conclusion is not a “textbook definition” of the term, but a loud request for nuance in an emerging field of study. Precisely the opposite of Rufo’s use here.

After that, Rufo takes credit for naming the “homeless industrial complex” and the “addiction evangelists” before devoting sections to dismantling them. Here Rufo introduces the reader to the regular whipping boys of SHARE, LIHI, DESC, and Shilo Murphy. To some, these are regular villains in Seattle’s political debate surrounding homelessness. According to Rufo, these greedy nonprofits perpetuate homelessness and expand services to continue their own existence. This largess and permissiveness brings in drug tourists and outsiders looking for lives of ease on handouts. Rufo’s analysis here is a lot more name calling with little data. Numbers that he does present are followed by dismissive free market tropes and scare quotes around phrases like affordable housing and harm reduction.

With those chess pieces in place, Rufo’s board is set for his conclusion, which includes his one legitimate reference to an academic study. He pulls a quote from Alice Baum and Donald Burnes 1993 book A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness. Rufo quotes:

Homelessness is a condition of disengagement from ordinary society — from family, friends, neighborhood, church, and community….Poor people who have family ties, teenaged mothers who have support systems, mental ill individuals who are able to maintain social and family relationships, alcoholics who are still connected to their friends and jobs, even drug addicts who mange to remain part of their community do not become homeless.

Rufo uses this quote to land his main thesis. “The best way to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held communities together.”

The Baum and Burnes quote is technically accurate, but Rufo adds ellipses (…) that conspicuously drop some text. The part he drops? “Disaffiliation does not cause homelessness, but rather is the most universal characteristic of the homeless.” (153) Rufo’s only legitimate quote conveniently ignores the part that says exactly the opposite of his thesis. He yadda, yadda, yaddas things that disagree with him.

But that’s par for the course in this article. Ellipses and gaps really define Rufo’s attempt to “map the ideological battlefield”. With his cherrypicked information, it is very easy for Rufo to sketch out a one sided cartoon of homeless advocacy and support. The pulled quote from Baum and Barnes is helpful here. In the 1990’s, Baum and Burnes redefined the discussion of homelessness using data. Their statistics showed the bulge of the Baby Boom — and the proportionate increase in those suffering mental illness — met the disintegration of the social safety net. The numbers supported their analysis. They changed the debate of homelessness from dust bowls and skid row to addiction treatment and mental illness because they got the numbers right. That does not happen in this article.

The second gap in Rufo’s ideological battlefield is Rufo himself. He includes no examination of the myriad of people that just want the problem to go away or actively fight against assistance for those in need. Baum and Burnes make the point that America has always struggled with sympathy resistance, “fueled by the cycle of pity, distaste, fear, anger, and hatred felt by all, rich and poor, when there is impoverishment, homelessness, and destitution in our midst.” (91) Rufo’s name calling against liberal ideologues is extensive, but there is no discussion of NIMBYs or the commitment-jail-or-GTFO crowd. It’s impossible to discuss sailing without talking about headwinds and currents, but Rufo attempts to do just that. He rails against O’Brien and Sawant and activists that link arms to prevent clearing an encampment, but omits himself and the groups that crowd public meetings to shout down those councilmembers and the folks that plaster “RECALL” stickers on poles and bridges.

So Rufo pushes us to believe that a conspiracy of liberals, drug addicts, and ambitious political elites collude to pump wealth from an unsuspecting but charitable city. It’s a flashy concept, but overblown. It ignores how much policy is shaped by constant headwind from pseudo-scholarly claptrap and nonsensical “both sides” reporting. Rufo is not self aware enough to see his simplistic and dishonest writing is itself an unfortunate but predictable part of the ideological battlefield.

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