This is the time of year, if we still have the capacity for human empathy, that Seattle’s homeless crisis becomes most appalling. The temperature drops. The rain comes. And with that, the sleet, the snow and the slush.
This is when the tents of homeless encampments, sanctioned and unsanctioned, sprout layers of blanket cover over their nylon domes. To cut the wind. To retain heat. To keep misery and death from exposure at bay.
I remember when homeless people were camped in the University Congregational United Church parking lot. This was the winter of 2008 – 09, the year that Nickelsville began.
The encampment had recently been evicted, with a number of arrests, from its home at West Marginal Way.
Even while hosted on private property by a church, Nickelsville was under attack. The city threatened daily fines to the host.
While city backed down from the fines, that did not end the cruelty.
I vividly remember the freezing cold day when I drove there to drop off a tent and a trunkload of donated sleeping bags. The sky was clear but the roads were ice. There was a steady wind that drove the chill deep into my bones the moment I stepped from the car. This was weather you could die in.
The Nickelodians were mostly burrowed into their tents. The fires that offered the only respite from the bitter cold available were all extinguished. Their fire barrels stood as dead as the earth itself, with wood and kindling neatly piled and covered by tarps.
The police could not stop this church from using their parking lot as they wished, but they could ban the use of fire.
This is class war dressed up as public safety. People pushed to the margins of survival, prevented from taking the simplest measures to care for themselves.
The cruelty of that day has stayed with me.
Last week, one of our vendors told me a story.
Buddy comes from Boston and has Southie running through his veins. Think Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, but 30 years older, without a Robin Williams to rescue him, the uplifting influence of a Harvard girlfriend or an Elliott Smith soundtrack.
Buddy has lived in pretty much every kind of encampment you can imagine, from Nickelsville on down. Now, he prefers his own company to that of others and mostly camps on his own. Less crap to deal with that way.
Buddy was camped snugly beneath a freeway overpass recently when two cops came walking in. He was making dinner.
“There’s smoke from your fire drifting up into the highway,” one barked. “You have to put that out. It’s distracting the drivers.”
There was a moment of silence. “Where do you suppose all those people are going?” Buddy asked. “I dunno. Wherever they’re going. You’ll have to put that out.”
Buddy didn’t blink. “They’re going to their nice warm homes. Where they will have their nice dinners, and sleep in their nice warm beds. And I’m out here. Boiling coffee and spaghetti for dinner.”
The cops looked at each other and they looked at Buddy. “That’s really what you’re making there? Coffee and spaghetti?”
Buddy looked back. “Yeah. That’s my dinner.”
The two cops looked at Buddy. Then they looked at his camp. Well-tended. Fortified against the elements. Camouflaged from view.
They looked back to Buddy.
“Maybe next time you can stoke the flame more so it doesn’t smoke so much. Have a good night.”
It’s moments like these when we as people — and as a society — get to choose whether to be human or not.
The police in this instance saw Buddy as a person and imagined themselves in his shoes.
They chose to do the right thing and just let him be.
They made the right choice. Moments like these are what keep us human and where our hope lies.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded Spare Change, a street newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 8 issue which is dedicated to analyzing homeless encampment sweeps.