A few weeks ago, I went to a community conversation on homelessness facilitated by a panel of people working very hard on the issue. Witnessing their passion, knowledge of systems, services and shortcomings, and their insistence on a better world, I got impatient.
It’s not that I don’t deeply respect the organizations and people working on the front lines of homelessness.
It’s not that I don’t want to get involved and support the work of people who want to see a permanent end to it.
It’s just that I’ve heard much of what the panelists said before: declarations about what we as a city need, explanations of the various contributors to homelessness, urges to contact state and federal representatives, instructions to humanize and acknowledge those living outside, even statements about how what we’re doing isn’t working.
Before I could feel too guilty about my frustration, a woman from the crowd got up to the microphone.
“Kindness is nice and all, but where’s the real change?” she asked.
She went on to question whether “changing the conversation” is really going to matter and what it will take for us to grow up and start caring about each other in action, not just in word.
I wish I’d found her afterward to thank her for the solidarity. I, too, am frustrated by lack of real progress, talk of “steps in the right direction.” If power and corporate greed don’t settle for “baby steps,” why, then, are we the ones who claim to care?
It’s not that kindness is useless.
Kindness is necessary, but it’s necessary only because we have created a society in which it is “understandable” to step over a human being crumpled in agony on the sidewalk if we’re going to be late to work.
And it’s necessary to encourage people to be kind because we have created a society that requires rehumanizing human beings simply because they have, largely for reasons totally out of their control, failed to play the capitalist game as well as others.
Is that really how we want to decide who’s in and who’s out?
As long as we insist on keeping capitalism, this question will present itself at every turn.
Our words will be inert as long as we believe the wealth Amazon and Boeing bring to (a select few in) the city are worth their costs.
Costs that include some of the most expensive housing in the world; the biggest tax break in U.S. history paid out at a time when the state can’t fully fund education and is under court order to do so, further costing taxpayers.
There’s a name for the idea that serving the interests of big businesses will benefit everyone else: trickle-down economics.
If you’re in the “everyone else” group, it doesn’t work, but even if it did, the poor are in need of more than a trickle at this point.
Eye contact and a wave, using polite words like “disadvantaged” or “less fortunate” make us feel better; they do nothing to confront a system that depends on poverty and inequality to keep running.
Homelessness is traumatic for those experiencing it and for those attempting to do something about it.
Kindness may make the trauma a bit more bearable for the moment, but I refuse to accept that it’s the best we can do.
As long as we live in a society that actually will let people fall all the way to the bottom, those who have wealth will continue fearfully to hoard it and those who do not will see their ranks only grow.
Megan Wildhood is a writer, advocate in the mental health community and published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 8 issue which is dedicated to analyzing homeless encampment sweeps.