This is your moment — or it should be.
When I arrived in Seattle 20 years ago, you’d already been running a tent encampment for several years. At this point, between the Bunkhouse day shelter, all your self-managed small-site shelters, Nickelsville and Tent Cities 3 and 4, you provide safety to more people every night than anyone else in the county.
Seattle is in the midst of a crisis when it comes to unsheltered people, and without what you do, things would be much, much worse.
Over the past two decades, we’ve gone from 500 unsheltered homeless people to last year’s count of 2,303 people in Seattle who were outside after the shelters were full. That number represents a 16 percent over the previous year.
After the last shelter bed in the city is filled, and people are sent away from Operation Nightwatch into the dark with just a blanket and a sandwich, you are there.
When a homeless family calls the 211 info line and finds that it will be weeks before it can get an intake appointment, much less a place to stay, you are there.
When homeless people can’t bear to leave their pets, you are there. When couples refuse to be separated from each other just to get a mat on a floor, you are there.
When people don’t have a place to live, but are otherwise perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, you are there.
You understand that not every homeless person needs a case manager. You begin from an assumption of capability, rather than brokenness. What you do is necessary, counter-cultural and amazing.
Mayor Murray has convened a Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness to recommend actions to mitigate the crisis. It’s looking for out-of-the-box ideas that don’t cost much. Your friends want to see more support for what you do.
You have a hard-fought, 20-plus-year history of being there against the odds. You create community engagement wherever you go. Your church-sponsored encampments, and even the squatter encampments, have done more to build political will to end homelessness around here than most anything else.
So why aren’t you getting more support? Why, during the task force’s most recent meeting, wasn’t supporting encampments one of the topmost priorities?
Part of it is this: To some, the very idea of homeless people in charge of themselves makes no sense. It is an oxymoron, like infant emancipation.
But they won’t say that. They’ll say living in a tent isn’t good enough, as if there were plentiful alternatives. They’ll say encampments don’t move people out of homelessness, as if a mat in a shelter were some sort of golden ticket.
If they can’t control you, you are a threat. They might tolerate you because they have to, but they will never support you. This is the shadow-side of an industry that seems content to manage homelessness into the next millennia.
But you also have many, many friends. When the city recently threatened to sweep Tent City 3, a whole community had your back. We see that what you do is heroic, and we want you to have more support.
But you make it hard.
Because the whole operation depends upon a few over-extended staff, and there doesn’t seem to be a back-up plan.
Because when you get $30,000 behind on your Honey Bucket bill, people wonder about your sustainability.
Because no one knows when the whole high-wire act that is SHARE and Nickelsville might come crashing down.
What you do is too important to be this vulnerable. And that makes people reluctant to put more eggs into your very shaky basket.
This is what your friends think but don’t say. This is what no one thinks you can hear.
People want to help. Give us a reason to think we can. Without that, it’s hard to convince others.