Where is the damn moral outrage? During the Jan. 29 One Night Count, 4,505 people in King County were counted as homeless. That’s an increase of 84 percent over the 2,442 people counted on the One Night Count just five years ago.
This year’s increase, a mere 19 percent, affirms a startling fact cited by All Home, the new incarnation of the Committee to End Homelessness In King County: When rents increase $100 in King County, homelessness increases by 15 percent (“Making Homelessness Rare, Brief and One-Time,” Mark Putnam, December 2015). Last year, median rents increased $115, so by the math, this should translate into a 17.2 percent increase in homelessness. It pretty much did.
The relationship between rising rents and homelessness should surprise no one, and yet misguided assumptions and judgments are rampant: Homeless people are criminals and drug addicts; they deserve their lot; most of them don’t even want to sleep inside. On and on. What is it going to take for people to stop the blaming and shaming of homeless people and recognize that homelessness is a systemic product of economic inequality? And of white supremacy.
What’s white supremacy got to do with it? Well, a lot, actually. The same All Home study from December showed that Black people in King County are five times more likely to be homeless than white people. Native Americans are seven times more likely. Those numbers aren’t statistical variances, they are the product of systems that institutionalize white privilege and leave poor people of color as road kill. Systems that start with inequality in education and extend to the absurd disproportionality of the criminal justice system, job and housing discrimination, disparate access to health care and wildly unequal political representation and power.
The news from the One Night Count can invoke hopelessness and despair. It can make us look at last week’s murders in the encampment known as The Jungle and rationalize the city of Seattle’s indiscriminate policy of sweeps. It can make us succumb to distractions offered by folks such as state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who posit, incorrectly, that homelessness is growing in Seattle because we offer so many services and attract the destitute from other locales.
We can’t expect change to come from the city or Olympia. Nor can we leave it to homeless advocates to generate policy solutions. It comes down to what is every one of us willing to do and what we are willing to give up. The controversial new song, “White Privilege II,” by white hip-hop artist Macklemore asks the question: “You speak about equality, but do you really mean it? Are you marching for freedom or when it’s convenient?”
We white liberals and progressives, no matter how many rallies we attend and how carefully we scrutinize our consumption choices, are complicit in perpetuating the class and racial hierarchy. We benefit from the status quo and thus are typically willing to push it only so far. The question Macklemore posits is one worthy of serious reflection: “What are you willing to risk, what are you willing to sacrifice to create a more just society?”
Macklemore’s question has occupied my mind since I heard it. Feeling guilty about my race or class privilege doesn’t help homeless people or people of color. Nor, frankly, does increasing my awareness about my privilege or writing about it.
What ultimately matters is my willingness to act and to sacrifice. Am I willing to put my body on the line and participate in direct actions that could land me in jail? Am I willing to live in a less affluent, more diverse neighborhood and get involved in the community? Am I willing to give enough money that it affects my lifestyle and do it in a way that holds me accountable to communities of color and poor people? Unless I can say yes to these questions and more, I really have no business asking about anyone else’s moral outrage.