July 19 marked the third annual Day of Homeless coverage in Seattle, where media outlets across the city explore an issue that is, for better or worse, at the center of our civic dialogue. This day of coverage is called #SeaHomeless and this year, questions were invited from the public to which we journalists might respond.
There were 384 responses. Scrolling through the spreadsheet, I feel a little like we’re reporting from a war zone, and that maybe we’re all experiencing a little PTSD.
Among the many good and well-intentioned questions were the timeless classics that many would like answered.
Are homeless people flocking to Seattle because they have it so great here? Why don’t the police just arrest them? What’s so great about living outdoors anyway? Are homeless service providers corrupt or just incompetent? And so forth.
As I scanned for questions to answer, I looked both for originality and for queries my colleagues were likely to ignore. These felt worthy.
Can’t we just round them all up and put them in a camp and have them battle to the death?
You were probably kidding but in this day and age, who can tell? This is called barbarism, which is a noun meaning the absence of culture and civilization, or denoting extreme cruelty or brutality. This is what happens when we stop seeing certain people as human, degrade them accordingly and then punish them for merely existing.
Other societies have taken this path. History has not viewed them kindly.
I’ve heard that homeless people are flocking to Seattle and Washington state because weed is legal ... this doesn’t seem correct. Is it?
“Flocking”? Like swallows? Geese, perhaps? Since legalization, I have heard just two homeless people say this was a factor in their decision to relocate. One came for Hempfest and stayed because he ran out of money. The other was probably just messing with me.
Thirty states have now legalized medical marijuana and nine, including most of the West Coast, have legalized pot altogether. Canada just legalized it nationwide.
That means weed is pretty much available everywhere and places where it’s legal are simply not that unique. But here’s the thing: If you are homeless and lack a private residence, it’s still illegal for you to light up.
Legal weed just costs more.
Are people allowed to simply urinate on the street in the middle of the day? I’ve witnessed this twice now. Both women appeared homeless.
This is what we journalists call burying the lead. I’m guessing we all know the answer to this question: No, this is not legal.
The appropriate human response to women peeing on our sidewalks in the middle of the day is compassion, sadness and commitment to fostering the sort of society where that just doesn’t happen. If your main preoccupation is that someone broke a rule, you are missing the point.
How many homeless choose to be homeless? For example, college-aged kids/anarchists who want to live a lawless vagabond lifestyle?
Of the 88 people who died homeless in King County in 2017, the average age of death was 45 years old. Diminished lifespan, when choosing to be homeless, must be weighed against the other attractions, such as chronic stress, poor health, boredom, exposure to the elements and social contempt.
This isn’t San Francisco and the Summer of Love. Youth homelessness is mostly about neglect, rejection and poverty, not bohemian lifestyle choice.
Why are people so freaked by homeless people? It’s a lifestyle, just like LGBTQ, and Seattleites are good with that. What’s the difference?
Again with the lifestyle choice. Here’s the difference: Being LGBTQ, like being Black or Asian, isn’t an adopted lifestyle. It’s who you are. Homelessness is not an identity that people choose off the rack, like being a skateboarder, cineaste or anglophile.
It’s a traumatizing thing that happens when you cannot afford housing and lose everything as a result.
That trauma often creates paralysis; when all the doors out of homelessness appear closed and out of reach, you can almost get used to it. Because unless someone steps up to care, you almost have to.
RELATED HOMELESSNESS MYTH BUSTING ARTICLES:
If You Give a Moose a Muffin...And other stories we’d all be better off without
Despite the data, the ‘Freeattle’ myth persists
More than a statistic: Everyone has a unique story about how they became homeless
False equivalencies: Homeless people can’t shake the stereotype that they’re all drug users
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 street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Check out the full July 25 - July 31 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.