I know only a small fraction of Seattle’s homeless population comes from other states, and that most are from here or from King County at least. Nevertheless we volley the question, because ignorance lives forever when you can tweet it back and forth all day. Electrons are cheaper than ping-pong balls.
The latest revisitation is a Project Homeless piece that appeared in The Seattle Times a couple of weeks ago. The title asks the question all over again: “How many homeless people in Seattle are from here?” The answer the piece arrives at is more or less what homeless activists already knew (see paragraph one).
So why am I even mentioning this except to be a bore and make the same point again?
Well, I actually have something to add. Something I wasn’t able to find in reading the Project Homeless piece. Maybe I missed it because my eyes are failing me in my dotage, but I do believe the article did not speak to the question, “How many housed people in Seattle are from here?”
If you don’t answer that question at the same time as you answer the other one, you are encouraging the idea that it is possible to separate people into two types — the homeless type and the non-homeless type — and discuss the migrations of the homeless type independently from that of the non-homeless types.
I recall a survey of newspaper readers — I think it was of Seattle Times readers — about 30 years ago, which didn’t address homelessness at all. Rather, it asked something like the other question. They wanted to know how many readers were “Seattle natives” and how recently the non-natives arrived. The answer I remember was roughly half of residents arrived within the previous 15 years. There was more to it than that, but that’s what stood out.
That wasn’t a scientific study but it woke us up to the fact that people of all sorts, homeless and not homeless, come to Seattle for all sorts of reasons, but mainly for jobs.
Which brings up another point. If you only ask homeless people “Did you come here for the services?” then you are denying yourself the opportunity to learn whether they came for any other reason.
The most dramatic instance of an out-of-state person coming to Seattle and ending up on the streets was the case of a young man I knew who I’ll call Ken. Ken initially came to Seattle because he was accepted to the University of Washington.
In the summer after his first year at the UW, Ken was hurting for money. He was a strong guy, so he signed up to work on a fishing boat.
Somewhere off the coast of Alaska, the boat got in trouble during a storm and began to sink. Ken was rescued from the frigid water and brought back to Harborview Hospital. He was released soon after, recovering from acute hypothermia.
Ken never got any pay for the adventure. He would never know if the fishing company could be held liable for paying him because at his release he was penniless on the street and had no access to a lawyer.
Ken didn’t handle street living very well. Over the next 20 years, I saw him downtown regularly. He went from being a lucid scholar to being incoherent, and survived on loose change. He did retain a sense of pride, though. If you didn’t drop a quarter in his cup he would glare at you and say, “I don’t need you.”
Arguing from anecdotes to generalities is stupid, but I’m not arguing to any generality here. My point is only that this sort of thing happens, and people need to be aware that this is so. So when asking homeless people in Seattle, “Did you come here for the homeless services?” please also ask, “Did you come here for an educational opportunity?” Or, “Did you come here looking for a fishing job?”
I know people who came here from other states to work in homeless services because they heard we have lots of homelessness. Not for the services, but to work in the services.
Since I still have space: So far the strongest criticism Trump has for the Saudis regarding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that they botched the cover-up horribly. It sends the message: Next time don’t get caught. How very Spartan of him.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd.
Check out the full Nov. 7 - 13 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.