Seattle’s unsheltered homeless problem has hit close to home for me; about six blocks from where I live, to be exact. My emotions, like this entire city’s, are conflicted.
Until recently, homelessness in Northgate has been a low-key affair. I’d see the occasional early-morning sleeping bag in the park, or the sad evening sleeper in a neighborhood doorway. I’d notice trash near the now fenced off overpass.
“Yes, we have homelessness up here,” I’d think, “but not like downtown.”
It’s the new normal. Unacceptable, but still somehow within the bounds of acceptability ... like we’re just another urban metropolis swimming against the tide of radical inequality. That’s changed. Since a few weeks before Thanksgiving, cheap tents have sprouted like fall mushrooms in an open field by the southbound I-5 onramp. A half-dozen campsites have turned to more than 20. The familiar accoutrements of settlement — shopping carts, barbeque grills, Lime bikes — are strewn among the tents. It’s right out there, for everyone to see.
The campers, I’ve noticed, have piled their garbage like an unanswered prayer for help at several points near the road. There it sits, day after day. A sign of good intent — albeit with limited means — met with neglect. They’re talking, but no one is listening.
These are the thoughts that run through my head: This is what social abandonment looks like. When a city lacks the housing and shelter to meet basic human needs, encampments like this are what happens.
This is what social abandonment looks like. When a city lacks the housing and shelter to meet basic human needs, encampments like this are what happens.
Then, there’s the empathy. I think of how it’s cold and wet and that January is coming. I think of the thousands of people in King County, just like these, who are suffering in plain sight. I think of how, eventually, this campsite will be swept by the city, and how most, if not all, will simply go someplace else, or maybe return to the same location, only to be swept again.
And then, my empathy turns to anger and even despair. I don’t need tea leaves to read their future. There will be stress, trauma and more loss, and for most of those who are swept, that will feel routine. They’ve been swept before. This is how they arrived here, in this obvious space.
When I talk to my neighbors, their thoughts aren’t nearly so nuanced. They go something like this: “What the hell is the city doing, and why, with all the money Seattle spends, can’t they get this right?”
Our city’s “State of Emergency” response to homelessness has been to fence off one out-of-the-way camping area after another, and then — with ineffective and expensive law enforcement and an appalling shortage of real answers — pointlessly chase them around to ever more unsuitable spaces.
The 2018 One Night Count, after the closure of The Jungle, saw the numbers of unsheltered homeless people in Ballard and North Seattle more or less quadruple from the year before.
I’ll venture a prediction. In 2019, we’ll see the Seattle numbers of unsheltered people slightly decline, but we’ll see them rise in places like Shoreline, Burien and White Center. We’re already seeing it, but we’ll have to wait for the report in May for proof of the pointlessness.
I think of Vietnam, the hypocritical war where America destroyed villages in order to “save” them. Where out-of-touch technocrats snowed themselves by obsessively counting the wrong things.
I think about shame and vulnerability, the two most common human emotions that we don’t like to talk about. The shame of our overwhelming failure, and the vulnerability it takes to admit a mistake.
We are too in denial to admit our shame, and too proud to say we’ve been wrong. As we witness the growing anger in our neighborhoods and the earthquake coming to City Hall, we stupidly resign ourselves to more of the same.
We are too in denial to admit our shame, and too proud to say we’ve been wrong.
This is what it will take to end Seattle’s downward spiral of damage and neglect: First, we stop doing harm. We accept that people need somewhere to go, and we make amends. Next, we follow the lead of other cities along the west coast, and find a means to fund the housing we need.
A little vision and courage. Is that seriously too much to ask?
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.
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Read the full Dec. 5 - Dec. 11 issue.
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