They need to accept the help they’re given,” a woman told me at a neighborhood meeting. “We can’t keep letting people make the wrong choice.”
“You know one of the most frequent reasons people give for not going into shelter?” I asked her, getting ready to cite the 2016 Needs Assessment Survey commissioned by the city of Seattle.
Second only to “too crowded,” the presence of bugs — like fleas, bed bugs and other creepy-crawlies — is one of the biggest reasons that people living outside gave for not going into shelter.
Other reasons included “germs” and “nowhere to store my stuff,” which is code for “theft.”
But a lot of folks don’t know this when they decide what homeless people should be doing. This is one of the strangest disconnects. The people who are making the rules or, in the case of city council races, who want to make the rules, have never stepped foot in an overnight shelter, let alone slept in one.
As a result, they have a gilded idea of what happens there.
They picture comfortable dorm-style beds, fluffy pillows, clean sheets and a place to shower with privacy. They picture a lock on the door.
In reality, many overnight shelters —especially the ones that have popped up in response to the so-called emergency — provide a mat on the floor of an open-air room, where the alarm sounds at just after 5 a.m. and guests are sent into the thin light of another Seattle morning.
This isn’t to say that we don’t need shelters or that the people who work at these shelters are doing a bad job; shelters of all kinds save lives, and the folks who work there are incredible.
But if we’re being honest, most of the new emergency shelter in recent memory has been created more for the comfort of the housed than those who need housing. To say we’ve done it — 35 new beds! Don’t ask what we consider a “bed!” — and leave it at that.
A lot of people don’t understand why folks in tents wouldn’t leap at the chance to come inside — in part because they haven’t tried to understand, and in part because they don’t want to.
I think that lady liked thinking that people simply made the wrong choice because it’s a lot easier to think that than to know that, a lot of the time, there are no good choices.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and political consultant. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, Bust, Fast Company, GOOD, Healthline and Curbed. She is currently writing a book about Lou Graham, due out from UW Press at some point.
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