It is nothing short of remarkable that, throughout Seattle and beyond, folks have managed to map their existing biases and disdain for our homeless neighbors onto the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing government response.
Though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising; we know that scarcity mentality and feelings of stress and anxiety make people less compassionate, not more. But still, it’s difficult to watch as local personalities and commenters on NextDoor and Facebook find new ways to say the same things.
In news articles, column inches are given to people who seem to believe that homeless people are “joyriding” on buses, as if there is anything joyful about seeking the shelter of a moving, jostling tube full of other people just to take a load off. On radio airwaves, comfortably-housed people complain about unfounded rumors that those who are being quarantined in government-run facilities because they have nowhere else to go are receiving small, inexpensive and legal creature comforts, as though anyone would choose homelessness just to get a free cigarette and a cot.
Then, of course, there are the calls to forcibly isolate homeless people who don’t want to go into overcrowded, uncomfortable shelters, essentially criminalizing homelessness itself in the name of, what? Public health? As though free will and bodily-autonomy are reserved only for people who can afford to buy a house in this bloated market.
King County, the city of Seattle and the state of Washington are all working to find properties and stand up quarantine and isolation sites to ensure that there is space for people to get better, while taking the pressure off already-packed shelters. And so far, the main response from housed people has been fear that these locations could, horror of horrors, become regular old homeless shelters in the future. As though our need to add thousands of beds before the pandemic has evaporated.
So much of this response echoes what we’ve seen before, as lawmakers and talking heads find creative ways to couch their “concern,” while telegraphing their true desire: To incarcerate or otherwise disappear homeless people, not so that they can get help or find comfort or peace, but instead, so that they can be out sight and out of mind.
In the time of coronavirus, the dog whistles are hitting a different note — but the dogs all come running just the same.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and political consultant. She’s currently working on a book about Lou Graham, due out sometime in the future.
Read more in the May 6-12, 2020 issue.