Among the many, many small details of daily life that I have come to appreciate more greatly in the last six months, few are as precious — and as fleeting — as moments of complete quiet. As a writer, I was working from home prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, though most days, I was the only one in the house. Now, my partner shares the space as well. Meanwhile, my neighbors — we’re the only apartment surrounded by the kinds of craftsman homes that people identify with Seattle but which few of us can ever own — have all taken it upon themselves to renovate, repair and re-landscape. There is some kind of heavy equipment operating just outside my window on most days.
These are, of course, trivial issues. I have a place to live that’s safe and comfortable and I’m still employed during a time when millions are not so fortunate. But the value of quiet — of peace, really, and the feeling of being undisturbed — has become so completely obvious to me. And along with that realization comes the one about how people who are unsheltered or unstably housed rarely have those moments.
The cacophony of homeless life should be apparent to anyone who contemplates it for even a few moments. The lack of walls, windows and doors to keep sounds out means unsheltered folks are frequently unable to set their own hours. They may be rousted by police coming to clear away their tents or disturbed by sirens or roadwork. Most shelters are noisy unto themselves — big, echoing hallways filled with people fighting their own nightly demons — and typically sound the alarm just after daybreak.
Audible disruptions are a way of life for people who live outside, in cars or between places. When we don’t control our own living space, we can’t control much of the chaos happening around us all the time. And it’s not a minor issue; environmental noise can literally weaken a person’s heart, prompt a fear response and trigger PTSD symptoms. Individuals with mental health issues are more prone to noise annoyance, which means that the perpetual parade of sounds associated with living outside may exacerbate the symptoms that a lot of homeless folks already experience.
Just about every societal ill, from climate change to the dismantling of the Postal Service to air pollution, impacts homeless folks disproportionately. Living outside or in an unstable situation magnifies all the problems that housed people experience on a daily basis and creates a compounding effect. The majority of homeless individuals have endured trauma — but how can anyone be expected to heal when they can’t sleep, can’t breathe and can’t find a quiet place to sit and think?
COVID-19 has prompted closures of libraries and most other indoor spaces that unsheltered folks rely on for computers, restrooms and other necessary services. But let’s not lose sight of the value that those spaces bring with regard to mental health (and peace and quiet), too.
Read more of the Sept. 2-8, 2020 issue.