Lately I’ve been bombarded with inquiries from friends and acquaintances wanting to know my opinion on the different petitions and groups around the city that are offering solutions to our homelessness crisis. The folks asking are thoughtful and kind; they want to be informed and compassionate but, like many of us, they are weary and want to see change.
To these fellow Seattleites and to you, dear reader, I say: Before we can begin to roll up our sleeves, put our heads together or rally a response, we must first acknowledge that we are building on the wrong foundation and are in need of a paradigm shift.
As a society, we refuse to look at — really look at — what this is all about. Our transactional, charity-driven, systematized attempts at care for our unhoused community are disconnected from our actual humanity and heart-based knowledge. And the tents that line our streets serve to make visible that death that has been here all along. The cause is our inability to think communally and remember that the very needs we have within us are kin to what our neighbors in the tents need.
In short, we continue to create, participate in and demand models of care that we would never set foot in ourselves and are, in real time, contributing to the dehumanization of people in thought and action.
Let me explain: I have spent the last 18 years with intention toward my unhoused neighbors, accompanying them in the day-to-day stuff of life. I’ve spent time in shelters, in hospital rooms, on street corners, at appointments and in the nonprofit drop-in center and medical clinic that I co-founded. What I have learned in this world of mostly systemized charity is that we have neglected to include even the slightest trappings of the things that make us all human and upon which a human being’s mental health depends: the lived-out questions of “who am I” and “what am I.” These questions can’t be answered by professionalized care, for they have to do with a sense of belonging, of counting and of mattering. It is the “stuff” of being human. The very fleshy, messy, particular-only-to-you, hand-on-your-heart questions and birthright of every single one of us.
My experiences with this precious community convince me that the overall health of the human being is directly correlated with their sense of belonging and purpose in society. As they are, our policies and programs aimed at caring for our unhoused neighbors only serve to perpetuate a social death and lack of meaning that further isolates. The growing isolation and dehumanization then keep these vital community members from feeling safe enough to access the social, health and housing services that they desire and deserve and that we so desperately want them to.
Until we begin to ascribe to the people we’re attempting to “serve” the same kinds of complexities, nuances, kindnesses and curiosity that we ascribe to and acknowledge in ourselves, we will continue to create models of care that simply do not work.
So before we propose our solutions, may we close our computers and place our hands on our hearts. We must begin here. And then we must create programs and services that take a person’s sense of place into account: Programs and services that are restorative, not retributive; wholeness enhancing, not problem solving; subjective, not objective; and contextualized, not cauterized. Successful programs put a person’s inherent dignity and particular personhood front and center, just as you — my neighbor — and I would desire and demand.
Some may say that Seattle is dying, but I say that maybe, just maybe, the denial of our shared humanity has finally been made visible enough that it can give way to a fertile ground that is worthy of a humanizing harrow. And this is our work to do. We have the answers within ourselves more than we know.
Sparrow Etter Carlson is a co-founder of Aurora Commons and its Safe, Healthy, Empowered (SHE) Clinic and most recently of Sacred Streets. Sparrow has been living with intention toward her unhoused neighbors since 2002. You can find Sacred Streets online at https://oursacredstreets.com and Aurora Commons at https://www.auroracommons.org.
Read more of the July 7-13, 2021 issue.