City leaders may make homelessness feel intractable. But none of this is new.
The newspaper headline, juxtaposed with a photo of the waterfront, blares “CITY BEAUTIFUL?”
It’s drenched in sarcasm; the photo captures an expanse of makeshift residences. Under the picture, the author decries the chilling fact that “this is the picture from one viewpoint or another — that tourists coming into the city can’t help but see.”
But what can you do? One man suggested building more housing, citing the statistic that the vacancy rate in the city is “one of the lowest in the country.” But just building more housing wouldn’t solve the problem. If you simply make services available, it would merely “be a ‘come-on’ to the unemployed from other parts of the country.”
Ah, the myth of “Freattle.” Did you know that it was almost 100 years old? Because that article and that photo and that sentiment are from a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from Dec. 9, 1939. It could have been published yesterday.
In the midst of a depression, artificial inflation driven by corporate greed and a handful of fat cats getting rich on the suffering of others, citizens in the 1930s struggled to find a solution to a problem that seemed impossible: homelessness. How can we get everyone into housing without giving the housing away? How can we sufficiently shame people or, better yet, hide them away somewhere? How can we ensure that people assimilate into regular life without letting them forget that they’re poor?
There are some differences, of course. Where once people built shacks from discarded wood, now the most accessible materials are nylon or plastic. Tents are easier to sweep, making today’s “shacktowns” more transient. I’m not sure if that’s more or less enraging to housed neighbors; they can’t stand RVs that park with any kind of permanence, but they hate temporary Coleman-branded homes on sidewalks, too.
The means of survival may have been updated, but the general beliefs are essentially unchanged. In the 1939 article, one man who claimed to have visited the encampment established at the city dump brought a “fact” for consideration. About “20 percent” of the residents were receiving government assistance. The rest, he said, “did not want relief.”
It’s hard to tell from the article whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, though I suspect the men themselves weren’t clear, either. In theory, they would want men to be too proud to accept charity. But then again, if they can’t accept help, why bother helping them?
I remember my eighth grade social studies teacher explaining that we needed to learn history so that we could find solutions for the future. Our past can be a roadmap for the future, showing us how to go — or where to turn. It seems that most elected officials, though, are more eager to reinvent the path entirely, forgetting that the directions are right there in black and white, not even a century ago.
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.