Poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
That announcement from the Poor People’s Campaign resonated with the homeless/formerly homeless women of the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL). We stand vigil for homeless adults and children who die outside, in a public place or by violence in King County. Nearly 170 people this year have died, as I write this. It may be more when you read it.
In June, my friend and fellow WHEEL member Allene Steinberg and I were invited to go to Washington, D.C., with the Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Poverty Action Congress to learn more about this crisis and carry our message to Congress. The women of WHEEL asked us to also speak about our Homeless Remembrance Project and what we have learned from it.
The average age of death for a housed person in King County is 79. The average age of death for a homeless person in King County is 49. Poverty kills more people than fentanyl, homicide and suicide, but while the Seattle Times has talked about an epidemic of fentanyl, and even an epidemic of homelessness, it has never named an epidemic of poverty.
As Matthew Desmond lays out in his book “Poverty by America,” poverty doesn’t just happen. Poverty is created by American policy and can only be ended by changes in policy.
On June 21, U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (CA-12) and Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) introduced a congressional resolution, “The Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages from the Bottom Up.” The idea is to fully eradicate poverty throughout the United States by addressing the converging injustices of systemic racism, poverty, public health inequity, militarism and white supremacist nationalist extremism. A resolution does not have the force of law. It is a declaration of “the sentiment” of Congress, and once it goes on record, you can all call Congress to “live up to your word.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began a Poor People’s Campaign in 1967. It carried through a march on Washington in 1968 — after his assassination — and achieved some gains. In 2018, Rev. William Barber II launched “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival” to carry on the unfinished work.
On June 19, I flew out to D.C., singing, “Eastbound and down, loaded up and trucking, we’re going to do what they say can’t be done” (in my head, for the sake of other passengers). With a five-and-a-half-hour flight and a three-hour time change, I arrived just in time to take my COVID test (that I was supposed to take before I left), register, check in to the hotel and go to bed. Bless the conference organizers. I’ve gone to most conferences bleary-eyed, right after I arrive. There is never enough coffee.
I had to get up at 7 a.m. to get breakfast, but the first session began with singing, the kind that has people jumping, swaying, clapping and shouting. Better than coffee.
Several sessions of singing livened up the day, keeping us all going through intense sessions. Like the panel that presented Dr. David Brady’s findings on “death by poverty.” And the table-talk session where six of us from all over the country shared the impact of poverty and death on our own lives. Or the all-member session where we went over the national fact sheet on poverty. The breakout sessions where we went over our own state’s fact sheets on poverty. The rally before we walked to Congress. The trek through the halls of Congress.
At the rally and the press conference after, personal testimony was shared. One story that will stick with me forever: She was pregnant. They had children already, so she and her husband ate on alternate days, so they could feed the kids. In the last trimester, they got food stamps, and she could eat every day. She lost the baby. The doctor said it was from malnutrition.
In the United States, 140 million people are poor or low-wealth. There are many other personal tragedies buried in those hard statistics. You may know some of them yourself.
The conference ended June 22 with a celebration dance. During that, I finally hooked up with a group I had been told about for the last three days: the National Union of the Homeless. Its organizing effort lasted from 1983 to 1996 and was revived in 2020.
This conference was the most wonderfully diverse one I have ever been to. There were people of all ages; I was very happy to see a lot of young folks and even some children. There were a LARGE number of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian people. People with lived experience were the majority, not a token number. LGBTQ+ people were represented in almost as high a proportion as they actually are in the homeless community.
Then I got another good night’s sleep before the long trip home. Bless the conference organizers again.
(As I headed out of the hotel with my bags, I posted to Facebook, “Westbound and down, loaded up and trucking!” Wes read that and thought I was already on the plane. When I finally came in through the door, he had been expecting me for three hours!)
I have worked for many causes over my life, from marching with my mother for civil rights in the ’60s to phone calling for the Hanford cleanup in the ’90s. After I became homeless in ’95, I resolved to focus on homelessness “and related causes.” Pretty soon I found out everything is related.
As Dorothy Day said, in one of WHEEL’s favorite quotes, “All our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
Do not accept. Do not accept a pregnant woman losing her child because, in the richest country in the world, she couldn’t get enough to eat. Do not accept 47 percent of the homeless people in King County living — and dying — without shelter, in an area with more billionaires per square foot than anywhere else in the country. Do not accept the lie that all this is because of poor personal choices. It is all because of our poor public choices.
We do not have to wait for Congress to change. There are local actions we can take right now.
Increase the JumpStart tax on Seattle’s biggest businesses. Do not accept the proposal to delay it for three years.
Tell Burien City Council to accept King County’s offer of $1 million dollars and 35 modular units to set up a tiny home village. Burien currently has no homeless shelter, and two women died without shelter in Burien just in June.
Pass Kshama Sawant’s proposed Rent Control “trigger” law, which will go into effect as soon as the state repeals the ban on local rent control. The Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote on it Aug 1.
Stop the damn sweeps. We need real solutions to homelessness: housing, shelter, mental health and addiction treatment, living wage jobs for those who can work and real financial support for those who cannot. We do not need performative acts of “look, I made the homeless people disappear” that only increase misery and death.
I often say that the root cause of homelessness is loss of community. We allowed ourselves to be convinced that we are workers and consumers whose only value is our contribution to the economy. That our primary moral duty is to take care of ourselves, not other people. We have allowed ourselves to forget that the purpose of living in a society is to increase the well-being of everyone and that one of the purposes of our government is “to promote the general welfare.”
One personality classification says that some people are interested in people, some in ideas and some in things. I say every person cares about other people, by instinct. When we see someone else smiling, we smile. When we see someone else hurting, we hurt. That is why there has been a concerted effort to dehumanize those who hurt, to convince us that their problems are of their own making and none of our own.
A moral revival will start with rejecting the campaign to make us a bunch of consumers, to become a Beloved Community of fellow human beings who make sure we all have everything we need to thrive and create.
We can do it. We created poverty. We can end it.
Everybody has a right to live.
Anitra Freeman is a member of WHEEL and a Real Change vendor. Her badge number for Venmo payments is 7982.
Read more of the July 26-Aug. 1, 2023 issue.