A seminary professor whose work guides me recently wrote about homelessness. She was in Atlanta working with a justice group, staying outside for several days. She admitted it wasn’t at all like being homeless. One night, she and a colleague were sleeping adjacent to some homeless folks outdoors. A thunderstorm broke wide open. She and her colleague ran for an empty parking garage, while the homeless people near them ran away from the garage. A security guard challenged the two women, thinking they were homeless. Quickly recognizing they weren’t homeless, they gained shelter. She wrote:
“What I take immediately from that experience is the different relationship that those who are housed and those who are homeless have to space. For the housed, there is some basic sense of belonging, a basic sense of a right to be somewhere. For the homeless, there is experience after experience of exclusion with the clear message that they do not have that same right simply to exist somewhere.” (Jennifer McBride, “Radical Discipleship”)
This region and most others struggle in similar ways. Sentiment tells many who are housed that homeless people deserve immediate, consistent help, while another sentiment among those housed chooses judgment and hesitation, with help only for the deserving. Homelessness is personal for all of us. Yet, McBride points out, we who are housed sense that we belong everywhere, adding, “What I learned amid a downpour is that I believe shelter is a right.” Somewhere to be. Being. Somewhere.
Seattle and this region struggle to figure out this very reality. The declared states of emergency in Seattle and King County think in terms of boxes. They want to get the box to work better, to think outside the box and are in too many ways failing to recognize homelessness isn’t about a box. Homelessness is about being. Somewhere. As a result, people being in the wrong place become a problem to fix, with the operational, remedial flow being to aim these folks toward something better. To coax them, prod them. But people are not herded. They move. Somewhere. Moving their bodies while trampling their spirits won’t work. The state of emergency is still trying to figure that out. It is not about being anywhere, but somewhere. It takes more than well-intentioned sentiment. One elected leader of the state of emergency said to me, “Apparently you don’t know who I am as a person of faith.” I listened, and thought to myself, “This isn’t about you.”
Being. Somewhere. It means a body who is a person with dignity. A self with flesh. A life with hope, dreams and a heart. As sung in the movie, “La La Land,” “Here’s to the ones who dream / foolish as they may seem / here’s to the hearts that ache / here’s to the mess we make.”
Broken lives can be messed up unto death, by those living these lives, and by us. It is a spiral decision makers and too many in the public miss. One failure can bring inescapable chaos. The cycle goes like this: Leaders see some of the harm, sentiment kicks in, as do plans to end that harm with almost every wrong tool employed. More money is proposed, even via a Seattle property tax levy guaranteeing if it passes to make living at the lowest income levels even harder.
In a state of emergency, or any emergency, like our house being on fire, we first carry — not sweep — the people to safety. Always. Because that is how we have been trained as “housed people.” When homeless, there’s stuff, possessions and self-worth, from which the person cannot be detached. This stuff gives a sense of belonging. The basic sense of a right to be somewhere. Being. Somewhere. Not just where one can be carried and set down away from the emergency. In a public state of emergency on homelessness, we’d expect to see, among other things, enormous policy changes, innovation and collaboration, such that business-as usual-dissolves. Instead we see what we have seen.
Being. Somewhere. A beautiful, worthy dream we can help to make happen.
The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett is the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness and works helping vehicle residents manage Seattle’s scofflaw ordinance.