What to do about the housing and homelessness crisis in Seattle continues to be a contentious and difficult, yet pervasive, issue for our city. With the cold, harsh winter weather fully upon on us, it continues to be a hot topic, but it seems most people are relying on politicians and government agencies to come up with a solution. The recent news of Nickelsville moving into Wallingford has brought that conversation and debate to a hyper-local level, stirring up strong emotions, fears, judgments, and accusations on both sides of the NIMBY vs. YIMBY camps.
But while the armchair activists, HALA haters, and NIMBY naysayers pontificate from their warm, comfy homes and high-tech devices, little is being done by our politicians to alleviate the dire situation of the almost 12,000 homeless people, most living on the cold, wet grass in thin nylon tents and sleeping bags, or worse—the stereotypical cardboard box on the icy cold pavement under a small entryway or alcove. Seeing as how our city government seems to be failing miserably, and the problem is getting worse, it may take a more grassroots, community effort to tackle this monumental epidemic.
And, in fact, there are some local efforts underway to help house the homeless. As reported by Valerie Schloredt in Yes! Magazine last month, one couple in Beacon Hill was the first to offer their backyard to a new program called the BLOCK Project, which has a mission of turning NIMBYs into YIMBYs—quite literally—by building a backyard tiny house on every (willing) Seattle city block for a (well-vetted) homeless individual. The BLOCK Project is an offshoot of Facing Homelessness, a project started by architect Rex Hohlbein to bring dignity and compassion to the homeless by sharing their stories and photos online.
I was happy, but not surprised, to discover that there are some compassionate folks right here in our own neighborhood who are also taking a grassroots approach to finding ways of helping neighbors in need. I recently met up with two Wallingford women who have taken matters into their own hands: Genevieve, who experienced firsthand the indignity that the homeless face on a daily basis and did her best to help a homeless Native American woman who was critically ill and desperately needed medical attention (and a warm bed to sleep in); and Virginia, who takes a more preventative/proactive approach by offering rooms in her home, on a temporary basis, to those folks in dire housing situations or community members needing time or space to plan safe housing.
Below is Genevieve’s story; Virginia’s story will follow in the next week or two. Both women hope that their stories will inspire others to take action, and perhaps even start a formal network of neighbors willing to offer temporary housing, supplies, or other support to help bridge the gap between the houseless and the housed.
What I Learned Last Summer
I met Angie (not her real name) in Meridian Park last summer. In fact, I met two Native American couples, a Caucasian couple, and three single men there. They were all in their thirties to early fifties and had all lived outside for some time. Over the summer, I got to know most of them, as my super-friendly spaniel pulled me along to deliver them kisses. Time and again, they talked wistfully about their lives and families before—when they had homes. It’s difficult to have a conversation with a homeless person when your circumstances are so different from theirs. Once, I asked Angie what time she went to bed. She looked at me like I was a child. “When it gets dark,” she said. After a few months of conversations, I realized how much I had to learn about her and myself.
People who live on the street become accustomed to being treated with disdain and verbal attacks. I experienced it myself from park workers, mothers pushing strollers, and school children, who assumed I was homeless too. It made me realize that unconscious bigotry against the poor and homeless is something we rarely think about. We may assume that they deserve their present situation because of character flaws, unwillingness to work, or ignorant choices made. Sadly, I found that it is often estrangement from family and friends that accounts for their homelessness, particularly after a life-changing event that leaves them without resources.
By the end of the summer, I could see that Angie was not doing well. In fact, she was dying—there on the cold cement base of the park gazebo. Over a week I took her to a women’s day shelter and to appointments with her doctors and social workers, all of whom were working hard but not finding her a suitable placement. She was too sick for a shelter but not acutely sick enough for the emergency room or respite center. Finally, after staying with me for four days, I had to give her up to Harborview so she could get treatment for her painful, unrelenting liver disease. I had wanted to spare her the indignity of the pipeline for the poor, which volleys people between the ER and shelters only when they meet the designated qualifications.
As I drove her to the ER, she told me that they would probably release her after three days. I couldn’t believe it, but she was right. She could barely walk with her walker and small bag of belongings when they gave her a bus ticket to the Downtown Emergency Shelter. There, she was able to get a bed-bug-ridden bed (not just the typical mattress), for she could not even get in and out of a bed without help. One of her social workers told me she was surprised I got her into a shelter at all.
After a week at the shelter, Angie collapsed and was sent back to Harborview. Four days later she was dead. Her hospice nurse told me that Angie’s deceased mother had visited her several times as she drifted in and out of consciousness. I was glad to hear that because she admired her mother so much and wanted to be more like her—a strong Native American woman who worked hard, always took care of herself and her family—and didn’t drink.
What did I learn? I learned how hard it is for homeless people to get help here. Many programs and shelters don’t accept couples. The couples I met did not want to leave their partners, who were their only source of physical and emotional support. I learned how privileged I was to have a home that provides me the physical and psychological security that I take for granted. But mostly, I learned how terrible it was to live without self-respect and human dignity, which is constantly being taken away with every bypasser’s scowl and untroubled verbal abuse.
In a December 8, 2017, article in The Guardian, Maia Szalavitz reports on academic studies linking violence and murder with inequality and the (usually male) perpetrator’s sense of being “dissed.” When you’re at the bottom, “matters of respect and disrespect loom disproportionately” large. The United States is now the most unequal society among Western developed countries. For the sake of the unsheltered and for our own sake, we can’t ignore this any longer. At least I won’t—for the sake of Angie and my friends at Meridian Park.