A few weeks ago I had the honor of meeting and talking with Maurice Young, a homeless activist from Indiana. We talked for 90 minutes at the Seattle Public Library, before I had to leave. We probably could have talked for another two hours without running out of topics.
You’ll notice that I didn’t call Maurice a “homelessness activist.” Whenever I talk about the societal issue of people lacking housing, I always refer to it as “homelessness.” The term “homeless” is more specific, and can be used as an adjective (“homeless person”) or a noun (“helping the homeless”). The condition itself is properly called “homelessness.”
But Maurice is a fervent and accomplished activist on homelessness who is homeless himself. This itself is not unique – there are many homeless people who actively work to address the overall issue (many of them are involved with Real Change, a Seattle organization that I serve on the board for).
But Maurice is even more unusual in that he has decided to live without housing – that is, he is homeless by choice. He used to have a house, a wife, two cars in the garage. But five years he gave it up and moved into a shelter where he lives in Indianapolis. I highly recommend his ten-minute TED talk, in which he tells his story and explains why he made this choice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsZEXkCABCw).
If you want to learn even more, you can watch this short film about his fight with the city of Indianapolis over a homeless encampment there (very similar to the ongoing issue we face here in Seattle (https://vimeo.com/82237839).
In my talk with him, he gave me the short answer when I asked him why he chooses to be homeless. Essentially, he feels like he can be a much better activist, and understand the issue in a much deeper way, if he is actually homeless himself. He doesn’t use the word authentic, necessarily, but that would be one way to describe it. He has lived something that 99.9 percent of us in the United States have not. He speaks with authority, and comes from true knowledge of the condition that we put a label on with the word “homelessness.”
[An aside: Perhaps some people would think he’s crazy to do this, or that somehow it’s offensive for him to treat homelessness like a “lifestyle choice” that anyone would want to voluntarily experience. After all, I believe that the vast majority of homeless people would prefer to be housed (that means real housing, not a shelter or controlled tent city). But I don’t think it’s our right to judge him for this decision, just like we shouldn’t judge others for their housing decisions or their reasons for becoming homeless. Personally, I think it shows a tremendous amount of courage and selflessness. I know that I couldn’t do it.]
Maurice’s visit to Seattle in early May was no different – while he was here, he stayed in a tent encampment located downtown. He seemed to think it was a fine place to sleep and hang out in. (His demeanor during our entire talk was very joyful, peaceful – much moreso than a lot of the housed people I know, yours truly included.)
Maurice has traveled around the United States (Nashville, Chicago, LA, San Antonio, Washington D.C.) to study the issue of homelessness. (He can afford to do this thanks to a sponsor who works for an airline.) One of his big takeaways from his short Seattle visit — a big kudos to the staff and volunteers of Real Change, who took him to visit many of the homeless tent cities, RV parking lots and other locations related to the homelessness emergency here – was that Seattle is handling the situation MUCH better than most places he’s seen.
He was quite amazed by what he called our “best practices.” While I and probably most people in Seattle see a horrible situation that is only getting worse, from Maurice’s outside perspective, Seattle is doing many things right. He provides specific examples, which I’ve captured in a transcript of a portion of our discussion. I’ll present it here without further introduction.
[Part of a discussion with Maurice Young, Indiana homelessness activist, May 7, 2016]
David Hirning: So Seattle is A-plus, the services work, you don’t get a lot of “you have to do this or that.”
Maurice Young: Agencies have to create paper trails to substantiate the services, and then to apply for the money. There’s a place called Horizon House in Indianapolis, a day services [location], so if arrive in Indy, say I’m new there, and I just want to get a shower. Now this is common [LA, San Antonio, Nashville, Chicago, New York]. He’ll ask about five questions, that reflect an HMIS system, Homeless Measurement Information System, which is of course a tracking device. They’ll ask you some questions. Then they’ll say, take this back to where you are sleeping, then someone on this list will come around and verify that you sleep there, and then you can come back, then you have orientation, then you can have a shower.
MY: My point exactly. Because that is not… I’m telling you that the best practices happen here; from when I walked in, in five minutes I was in the shower.
DH: Is it because they’re trying to track you?
MY: When they do the HMIS part, that’s the tracking part, but the whole head count piece is what they are going to submit when they apply for these grants.
DH: You’re saying that Seattle is not as bureaucratic.
MY: Right. They are sensitive to the fact that, we gotta get what we need, but you are definitely gonna get what you need. We’re going to make you the priority. And that is very rare. And that’s a best practice. And then going the next step and give me what I need, to help me access the services they have, that’s over and beyond. I was just like…
DH: So you’re trying to disseminate this. You’re trying to say that Seattle is doing this, and these other cities, governments and nonprofits should be able to learn from this and do this. You’ve got so many different organizations [in Seattle], ROOTS [youth homeless shelter], Urban Rest Stop, maybe there are 30 nonprofits that work on these issues, then you’ve got the city, the county. Yeah, we spend $50 million a year in Seattle on this, how does that system work so those resources get apportioned. I actually heard on the radio, they were debating this issue, and somebody says, “Well, those nonprofits are just sucking up the money, they’re just justifying their existence, and making all this money, the executives,” that kind of negative stuff. But you seem to say that in Seattle, the system works.
MY: And I think that the mayor just needs to make it clear how he’s approached this. So everybody’s doing their thing, but I don’t think most people understand that there’s a two-fold system when dealing with the homeless. Either you address the people coming in, or you address the people that are already in. So [Mayor Ed] Murray has addressed the people already in, so when you come in, there’s a place, all these organizations. You know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? So he’s making sure your basic needs are met.
DH: When you say he, you mean Murray?
DH: Well, he’s a symbol. He’s a spokesman.
MY: So I went to a tent encampment, by Interbay.
DH: Yes, I went there. That’s the one I was most impressed by. I heard that the person that was really running the place, a homeless volunteer, he was doing a great job, but then maybe he moved…
MY: And I think his conflict was moreso with the nonprofit folk, than his own. But what I see, they put a post and put electricity out there. That’s UNHEARD of.
DH: Yeah, and I think the neighboring businesses really embraced the camp. To me, a lot of people in Seattle have big hearts, they want to help, as long as they are not afraid, right?
MY: But for a city to a power up a camp, I mean, I didn’t even want to ask the obvious question, who pays for that. [As if he has to prove that this miracle actually exists, he shows me pictures of power poles at Interbay Tent City, which is city-funded homeless encampment in Seattle.] That right there would shut down the whole City Council in Indianapolis. Put up power? They don’t even want to pay for gas for a generator. Power? That’s amazing to me.
DH: It’s not like it costs a lot of money… well, so we’re meeting the basic needs… so I watched the film about you, “The Advocate” (https://vimeo.com/82237839). When was that made? 2013? Wow, that was a long time ago. What ended up happening in that situation?
MY: Well, my city, they arrested us, they tore down the camp –
DH: You do know that they tear down camps in Seattle. It’s not all peaches and cream.
MY: Yes, I do know that. But again, I try to leave the emotions out of it. I’ve lived on the street since 2011 –
DH: Yeah, you see the big picture.
MY: Yeah. And I know it can be better. But as long as you have the fundamental things.
DH: OK, so Indianapolis, not going well.
MY: No. I’ll you about that story, but let me tell you. They prosecute us for a year and a half, then they decided to drop the charges.
DH: A year and a half though. In Seattle I think it would take hopefully about three weeks. Then they’d say, this is ridiculous, we’re not going arrest [or prosecute] you.
MY: Well, this is what’s so amazing about that story: They tore down the camp on August 26, 2013. NBC was reporting that, you could see it all over the United States. The Seattle Times did a story about it, about Nickelsville [a Seattle unofficial Tent City], which was taken down a week behind us. So we went to jail to get this situation that you have today. When they tore that [Nickelsville] down, it’s like the conscience woke up here. They got what they wanted. I didn’t get what I wanted, but here –
DH: Do you ever ask yourself why there’s such a different attitude? Seattle is the second-most liberal city in the United States, so there’s that. But do you think it’s money, or political will? In Seattle people are like, like me, we need to do better. We go down to the City Council and tell them what they need to be doing. I don’t know why it’s different [in other places].
MY: That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Because the people in the Midwest think that they’re good-hearted Bible Belt people, just like anyone else, but your actions and your words aren’t lining up. Because I think it’s asinine for someone to discriminate against somebody because of their housing status. It is the most ridiculous thing I can possibly think of. I mean, think about it, to treat somebody a certain way because of…
DH: And to actually treat them worse, and not to have any consideration…. One thing that it has to come from, and people do realize this, it’s not like we need to blame these people for where they are where they are, and I am where I am. Because I happened to be born in a family where my parents went to college, made sure I went to college, my kids went to college. And we know that things are changing – that people aren’t doing as well, especially in the lower middle class, so that people who used to be housed, families, they lose a job or someone gets sick, and they lose housing. And yet people say it’s your fault, drugs and drinking, that’s on you. People say they just accept it, “What can we do? Tough luck for you. I feel really bad…” but they’re not willing to take the next step.
MY: So I’m sitting there on Third Street [the homeless encampment where he stayed while he was in Seattle], thinking about why I am where I am, and I’m watching this woman. I think she might have been on drugs, because of her demeanor. And she would approach cars, and they would look away, or they would say get away, and she’d move away. In Indianapolis, the first person she approached, they would have pulled over and called the cops, and they would have come and arrested her and thrown her in jail. There’s something wrong with the way we are approaching homelessness in Indianapolis.
DH: Is that person a threat to them?
MY: Not at all. In Seattle it’s, OK, you did your part to ask, I’ma pass, so the transaction’s over. But in Indianapolis it’d be this big deal, [lets out fake roar], the police would have been out there.
DH: Why are they punishing people for being homeless? It’s not a big deal here. And by the way, what’s up with people who are Bible Belt Christians, what are they teaching them in church if they’re not going to help the less fortunate? WTF?
MY: When I got arrested, I had a sign that said, “How do you worship a homeless man on Sunday, and arrest him on Monday?” How does that work?
DH: And speaking of, one thing we talk about at Real Change is racial justice. Does race have something to do with it? Indianapolis is probably not as racially tolerant as Seattle. I’m not saying we’re great on racial issues, we’re very white, but we’re probably more tolerant.
MY: That’s one thing I’m looking at, in my research on Seattle. I said, You mean to tell me, I’m going to a predominantly white city, and they named the county for Martin Luther King? I need to get there, like, tomorrow. [laughs] I sit on a race relations circle in Indianapolis, and when I go there, I wear the head of homelessness. I’m African-American, that’s genetic, but I come to represent the homeless. Because in that city, I’ve been more discriminated against because of homelessness than I’ve EVER been discriminated against for being African-American.
DH: It’s not criminalized.
DH: ROOTS is about 50 percent African-American, even in white North Seattle. And there is racism in our society, white people are less likely to trust black people or whatever. Unfortunately. And maybe 20 percent of the discrimination is based on race, if I were to just guess.
MY: What’s interesting is in these camps, they are diverse, they are just as diverse here as they are in Indianapolis. And that tension goes away, because we become community, and color is no longer the primary divider anymore, the us and them becomes us trying to survive and them trying to keep us from surviving.
DH: Whereas if you’re in a more stable, housed situation, then the us and them becomes more racial. Isn’t that interesting. So, do you feel like, you’ve got some national publicity, you’ve got the Ted talk, some attention, do you feel like you’ve been able to affect change?
MY: It’s been a slow change.
[more to come]