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A Visit to Tent City 3

Yesterday I finally got around to visiting Tent City 3 (TC3), one of the sanctioned homeless encampments in the Seattle area. The University of Washington (my employer) has hosted TC3 on a parking lot in the south end of the campus since early January.

I have visited a couple city-sponsored encampments in the last year, newer ones located in Ballard and Interbay. Tent City 3 has been running continuously for 17 years and is operated by SHARE/WHEEL, a nonprofit that has been helping the homeless in Seattle for more than two decades. They currently run 15 different shelters and three tent cities. (TC3 has a web page that lists their donation needs, including an Amazon Wishlist: http://www.sharewheel.org/tent-city-3.)

It was a cold and drizzly afternoon when I walked in the front gate of TC3. I had brought along a few boxes of granola bars, which were happily received at the “front desk” tent. After I introduced myself, an older woman welcomed me with a smile and signed me in. A man about my age asked me if I’d like a tour of the camp.

He said his name was Ivan, and that he had only lived at TC3 for a couple months. As we strolled down the narrow pathways between the orderly rows of tents, he told me that there were about 70 people living in TC3. (Their website says they can host up to 100 people at a time.) Tent City 3 only stays at any one site for three months at a time – they are scheduled to move out of this location in a couple weeks.

The camp was very quiet, with most people either out for the day or holed up in their tents. The camp has a large tent that functions as a dining area, with trays of donated food set out on tables – everything from noodles to soup to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They also have another large tent that functions as a kind of lounge, featuring a television that was showing an NBA game when we walked by.

Ivan explained that, like the other sanctioned homeless encampments I’ve visited, they have fairy strict rules: no fighting, quiet hours, no drugs and no alcohol. They screen the residents for sex offender status or other violent crimes. There are some families that live in the camp, and they want to keep everyone safe. (While we were talking, another man approached and asked Ivan where it was OK to smoke. “I don’t want to get in trouble,” he said.)

I asked Ivan a little about how he came to live in the camp. He said he was originally from southwest Florida, where he had housing, but he couldn’t deal with some of the family drama there. (“Sisters.”) He had a friend in Seattle, so he moved here. (At this point, I looked at him and then around at the miserable, grey, rainy weather and wondered a bit at this choice. I have a sister who lives in Florida myself. It’s 80 degrees in January there.)

Ivan said he ended up living in an awful house in Lake City, a place he called a “shooting gallery” where the cops showed up every day. He’d gotten assaulted there a number of times, so he finally decided he’d be safer in the tent city. Ivan also said he’d been sober for about a decade. I didn’t ask him if he was working.

Despite the rather bleak weather and the fact that he was living in a homeless camp, Ivan seemed to have an air of contentment about him – at least, as content as anybody else I run into on a daily basis. He struck me as just a regular human being, somebody trying to get through life, trying to find some meaning. Just like we all are.

At the same time, as I walked back to my car — ready to drive over to my mom’s warm and spacious Capitol Hill home for a nice visit and then out to dinner to celebrate my brother’s birthday — I thought to myself, “I have no problems.” And the next time I want to whine or complain about something (as I often do), I need to remember that. I need to remember Ivan.

Tent City 3, U-District

Merry Christmas

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There are certain images that struck me several years ago when I found I could no longer ignore the many homeless people sleeping on the streets of Seattle’s U-District. One was the sight of people sleeping underneath the marquee of the Neptune Theater, the home of many alternative rock shows. At night, the area is full of young people waiting in line, excited to go to the concert. In the morning, the scene is too often the one you see above, taken a few days ago on a very cold morning.

This person had three or four bags of belongings gathered around them as they slept. One of the biggest problems homeless people have, beyond finding adequate shelter and staying warm, is theft. They are constantly getting their things stolen, including their electronics, purses, wallets, and clothing.

One of the guests (as they are known) at the homeless shelter where I volunteer every week recently had his computer stolen. It happened at the shelter, in the confusion after a fight broke out shortly after the lights went out for the night.

This guest is a quiet, gentle person. I’ll call him Reggie here. He’d been staying at the shelter for at least six months, and I’d had many conversations with him about books, movies, current events, and other topics. Recently Reggie had become obsessed with computer programming, and he would talk your ear off about code and scraping websites and other things that were hard for us to understand. Perhaps, I thought, this skill would be his ticket out of homelessness.

But then his computer was gone, taken from him in what should have been a safe space. He seemed philosophical about this, but I know he must have been devastated.

He said that the library only let you use their computers for an hour and a half each day. Most of us take for granted that we have a computer and internet access whenever we need it, for however long we need it. Most homeless people don’t have that luxury, which makes it harder for them to access services, look for jobs and housing, and many other things that we now do almost exclusively online.

A week before Christmas I bought a new computer. This was a big deal for me, since I had mostly purchased used or underpowered computers in the past. (I also bought a Mac for the first time, but that’s the topic for another post.)

So I had an old netbook that I no longer needed. It was slow, but it worked. So on Christmas Eve at the shelter, I was able to pull Reggie aside and give hime the machine. In his quiet way, he thanked me profusely. He told me he was leaving in a few days to move back to Kansas, where his family lived. (There had been abuse issues in the past, but he was going to try to make it work.) He noted that now he could program on the computer during the long bus ride back to the Midwest.

The fact that I caught Reggie before he left and was able to help him in this way was the best Christmas present I could receive. A small thing for me, but a big thing for him. I gave him a hug before he departed the next morning and wished him good luck. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again (a sometimes tough part of volunteering at the shelter and getting to know the guests). But I hope Reggie finds peace, and love, and housing, and a programming job sometime down the road. I do have hope.

Homeless Families, Homeless Kids

 

When we think of homelessness in the city of Seattle, we often think of single men staying in shelters, asking for money on the sidewalks, or in tents by the side of the freeway. Or we think of couples, perhaps on the older side.

But how many of us think of homeless families with young children – children that may be sitting next to your child at school, or playing with them on the playground? How many of us even want to think about it?

Like Seattle homelessness in general, the number of homeless kids in the city is staggering – and growing rapidly. In 2014-2015, the Seattle Public Schools had nearly 3,000 homeless students (including those living the street, in shelters and cars, and doubled-up with other families).

That’s about six percent of the total students in the district. That’s also double the number of students that were facing this situation less than ten years ago.

Never having been even close to homeless, I can’t really imagine what it’s like. Then I try to imagine what it would be like to be a homeless kid. That’s a whole different level of scariness. Of sadness.

As a regular volunteer at a youth homeless shelter in Seattle, I get a firsthand look into a window on this problem. But the guests at ROOTS, the U-District shelter where I spend every Saturday night, are all over 18 – they are legally adults. I get to see young people at the tail-end of this situation – they may or may not have been homeless when they were younger (a large portion may have aged out of the foster system or left home when they were 17 or 18). I like to call them “kids,” but they aren’t. And we don’t treat them like kids.

But when I think of a 12-year-old who has to leave a shelter every morning and take a bus or (in some cases) a taxi to school… well, I get really sad. Or really mad. Angry that this is a commonplace situation in our city. That it has come to this. And that we just kind of accept it.

A few years back, I saw a man asking for change outside the Greenwood Market. Next to him stood a girl who must have been about eight years old – presumably his daughter. This disturbed me. I stopped to chat with him for a minute. Maybe I gave him a dollar.

But I really wanted to ask him, How can you let her go through this, see this? How can you humiliate her in this way? What are you thinking?

But I didn’t. I just kept looking at her, then at him, perhaps judging him a little. Perhaps wanting to tell her that it was OK, that I felt really bad for her. Of course, I had no right to judge him. He was just trying to survive. And I guess you could say that at least she wasn’t on her own, in a foster home or shelter, or on the streets by herself.

The other day, walking home from work, I came across a woman playing a ukulele next to the Safeway near my house. She was smiling and friendly. She said her name was Tina, and that the toddler with her was Tyler. I didn’t ask her what her housing situation was, what circumstances had put her on the sidewalk busking for change while her son sat in his stroller next to her, playing with his toy cars like any other little kid. Maybe I was a little too shocked or depressed by the situation.

Her sign reads: “Anything Helps! Especially hot food, Visa, Safeway or Jack in the Box gift cards! No pork please and no way to store food @ shelter. Thanks & God Bless.”

I was too busy asking her about her instrument and too distracted by the little boy to read her sign. Now that I read it in the photo, I wish I had stopped at the Safeway and bought her some fried chicken or something. For her, and for her little boy. But I was in a hurry to get somewhere, so I just gave her the dollar and walked away.

Nobody should be homeless in this rich city, this prosperous country… but especially, no child should be homeless. It’s hard enough being a kid without also having to deal with lacking a stable, safe place to live. And, I can imagine, it must be really, really hard to be a parent facing this situation.

When Homelessness Comes Home

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I’ve been writing and posting photos about homelessness in Seattle for nearly two years. My writing, and subsequent activism on the issue, was sparked by regular encounters with people sleeping on the streets of the University District. I’ve worked in the neighborhood for almost four years, and because I parked on the street about a half-mile from work, I walked through it every weekday. Seeing all the people sleeping in doorways finally got to me, and I started speaking out.

Four months ago, I moved out of the Greenwood neighborhood where I’d lived since 1997. The rent was rising rapidly in my apartment building – after it was bought by a large developer, how very Seattle – and I decided to make a change.

Competition for affordable apartments in Seattle is steep, and I felt pretty lucky to find a fairly cheap one-bedroom place in the U-District. I essentially went from living five miles away from my job to five blocks away.  I was (and remain) elated to be able to walk to work every morning in less than ten minutes. It’s also nice that I’m equally close to ROOTS, the youth homeless shelter where I volunteer every Saturday night.

What’s the catch? Well, the new place is much smaller than my previous apartment. Tiny kitchen, no more deck, bathroom closet or storage area. The building isn’t as nice. The neighborhood is much louder and busier. And the parking isn’t secure (even though they charge $70 a month for a space).

I didn’t actually think the parking thing was going to be a problem. After all, I drive a beat-up, 2004 Prius. What could go wrong?

What I didn’t expect was for my car to be prowled twice in the first two months (the only thing they got was an old broken laptop – what, aren’t my Billy Joel CDs worth anything?). It was a little disconcerting, but I shrugged it off. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that there was a medical marijuana dispensary directly across the alley from my building. I was relieved when the shop closed down in early July. (It was immediately torn down, probably to make way for another expensive new apartment building.)

What I REALLY didn’t expect was what happened over the weekend… when a young couple started bedding down in the parking spot directly behind mine. That’s them in the picture.

I’ve definitely seen homeless people hanging around in the alley behind my building, which the parking area abuts. They’re usually quietly going through the dumpsters. I just chalked it up to being part of the deal when living in the U-District. Of all people, I should understand. Mostly, I ignored them and they ignored me.

(For some reason, I don’t feel the same comfort level in stopping to talk to them as I do with the people hanging out near the Safeway. In this situation, it would feel more like I’m asking them what they are doing.)

But somehow, this is different. These two people are on my property, in a way. It would be like if you owned a home and people started sleeping in the street right in front of your house, next to your car. (In fact, I know someone who lives in a van parked on a Seattle residential street, so that scenario is actually quite real.)

The first time I saw them was about 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I was getting into my car to head to a friend’s house. I almost pulled away, then stopped the car and got out. I walked up to them and said, “Excuse me. I just wanted to let you know that I volunteer at a youth shelter near here. It’s called ROOTS. If you’re between 18 and 25, you can stay there.” (I don’t know how old they are, but it looks like they probably fit the age range.)

At first they ignored me, but finally the guy (without opening his eyes) murmured, “No, we don’t stay at ROOTS.” His (I presume) girlfriend snuggled up closer to him. I didn’t know what else to say, but finally I blurted, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to be able to stay here very long.” And then I drove away.

I thought maybe it was a one-time thing, but I saw them again the next morning in the same place. Later I saw two guys hanging out in the spot during the day, their stuff piled next to them. Once it appeared that one of them was brushing his teeth. He seemed to be saying something to me, but I had the windows rolled up and the music going in the car, so I just kept backing out and ignored him.

Tonight, five days later, there was one person sleeping there. This is starting to become a permanent thing, apparently. (Maybe they are paying $70 a month for a spot, just like me?)

So, my question is, what do I do? Do I try to talk to these people? (They are usually asleep, or at least trying to, or feigning it.) Do I report them to my building manager? (Surely someone else has already done so, or she has seen them herself, since she lives here too. But they are still there.) Do I call the cops?

And if I do report them, am I being a hypocrite? After all, I’m the guy who is always talking about treating the homeless as real people, deserving of compassion and respect. Complaining to the manager or calling the police doesn’t really square with that stance. (And if the cops do come and remove the couple from their spot, they’ll probably just end up sleeping somewhere else nearby. Perhaps out in the open, in a less safe space.)

And why do I not feel comfortable talking to them, and seeing if I can help? Maybe bring them some food, or just lend an ear?

Is it because they are so brazen? Because they project an attitude of, “Leave us alone”? Is it because they are younger than me, and bigger? Or do I somehow subconsciously believe that if I ignore them, they’ll disappear?

Or maybe… maybe it’s because they aren’t just hanging out on the corner, or in front of the Safeway or another business. This has become personal. It’s an encroachment, hitting me where I live – literally too close to home. I think that’s the most likely explanation.

And so I walk by the sleeping figure one more time, unlock the door, and head into my apartment. Where I sit, writing, and wondering if the homelessness crisis in this city is just going to keep getting worse. And worse. It seems that way. And your neighborhood could be next.

Aging Out (Luther)

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About a month ago, as I was walking by Safeway one morning on my way to work, I passed by this well-dressed young man leaning up against the building. I stopped, because he looked very familiar. I looked closer. It was Luther.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s his name. It’s probably not. The fact is that even though I volunteer at the ROOTS youth shelter every Saturday night, I cannot remember every guest’s name. There are up to 45 young people who spend the night at ROOTS, and the cast of characters can change regularly, so I’ve probably come into contact with at least 100 different young people during my 18 months volunteering at the shelter. Since I’m not very good with names to begin with, I frequently blank the names of both staff/volunteers and guests. No disrespect intended (the kids are pretty cool about this). But I’ll call him Luther here, just for the sake of identification.

I definitely recognized Luther as a regular ROOTS guest. He’s a pretty quiet guy (one reason I couldn’t remember his name – you tend to remember the ones with outsized personalities who will talk your ear off). He kept mostly to himself. I never heard anything of his story – and every young person that finds themselves sleeping on a mat on a hard church basement floor has a complicated story of some kind. If you’re lucky, they might tell it to you, but most don’t. At ROOTS, all we ask is that a guest have a legal ID, be between ages 18 and 25, and follow the standard rules for shelter behavior. They are the keepers of their story, just as every one of us is.

So I stopped to chat with Luther. I mentioned ROOTS. He said that it was his birthday, and that he was turning 26. “I aged out,” he said softly.

ROOTS provides a safe place to sleep for hundreds of young people every year who have nowhere else to go. But it can’t serve everyone. On many nights (but not all) there are more people seeking shelter at ROOTS then there are spaces available (45 is the max), and a lottery is held to determine who gets in that night. (The rest are referred to other youth shelters in Seattle, given blankets and/or bus tickets, and sent out into the night.)

In January, the annual One Night Count was performed to tally up the number of people sleeping unsheltered in King County. This year, just over 4.500 people were counted. Their ages are not recorded, but obviously a certain percentage of those people are going to be between the ages of 18 and 25. The need – the problem – is staggering.

But ROOTS serves young people, and it has to have limits. So if you are 17, you can’t stay at ROOTS (no doubt because of legal issues surrounding minors). And no matter how long you have been at ROOTS, whether you have somewhere else to stay or not, the day you turn 26 you can’t stay at ROOTS anymore.

During my 18 months at ROOTS, I’ve come to know several of the guests pretty well. They are great people — bright, friendly, fun. I recently found out that three of these young men are 25 years old. One of my favorites is a guy who calls himself Blue, probably for his favorite color and not his mood, as he is as lively an individual you are likely to meet. Last Saturday, one of the staff said that Blue was having his 26th birthday in a few days… so I wouldn’t be seeing him again in shelter.

We’ve bumped into each other before around the U-District, however, so when I said goodbye and gave him a hug he said, “Oh, I see you all the time.” That made me feel good, that maybe it wasn’t really goodbye, that I would see him again. But hopefully he will find housing somewhere, so if I don’t, I’ll choose to think it’s for that reason.

I know that when a guest at ROOTS turns 26, they always give them a birthday cake as a going-away “celebration.” So there’s that. Still, I find it sad that in this case, the birthday is probably not a really happy occasion. Coincidentally, my daughter will turn 26 this year. For her, however, it won’t mean that she loses access to a welcoming place that offered her food, shelter, friends, respect… even love. She’ll still have shelter that night.

So, anyway… on this particular morning, I complimented Luther on his coat and wished him a happy birthday. Then I walked away. I haven’t seen him since.

Maurice Young, Activist

 

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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.

DH: Why??

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?

MY: Yes.

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.

MY: Right.

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]

 

The Power of a Photograph

guy at safeway

I had an interesting experience this morning. Passing by the Safeway, I saw a man sleeping at the corner of the building (a spot that is frequently filled by a street person asking for money, or just sitting there). I decided to take his picture for my blog. You couldn’t see his face, which was covered by a blanket. I felt a little self-conscious, but did it anyway.

As I was taking the photo, a young guy tapped me the shoulder. He politely asked me if I could ask the man’s permission before taking his photo. I said that I didn’t want to wake him up, and that you couldn’t see who he was anyway. The guy nodded and continued into Safeway, throwing back over his shoulder, “His [the sleeping man’s] name is ____, by the way.”

He was making the point that the man was a person, not just a random homeless guy that we can walk by and ignore, or take a “tourist” photo of (Exhibit A: “Seattle Homeless Person”). I didn’t catch the name that he said, so I followed him into Safeway to ask him to repeat it. I also wanted to thank him for making a good point. I appreciated what he said, and how he said it. But he disappeared down an aisle and I decided I needed to get to work.

I was inspired to start writing about and working on homelessness issues in Seattle because I was tired of, angry about and depressed by seeing the same thing every morning for months – a person sleeping the doorway of a church (in the dead of winter) as I walked by on my way to work. So one day I took a picture, posted it on Facebook, said that this was UNACCEPTABLE in a booming city in the richest country in the world. And that was the start of it. That photo and experience led to a lot of work on my part about this scourge (volunteering at a local youth shelter, serving on the board of Real Change), and a lot of words written. These pictures mean a lot to me. They tell the story of these people better than my writing ever could.

This touches on an issue I’ve always been a little hesitant about. I’m not sure if taking someone’s picture when they are sitting or lying on the street is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, it could be considered an invasion of their privacy, especially if you plan to put it on a public forum like Facebook, or a personal blog. Even if you don’t use their full name, you are kind of broadcasting their homelessness. Exposing them.

On the other hand, we know a picture is worth a thousand words, and I believe that’s particularly true in this case. I can write all I want about the homeless people that I encounter on the streets of Seattle. But actually seeing a photo of this person – their clothes, their face, their sign asking for money (if any) – brings their humanity to light in a way that words simply can’t. I’m sure there’s even been research done about how a different part of our brains are affected by visual images versus print. (As a writer by trade, I’m not exactly happy or encouraging of this point of view, but I admit it anyway.)

And I’m only using these photos to raise awareness of the issue, to change people’s minds or motivate them to help in any way they can. So I would argue it is important, and makes a small difference in attacking this large and troubling problem we face as a society.

Another testament to the power of photographs: There’s a Seattle nonprofit called Facing Homelessness that does incredible work, both in serving the homeless directly (soliciting donations for individual needs and giving out clothing and other items) and in raising awareness of this epidemic in our society. One of the ways they do this is to publish powerful black-and-white images of individuals and families experiencing homelessness. I strongly encourage you to check out their website (http://www.facinghomelessness.org/) and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HomelessInSeattle/?fref=ts).

Their founder and director, Rex Hohlbein, is a very inspiring speaker. He has a great story about how connecting with a single homeless person outside his architecture office in Fremont a few years ago changed his life, and led to his founding this organization and dedicating himself to this work. You can watch his Ted Talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dpanM1yPbk

So here’s how I go about handling the photo issue. If the person is sleeping, I don’t disturb them. I sometimes take a photo of them, but in such a way that you can’t identify the person (can’t see their face). If they are awake, I always talk to them – ask them their name, how they are doing, what they think about the weather or the Seahawks, whatever comes up. After the conversation, I sometimes (not always, kind of depends on the rapport we have or how I feel in general) ask them if I can take their picture. Often I compliment their sign (if any) and ask if I can take a picture of it, and they are usually proud and happy to oblige. Of course, I would never take their photo if they appeared doubtful or flat-out denied permission. I would totally understand that reaction, and respect it.

What I don’t do is ask if I can put their picture on Facebook or my blog. Perhaps I should. It would feel a little awkward and formal, creating a distance, breaking the rapport we’ve established. It would turn me more into a reporter, rather than someone who cares about them. I definitely would never post these on a general news site, popular website or program materials without getting their permission (I’m sure Rex has to get a signed release). I also don’t use them to raise any money or promote specific causes or events in any way. I do it simply to put a face with a name, a face on this problem of rampant homelessness in our community. But still, it remains kind of an open issue for me. I welcome your thoughts.

Dan

I haven’t written any stories about the poor and homeless I encounter on the streets of the U-District in a long time. Work has been crazy. And since I just moved into the neighborhood, I have been meaning to write a post. (I had been priced out of Greenwood when my apartment building recently was purchased by a large developer. Gotta love Seattle in 2016.)

As if on cue, I encountered Dan outside Safeway this morning. As his sign indicates, he’s 62 years old and needs help.

When I said hello, he immediately launched into his story. He hasn’t seen a dentist in years and has major dental problems. He said he need about $1,000 worth of work, but doesn’t have insurance. I asked about Medicare, and he said he has it, but it doesn’t cover dental or vision – he has an issue with his glasses too. Teeth issues are a common and major problem for the poor and homeless – it’s hard to focus on getting (or keeping) a job, or taking care of your children, or anything if your mouth is constantly in pain.

One way to numb that pain, if you can’t afford to pay for expensive dental work, is legal or illegal substances. But that’s a topic for another post.

He continued to talk about his issues, explaining that he traced his dental problems to poor treatment by an orthodontist. I mentioned that sometimes they have free clinics providing dental work for the uninsured, but he said that he needs multiple visits to get major work done, so a one-time clinic visit wouldn’t help.

He also said he had a lawsuit going against the UW Medical Center for some poor (or rejected) treatment he received there. “I have the best lawyers in the country – I’ll be a millionaire soon.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or he really believed it. Maybe that hope kept him going.

In the meantime, he asked me for a dollar (in exchange for a picture – but I would have given him the dollar even if he had refused a photo). I loved his two signs, which showed a mix of discouragement (“Poor, disabled, 62, not much else to do”) and a positive outlook (a checklist reading “a bit of change? A dollar? a sandwich? Love? Thanks, Dan”).

I shook Dan’s hand, wished him luck, and gave him a buck and a granola bar I had in my bag. Then I walked the rest of the way to work.

 

 

Dan

 

Just Like Old Times at the Safeway (Return of Carrie)

 

It had been awhile since I’d swung by the U-District Safeway on my walk to work. Sometimes I just don’t have the positive energy for it. But today I was feeling pretty good, and I wasn’t too late for work, so I diverted a block to the east and walked down Brooklyn Street.

I am so glad I did.

At the north corner of the building, where a little cutout makes for a convenient hangout spot, I ran into an older black guy in a Bulls hat (and as he proudly showed me when I asked about it, a Bulls t-shirt too). We chatted about the team for a minute. He said his name was Lionel. I gave him a granola bar and wished him a good morning.

(One thing I love about being a sports fan is that when you meet another fan, you instantly have something to bond over and discuss. I can converse knowledgeably on just about any American sport you can name (don’t know much about hockey), plus details about soccer players from around the world. All I have to do is know your sport and your team (or just where you went to college), and we can have a fairly impassioned conversation in a few minutes – and everyone goes away happy. Sports are fun. Sports are not like life. Life, as the M. Scott Peck book says, is difficult. But I digress.)

Fifty feet further down the sidewalk, sitting rather morosely in front of the store’s sliding doors, was Jason. (For some reason I want to call him Matthew every time. Don’t know why, he just looks like a Matthew. And I’ve always been bad with names.) I’ve talked to Jason dozens of times at this same spot or very nearby. Jason is in his mid-30s, with a scraggly beard and the reddened face of the chronic alcoholic. I’ve come across Jason sitting on the sidewalk cradling a six-pack at 8 a.m., looking quite content. He told me he’s been hospitalized in the past for stomach issues that are probably related to drinking. Alcoholism and drug addiction is a disease that kills people.

I chatted with Jason for a few minutes, told him to have a good one, then moved on.

Another fifty feet down the block I saw a familiar-looking couple standing at the corner of the store. I looked at the woman. I blinked. It was Carrie.

I’ve written about Carrie a number of times before on this blog (. Carrie is a cheerful white woman in her mid-30s. Carrie is from Denver – a proud Broncos fan. Carrie is a big Star Wars buff. Carrie is a mother of two kids who she doesn’t see much. Carrie is an addict. Carrie is on the streets.

I hadn’t seen Carrie in at least six months. She disappeared from the area in late summer. Her companion Carlos told me at the time that she had been hospitalized with gastrointestinal problems, and that he had lost track of her when she moved to a different hospital. Carrie and I were supposed to go see “The Force Awakens” together in December – had made a pact to do so, in fact. Then she was gone. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. And suddenly, unexpectedly, here she was.

I was really glad to see her, and told her so. I asked about her illness. She said she’d been in the hospital for almost two months with cirrhosis of the liver. She knew it was from drinking, and said she’d been sober almost six months, but then drank again a few weeks ago. I asked her why and she just mumbled something. But I know the story — I know how hard sobriety is. There’s a reason why people compare alcoholism with insanity.

I asked her where she was living. She said she usually stayed in a local church shelter, but sometimes they got kicked out if someone violated the rules. She sounded a bit discouraged, and tired.

Switching to happier topics, I asked her if she’d seen the movie yet. She smiled and said she saw it a month after it came out, but was dismayed that “nobody clapped at the end.” She said she was shocked by the [SPOILER ALERT] death of Han Solo in the movie, and that she really liked it overall. I said that I felt like the movie was a bit too predictable and essentially a remake of the first one. Now I wish I had just shared her typical enthusiasm – it’s more fun that way. Stop being so critical, David.

I also wish I had asked her about the Super Bowl – she must have been elated by the Broncos’ victory. But I was a little bit stunned at seeing her again, and forgot.

Carrie didn’t look so great – some of the light had gone out from her eyes. She had a scarred upper lip. She didn’t have the same smile, the same laugh, the same joy. I gave her a hug, told her how happy I was to see her, told her and Carlos to have a great day. And then I walked away.

 

force awakens

The One-Night Count (Written 11/8/14)

[NOTE: This is an old Facebook post I wrote in 2014 that I recently rediscovered and posted here on the blog. The 2016 One-Night Count just happened a few weeks ago, and (as everyone expected) the number of homeless in King County continued to soar — up almost 20 percent overall from 2015. I’ll write more about this soon; it was a bit heartbreaking and discouraging to write about it when it went down.]

Every year in January, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness does a One Night Count. Volunteers go around the city/county and count the number of people they find sleeping either on the street or in their cars (the unsheltered homeless). Here are the results from January 2014:

– 3,117 people had no shelter in King County, a 14 percent increase from the previous year..

– 2,392 unsheltered homeless people were counted in Seattle, with about a third staying in cars or trucks. One Night Count does not include those staying in shelters or transitional housing.

Yep, this problem is getting much worse (and pretty much has been every year) despite the lip service that we as a city/county/society keep paying to “eradicating homelessness.” It’s kind of hard to fight the growing rich poor gap in this city and elsewhere, the loss of manufacturing and other good-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree (or advanced degree). Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to skyrocket in Seattle, with rents rising steadily, forcing people out of their homes. We also haven’t built a lot of subsidized housing in the last decade (budget cuts, city bureaucracy, and lenient laws on set-asides and affordable housing requirements).

And of course, there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds for everyone homeless. Those that do exist are sometimes dangerous. And many shelters won’t take couples or families, so these people must choose between a bed for the night and staying with their loved ones.

But we keep building expensive condos and brand-new apartment buildings, don’t we? That’s the free market. That’s the “winners and losers” America you and I live in. We made that — we elected the leaders.

The people that have full-time work at Microsoft, Google, Amazon, UW (where I work), and the city/county/state governments might struggle a bit (or not) but they will be fine. They will have a roof overhead.

But more than 3,000 people in the county at last count (a count that is probably much lower than the actual count — people don’t exactly like to be found and counted when they are homeless and living on the margins).do not. They are living on the streets of our city through the cold winter days and nights.

They have been cast aside by us and forgotten. They are most definitely not fine. And it’s getting colder by the day out there.

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/today/2014/01/annual-count-finds-14-percent-more-homeless-in-king-county/

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2023011180_apxhomelessstudents.html

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020212893_apwabodyfoundseattle1stld.html