A few days ago I swung by the Safeway on the way to work and met a guy asking for change out in front. He said his name was Ted. He was probably in his 60s (sometimes it’s hard to tell with people that live on the streets, because they age so much faster than the rest of us). He was a little haggard and missing quite a few teeth, but he was a lively guy with much to tell me about being homeless.
I asked Ted if he had considered selling the Real Change newspaper, rather than just asking for money, but he objected to the policy of having to purchase the papers up front. He’d rather “be his own boss” by just straight up panhandling. (Random Aside: Why do they call it panhandling? You don’t ever see someone using a pan to ask for change.)
So I asked him where he slept. He said he had a pretty sweet setup about a mile away, on a greenbelt on the east side of Lake Union (“I have a nice view of the water,” he claimed). He said there are three tents there, including his, and whenever anyone else tried to move in, they have a standard story about how the DOT has a three-tent-maximum policy for that area. It seems to work, and nobody hassles them.
I asked Ted about Seattle’s growing number of tent cities for the homeless, but he dismissed that option: too controlling and “cliquish,” plus there are criminals hanging out in them. “I went there once and the first guy I saw was a sex offender,” he said. I remarked that of course they had to have rules and standards, and wondered if they did any kind of background checks on the residents. We agreed, however, that if they were too strict on the criminal background checks, very few homeless people would probably qualify to live there.
I asked about housing in the area, mentioning how the average rent in the U-District must be ridiculous with all the brand-new buildings opening up. He said that there are rooming houses in the neighborhood, but that he has been banned from most of them (all owned by one couple) because of his past as a heroin dealer. (He claims to be out of the business now – and nine months clean on Suboxone — but former customers kept coming around and rapping on his window, looking for a fix. When he moved to a different room, the users kept showing up, and the person that moved into his old room got sick of it. So he is no longer allowed to rent in any of those places.)
Ted also had some interesting anecdotes about sleeping under the freeway. One time he had a great setup under I-5 – two-room tent, king-size mattress, some good clothes, a bike, etc. Then he went to California to scatter his uncle’s ashes, and when he came back the DOT had completely cleared everything out and thrown it all away. The guys living near him in that spot hadn’t lifted a finger to save his stuff (I think he said they were “tweakers,” which apparently is another term for meth addicts).
He also talked about how some people actually built plywood platforms amongst the I-Beams under the freeway to live on. Do it yourself hi-rise condos. He also said he liked living under the freeway because it was a natural alarm clock – when the traffic died down you went to sleep, and when it started up again about 5 or 6 a.m., you woke up and started your day.
I thanked Ted for the interesting conversation, but said that I had to get to work. I gave him a buck, and walked away.