Monthly Archives: May 2016

Aging Out (Luther)

luther

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

 

maurice young and me

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.