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.