A recent morning’s New York Times newsletter had a piece about homelessness. This is a hot topic these days. We have a local problem with it and I’ve seen a lot of pieces about it here and there over the past few years. so, since our local paper hadn’t arrived yet, I spent a little time cogitating on homelessness.
Sitting on my little deck on a beautiful summer morning, I couldn’t help but feel empathy (I was almost in tears!) for those who don’t have a place to be. Most days I only leave my house and yard to walk the dogs, it is hard to wrap my mind around not having a safe place to be.
I do not have answers. Also, I look upon those who have answers, especially simple ones, with suspicion. This post is just an exploration, a reflection on experiences and things I have learned.
My rambling thoughts on homelessness
They started with this quote from the New York Times piece:
“Housing researchers use the example of musical chairs: Imagine there are 10 people for nine chairs. One person, weighed down by poor health, does not make it to a chair. Is the problem the person’s health or the lack of chairs?”
That struck me, because my first thought was both. But, upon further reflection, I realized someone would always be out of a seat, and there would always be a reason to rationalize that. The game is rigged to keep someone out. Even if everyone is healthy and wealthy, someone winds up without a house.
Is the current level of homelessness higher as a percent of the population than it has been in the past?
I live in Seattle, the site of the original Skid Road (Yesler in Pioneer Square), which has a long history of homelessness. The timber industry was brutal on workers. People lost limbs, then they wound up living, and begging, along the road where they brought the logs down to be shipped off. The Alaska gold rush brought more people who were down and out and looking for a chance. A lot of them never found it and wound-up living on the waterfront and in Pioneer Square. The Sleepless-in-Seattle famous, now shockingly expensive, houseboats on Lake Union were originally built (or, in many instances, cadged together) as informal housing by the down and out; a floating shanty town.
My dad, who worked for the Port of Seattle, reminisces about how in the winter time, people who fished or worked in canneries in Alaska during the summers would come down on the last barges and live on the streets near the waterfront during the winters. (I don’t have any data, but probably they still do.)
Within this historical context, I ask: is the current level of homelessness higher as a percent of the population than it has been in the past?
People have opinions on that, but I haven’t found actual data. Data may not exist, finding out about “dead beats” has rarely been seen as worth the effort. Casual observations aren’t sufficient to answer this question. People without homes shift around (people with homes do too, for many of the same reasons), sometimes because they are looking for a better place to be and sometimes because they are displaced. So, to cite a real-life situation in my city, seeing a bunch more homeless on 3rd Avenue might be an actual increase in homeless numbers, but it might instead be that they took down the viaduct, displacing those who were living under it. In other words, it could be an increase in visibility not numbers.
A broader view
During the history of the United States there have been migrations of people, both to this country and within it. Migration to the USA was, and is, often due to people being made unwelcome where they were. The settlers on the Oregon Trail and the Midwesterners from the dust bowl who moved to California are two examples of migration within the USA. How many of them were essentially homeless when they headed out?
When I heard a Bill Maher piece about a couple of young adults living in a van awhile back, I wondered: what choices did they have? Were they a bit like the gold miners who arrived to head out to the Klondike? Like the people heading out on the Oregon Trail? Seeking the modern-day equivalent of a gold mine or homestead: life as an influencer…and instead of what? Burger flipping for minimum wage? Uber driving?
Causes and solutions need to match
A fever can be a symptom of many things: a virus, a bacterial infection, heat stroke… While bringing down the fever is essential in all cases, the correct way to solve the underlying problem varies. Homelessness may be triggered by a sudden job loss, domestic violence, illness (physical or mental) that precludes working, a lack of job skills…or just not making enough money to afford rent!
The New York Times piece this morning really seemed to be saying that the fundamental problem is lack of supply (not enough chairs). They went through some history and I definitely see their point.
Yet, part of me thinks that it isn’t that simple.
I think that enough housing is necessary, but not sufficient to solve the problems.
Let me explain:
In our local paper not long ago, there was an article about a part of town they call “the blade”. I had no idea it was called that and I’ve been walking through that area on and off all my life!
One thing that came through to me in that article was that providing housing doesn’t simultaneously provide a community. Resources beyond housing are needed to help people move away from a familiar place where they know how to find what they need and form ways to stay in the new area. This TED talk about Housing First also illustrates this.
My limited experiences trying to help.
I categorize the approaches two ways: draining the swamp and fighting alligators.
Draining the swamp
Several years a go my church helped a program called the Homelessness Project by providing a residence (The Homelessness Project last I knew had changed its name and gone upscale with large amounts of funding from high tech companies). This was a program that provided interim housing combined with other services. Its premise was that each family (it focused on single parent families) had a unique set of circumstances and needed different things. As part of intake they interviewed and discovered what was needed then provide customized assistance. If someone just needed help getting a job, they got that, if they needed training or counseling same. They did not take in families that had needs beyond what they could provide. They couldn’t help everyone, but they really had success with those they did help.
After we were forced to sell our little house, we still desired to help with this need in our community and we looked into a couple of programs. I did not feel nearly as good about either of them, and many others shared my concerns. They seemed like they were going to be setups for failure. The reasons for my discomfort highlight some of the many logistical challenges in addressing homelessness.
They were both examples of well-intentioned simplistic answers.
One was called “Safe Parking”, it wanted to have businesses let people living in their cars stay the night in their lots. This sounds fine, yet I felt like it was missing the critical link: how to help people move on from living in their cars. The logistical challenge for us was that the location of our restrooms within the building made it impossible to provide access from where the parking lot was and we didn’t have a place to put sanicans.
Another was a men’s shelter group called “WHEEL” it stood (stands?) for something, but I can’t recall what. They really put a lot of pressure on us to just let them move in and start up, then work out the logistics. They never answered how they would handle the issues we raised: This program did not screen who would be sheltered and we were located beside a high school. We wanted to know how to talk with our community about the shelter. We wanted to know how they would deal with disruptive behaviors in our area. At their other shelters their discipline for misbehavior was to send the person to a bus stop, but the local bus in our area only ran for commuters and students getting to and from school. So, for example, someone who pulled a knife at one am would be at a bus stop (or wandering about in the neighborhood) until five o’clock in the morning under that model.
Starting a program that is bound to fail has more than just short-term consequences: it also reinforces a “Homeless are bad and there is nothing that can be done” attitude among people initially inclined to try and help.
Not all alligator fighters are bad:
We also used to help Operation Night Watch. This was (and perhaps still is) a very organized group that knew what they were doing and how to do it. They collected socks and made soup and went out in vans in the winter to provide a hot meal and clean dry socks to people. They also had a program to get people matched to shelter beds. We collected socks for them periodically and gave them bus tickets to get people to shelters (our city has an adopt-a-stop program that sends out bus tickets to people who adopt a stop).
Some additional random thoughts
Just “get a job” doesn’t work:
Seattle has a lot of summer jobs in the cruise industry. But that is the same time of year as the farmers need workers. Plus, in the winter we still have an inflow of lower income people from Alaska. So, in winter there are more people around and fewer jobs. This also means that more housing is needed during the winter.
Growth is a problem.
Our area is a magnet for people who want a nice life. The high-tech industry caused a lot of affluent people to move here, driving housing prices through the roof. People who have lived here forever are unable to afford housing…adding to the number of homeless. Often these people work, and have always worked. They’ve just been priced out of a place to live. FYI, that is one source of the car camping type of homeless. They can afford a car, but not a car and a house and they need the car to get to work.
For a while now we have also seen a surge of people who could live elsewhere but want freedom to be who they are and not be shot up by a bigoted red-necked-yellow-bellied-gun-sucker posing as a neighbor.
Just building more housing isn’t a panacea: our environment is fragile and the removal of tree cover has caused problems. Landslides due to vegetation removal and building too close to bluffs, higher temperatures on both land and in the Puget Sound, and poorer air quality are just a few of the dramatically noticeable changes.
Local solutions aren’t enough
I feel like homelessness should be addressed on a national level. If there is a hurricane or wild fire it displaces people, they may not come all the way to Seattle themselves, but they displace someone who displaces someone else…Eventually the number of homeless goes up everywhere.
Where could resources come from?
One question I ask myself when I hear the ubiquitous interview of a (small downtown, stadium area, waterfront) business owner ranting on TV is this: what we have today is what we paid for. How much is it worth to people to change that?