The Shanty Towns of Seattle

It seems as if it is one of those things that has been around forever in Seattle and in all of America,seemingly ignored but always in front of us; the plight of the homeless. But in recent years the issue has grown in visibility throughout my home town of Seattle. This despite a booming economy that has been a developers dream. Has led to a huge influx of new people to the city (Seattle is now in the top ten cities in America in terms of population density).  It has created the cyber center of the digital universe in Amazon. We are calling ourselves “The Cloud” capital of the technology sector.  It has a vibrant start-up community.  Real estate values through the roof, back to where we were before the financial meltdown.  The median price of a house in Seattle is at $533,000 and not going down anytime soon. Seattle is a billionaire playground of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen etc..Yet despite all this new wealth when I drive down I-5 and look to the divide between the freeways I see small enclaves of tents, accompanied with a lot of filth strewn around the encampment.  Even as our city grows with new development, hand in hand it seems the number of impoverished tent communities has increased as well. Littering any empty available space and creating a new open wound on the city, maybe bringing us back to earth from our lofty heights.

You see the homeless faces at every freeway off ramp.  In ragged clothing, usually looking as if bathing is a foreign concept.  Many times nearby is in encampment.  They have some creative signs, some not so creative.  All asking for any money you may have. From a drivers perspective as you pull off the freeway and up to the stop light you make a conscious effort to not make eye contact.  Sometimes you see the same face often enough you begin to recognize them, though never on a personal level. There are gimmicks, like the wheel chair.  The I ran out of gas idea has been tried and proven. Homeless veteran is used so often I am not so sure that any are veterans, but then I feel guilty for thinking that, as some surely are.  In the end you just become numb to their existence.  Man kinds worst problems are the ones you grow accustomed to.

As you drive north or south along I-5 you see on the side of the freeway, in between the freeway and under the freeway a lot of encampments.  Tents clumped together, clothing hanging out on shrubs and small trees.  There is garbage everywhere around them.  For as clean a city as Seattle tries to be there are these pockets of filth all over the city.  The worst part is there seems no solution in sight.  The numbers seemingly just increase. The reasons unknown.  Some of these shanty’s have names, like “The Jungle”,  There are always people there loitering around.  Seattle’s drug problems are not hidden, but out in the open.  It is like Switzerland’s failed attempt of creating a needle park in Zurich (Platspitz Park), minus the clean needles.  The only difference is no vote was taken and no government official endorsed it.  But with a blind eye we all accept it.

Seattle has the fourth largest homeless population in the US, behind New York, LA and Las Vegas.  The first two not surprising given just their sheer size. I would guess as a percentage of population Seattle is far greater.  It seems weekly in our local news there is discussion and debate about these tent cities.  The number if homelessness is increasing rapidly.  In a count recently the number of people sleeping outside has risen 19% year over year to 2,942 (luckily the winters have been fairly mind the last several years).  Many claim a local zip code as their last address (recent survey had 84%, but 30% refused to respond). We have tent cities that have sprung up throughout the town.  These ten cities pop up in church parking lots where they will stay for three months, call these people urban Bedouins.  Moving from parking lot to parking lot, from Seattle neighborhood to neighborhood.  In almost all instance sparking an outcry from local inhabitants. Seattle Mayor Murray announced a state of emergency for the homeless.  He designated three locations for  homeless housing, they are not really houses but shacks made by the same company you would by a shed for your backyard.

The areas designated are in three distinct areas of Seattle: Ballard, Interbay and the Rainier Valley.  It seems an effort to centralize our homeless problem, while providing shelter for those in need.  Visiting the encampment at Interbay, you first notice that is hidden from view down a side street.  It sits in a vacant lot in the middle of an industrial area.  It does not have any structures, but is a cramped mass of tents and blue tarps. There are people mulling about in the camp, but it seems calm (I was there at around noon).  It seemed I think many people would like it to be, you do not know it is there.  In contrast the location in Ballard is right on Market Street, the main drag in the community.  Better yet it is right next to the Old Sloop Tavern.  Convenient?  The encampment had several sheds that were tall and narrow along with tents and tarps. Signs were hung on the fence surrounding the shelter saying “Velkommen til Ballards”, a tribute to Ballard’s Scandinavian heritage and “Nickels-ville”a tribute to our former mayor.  The activity here was not as encouraging.  A man walking in the middle of the street.  Another group of three with one rolling around on the ground, pants half down, drunk.  A group mulling around the entrance of a small market store. all in all not a very pleasing social scene. The third encampment is in south Seattle, near the Othello transit station.  Like the others it was a vacant lot and the city provided some basic shelter.  One nice thing is all the shelter were painted in soft tones, color can enhance anything. The light blues, reds and yellows made it seem more livable.  Like the first one in Interbay you did not notice a lot of activity.

Next to my house not 200 feet away we had a tent city at the local church.  We were told just a few weeks before it was due to arrive in the fall of 2015.  We were invited to the church to hear from the church leaders, a community rep for tent city, and the citizens of this tent city.  The one we had was a smaller tent city with less than 30 inhabitants. We met at the church one evening and were greeted by the pastor. The a man who worked in helping locate and set up tent cities.  There were rules, you paid $1 per day to stay in tent city.  Daily cleanup around tent city, so local residents did not notice accumulation of garbage on the streets.  In short it was run like a commune. Some of the residents spoke and they seemed nice enough and willing to talk with us.  One was Filipino who had served in the Gulf War and said when he got back things did not work out so well and life just fell off the rails.   They were designated to be there for three months with an option for four.  Time passed quickly.  We did have one family, it looked like a father with two young children .  He would walk them to school each day we would see them as we walked our youngest to school as well.  And then one day they were all packed up and gone.

With all these efforts to provide housing what has not come to the forefront is how do we provide help to those in need and not just a handout, but actual help.  These can cover a lot of categories.  Some have serious substance abuse issues, others suffer from mental issues, and then there are those where life simply fell off the rails and need help getting back on their feet, some job training or educational opportunities.    What originally welfare was intended to do.  Get people back on their feet.  It is complicated as some of these discussions go beyond homelessness.  Mental illness seems to find its way into gun rights issues and rightfully so when you consider the number of mass shootings that have taken place in the United States. Homelessness was also due to the financial crisis we weathered, as people bet beyond their means.

I have grown up in the Seattle area and I have seen prosperity that is the envy of the world.  We have 4 people listed in the top fifty wealthiest in the world, with a combined net worth of around $160 billion.  One of the highlights of the holiday season was all the Christmas lights on all the building cranes downtown, and there were many.  Yet despite all these indicators of success we are a city with a wounded soul, as in our good intent we have seemingly failed those at the bottom of societies hierarchy.  We have worked to provide shelter, one of Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs, but much more is needed if we are to make our city whole again.  I know we will never fully solve the problem, the sad reality is that some of the homeless are simply beyond help, but even for them we need to provide some level of comfort. To make existence tolerable.  Global warming has made for mild winters and therefore we have not heard of people freezing to death.  We have a gaping wound in our city that we have been slow to bandage, we have taken action but only time will tell if it is enough.  In the meantime we shall watch our wounds grow and all be lesser for it.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 29, 2016

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