It seems to be front and center in America, for some a daily struggle to survive and for some a thing to be shunned and shoved in a corner, out of sight and out of mind. Somewhere along the way in America it grew so it it no longer could be hidden. It greeted us every morning. In my hometown of Seattle it is a constant reminder of our failure as a society. Debates rage on in the city council on what can we do to help our homeless. How can we house? feed? Provide treatments that can help? How can we get people to a level where they can take care of themselves? We are asking the right questions, but questions without answers are just complaints. What we are also learning is there are different levels of being homeless and different reasons. One thing is clear and that is there are no easy solutions. It will take time and cannot simply be washed away.
In Seattle homelessness is a epidemic. It greets us everyday as we drive on the freeway, in the city and it branches out to the suburbs. As we gaze upon it there are common scenarios. A whole lot of trash and filth littered around the encampments . Usually accompanied in the litter are a lot of used needles. Sometimes nearby they defecate. The tents we throw away or donate to Goodwill can be found here. The people themselves wore torn clothes that are filthy, they smell horrible, usually of urine, They loiter about most of the day. At freeway entrances and off ramps asking for money, usually holding a cardboard sign with some plee or story begging for sympathy. Leaving it to the donor to decide if it is real or fake, most of the time these drivers are simply numb to its existence, having grown used to seeing it everyday. Becoming only more uncaring and disgusted as the number seemingly grows. The encampments they live in sometimes grow to be rather large, so large they may even get a name, like “The Jungle”. They are occasionally torn down, but in the end they just move somewhere else.
No matter where you walk the signs of the homeless are there staring you in the face. As you walk peer into a wooded area and you are likely to see a tent dwelling. Sometimes these dwelling are solo other times there may be 15-20 dwellings – tents in the woods, RV’s parked alongside the road. There are always a few people hanging around. In once instance I saw two men giving each other a clean shave the old fashioned way, with blade in hand. Sometimes there is ambition as a artist tries to sell some of his or her paintings. But in each landscape there is the over arching theme of hopelessness. The american dream has passed them by as if it never existed, to them it was a great white lie. We used to dream of owning a home but now it is just the right to survive.
One question with no answer is where do these people come from? Many are not local residents. Like so much of the globe however people are moving towards the big cities. Leaving small rural communities, where opportunity is dwindling. Real estate is booming and the American dream of owning a home is fading into the past. Rents are increasing and wages remain stagnant. In the book “Nomadland” many of the people are not suffering from homelessness but suffer from houselessness. They are usually over sixty and have given up on owning a home and all the expenses that come with it that they our challenged to meet. They turn their vehicles into homes on wheels and travel the land taking up work where they can. Some companies like Amazon even have programs to recruit them for seasonal work. A luxury of wealthy companies, pay them like dirt with no benefits and then sell it to them like they are the lucky few. These nomads are everywhere many of those filthy RV’s parked around town are Nomads. Many people you see suffer from some form of mental health issue, they need treatments and medication, but in a country of tax cuts for the wealthy programs need to be cut. We have a tendency in America to think if I do not benefit from it why should I pay for it. There is a downside to this view point.
Some argue that people come to big cities for the services they are able to provide the poor. In Seattle they do offer some housing, medical assistance, hygiene, restroom facilities etc..In addition there are volunteer services like food banks. These are fundamental service and do not offer the bigger picture service such as addressing mental health, substance abuse, job training etc..All these services need funding or donations, nothing is free. Everyone wants clean streets. But in an era where we all cry for less government this is one of the results, whether it be municipal government or federal governments, we feel they intrude on our lives. However there are some problems private industry cannot fix. The private sector works for profit and homelessness is not a profitable business. Government has always been called on when we have needs as people. But in an era where we are shrinking government finding the money to fund “big thinking” is near impossible. So the homeless continue to grow.
The problems we face did not happen overnight, it was decades in the making. White people seem to immortalize the 50’s in America as a golden era (if you were black you were under Jim Crowe). At the time labor unions were at their peak and manufacturing jobs provided steady work at a good wage with benefits and a pension plan. Then came the economists. Disciples of Adam Smith and the “invisible hand”, claiming the free market could solve all, for a price. Milton Friedman said it best, The only social responsibility a corporation has is to maximize profits”. Labor was expensive, we need to reduce. Along comes Harvard Prof Michael Porter and “Theories of Competitive Advantage” and off-shoring was born. Reduce Taxes which translates to cutting social programs, the people at the top are doing great, the rest not so much. Over time this sentiment grew and middle America seemingly began to die.
By this time we all know the data – we have put a system in place that allows the top 1% to excel to heights we have not seen since the early 1900’s when the Rockefellers, JP Morgans, Vanderbilts, etc..built empires of gold. Now they have been replaced by Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg etc..Living in realities which we can only dream. In the meantime the numbers at the bottom continue to grow. But rather than chip away at empires we go down the path of reinventing slums. Where we are today did not happen all of a sudden,. We have chipped away at social safety nets in search of the free market that will care for all, not realizing the free markets true god was Charles Darwin, which in the end cares for no one. The American crisis will continue to grow, but right now it is taking a back seat to other issues, like COVID-19. The solution will not happen overnight it will take time and money and is entirely dependent on the willand resolve of our citizens, but for now that desire to correct the wrongs of over a half-century does not exist, so we will ineth short term only see the problem metastasize until we have no choice.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Hoffmann August 16, 2021