When I first moved to the Seattle area in the Summer of 2014, I was shocked by the sprawling, garbage-strewn homeless encampments that I saw beside the highway and under the bridges. I had never seen so many homeless people in my entire life. They were, and still are, everywhere in this city.
I kept asking myself why it was so extreme here as compared to Jacksonville, Florida, where I had lived for 30 years. I mean, let’s face it. The weather here is pretty horrible for most of the year. When I see people huddling in makeshift tents in this cold, damp, unforgiving climate, I can’t even begin to imagine what they’re going through. In Florida, on the other hand, you can survive in a tent. As a matter of fact, I did so for what seemed like an endless portion of my childhood.
The general population would love for homelessness to be a simple problem that would come with a simple solution. But there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people. Society wants to think that all homeless people are either schizophrenics or drug addicts who have brought their problems on themselves. They want to believe that they remain homeless due to a lack of ambition or an inherent laziness. People justify avoiding the beggars on the street corners by assuming that they are all either scammers or part of the criminal element, and that every one of them is out on the lunatic fringe and therefore potentially violent. Or worse yet, they are illegal immigrants that our politicians have convinced us are a disease-laden, dangerous scourge.
I have a theory that the vast majority of Seattleites are skirting on the edge of homelessness whether they care to admit it or not. The cost of living here is outrageous. According to Salary.com, it’s currently 35.7% higher than the national average. Granted, it’s cheaper to live here than it is in San Francisco, New York, or Washington DC, but that’s setting the bar rather high. The average mortgage payment in this town, according to this article, is $3014 per month. The median rent for a one bedroom apartment, according to this article, is $1850 per month, and you can anticipate a 24% increase in rent from one year to the next.
Suffice it to say that it takes a heck of a lot of money to keep a roof over your head in this town, and it takes even more money to plan for all contingencies. If you’re laid off because of the pandemic, you can sink into poverty almost instantly. If you have a catastrophic health condition that causes you to be unable to work, you are screwed. If a natural disaster strikes, or one of your family’s breadwinners unexpectedly dies, what then? The safety net in Seattle is much further away from your tightrope than it is in other communities, and the net is full of holes. Don’t even think about falling. You could very easily find yourself on the pavement along with so many others.
People in Seattle are getting so used to seeing homeless people that they barely even blink anymore. Yes, everyone says that “something has to be done” about them, and every now and then the city will sweep through a camp and throw away everything within it, leaving the people tentless and without even a change of clothing, but that’s quite obviously not a viable or humane solution.
There are no affordable housing options, and not enough hospital beds. The drug rehabilitation facilities are few and far between, and even when you can get in, their success rates are as abysmal as they are everywhere else in the country. There are a lot of high paying jobs here, but you have to be highly educated and trained in a very specific niche to get one, and now with the pandemic, everyone seems to be downsizing, and these plum positions are becoming harder to obtain. Expect to be faced with a lot of competition.
Another factor that makes Seattle’s homeless more evident than Jacksonville’s is that, crammed between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington as it is, Seattle is densely populated. There’s no room for expansion, and there are very few places for the homeless to “hide”. Jacksonville, on the other hand, is a large, sprawling berg where the cost of living is 7.4% below the national average, and there are plenty of open fields and forests.
That, and Jacksonville is very hostile to its homeless. The police have been known to drive them to the county line and dump them off there to walk the 20 miles in the blistering heat that it takes to reach civilization again. They also trash the encampments with annoying frequency, and they make sure all the park benches have arm rests every foot or so to prevent people from lying down. Even so, I’m now hearing from friends that homeless camps are increasing even there, and that makes me really sad.
Bottom line, though, is that all these people may not have homes, but they are fellow human beings, each with their own story. So many of us try to ignore them or avoid them that we tend to dehumanize them. That’s why I was thrilled to stumble upon the “You Know Me Now” website. Visit that site to hear some very poignant stories as told by the homeless people of Seattle. In the future, there will also be a podcast on this site, and I’m very much looking forward to that.
In the meantime, don’t avert your eyes. Look at your fellow humans. From the privacy of your warm, dry home, read their stories. If the 1 percent continue to refuse to allow people to have living wages, there will always be plenty of stories to read. Here’s hoping your story or mine will never need to be told there.
Stay safe. Get vaccinated. You can enjoy my book while you wait in line. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5