As you prepare to eat a nice warm meal on this Thanksgiving day (provided you’re are able to overlook the disturbing colonial overtones of this holiday), and whether you’re spending the day with family or friends or all alone, I hope that you remember to count your blessings, dear reader. I know I’m making a lot of assumptions about your circumstances, but the fact that you have access to the internet tells me that, like me, you’re a lot better off than many people are.
I’d like to tell you about someone who doesn’t have it as good as we do. As I write this, she’s sorting through garbage in a ditch, not 20 yards from where I sit. Perspective.
Here at work, I spend a great deal of time watching the comings and goings of the people who cross my drawbridge. After doing this for a while, I began to spot patterns. I’ve learned people’s routines. I’ve created backstories about them in my head, which, admittedly, are quite likely inaccurate, but it helps me feel a certain kinship with these people, even though they probably don’t even know I exist.
In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing quite a bit of someone that I’ll call “Bridge Woman”. I considered calling her “Drainage Ditch Woman”, but that seems undignified. And she needs all the dignity she can get.
I suspect that this woman is mentally ill and/or homeless. She spends hours on the bridge approaches, sitting on the curb that separates the sidewalk from the bike lane. She is completely engrossed in the detritus that flows down the drainage ditch. It’s as if she is panning for gold. She doesn’t even look up when someone goes past.
She sorts through the gunk, sifting out little bits of God-knows-what, and puts those things in what she deems to be their proper place. Some things are placed on the sidewalk, some on the curb, and apparently some things don’t pass muster and are returned to the ditch. I’ve tried to figure out her method of categorization, but I’ve yet to succeed.
She doesn’t do anyone any harm, and it is, after all, a public sidewalk, and she’s far enough away from the part of the bridge that moves to be safe, so I let her be. And I’m painfully aware that her odds of continuing to “be” are a lot higher when she sits on this bridge and quietly organizes away. Here, she’s relatively safe. No one hassles her. No one influences her or takes advantage of her vulnerability. If anyone tries to hurt her, there are witnesses. I strongly suspect that these things can’t be said about the rest of her days or nights.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, women comprise only 29 percent of the homeless individuals (as opposed to families) in this country. This means they’re greatly outnumbered in most places. Women who are unsheltered have a much higher risk of premature death, mainly due to mental health and chronic health issues. And, “The rates of victimization and assault, including robbery, physical abuse, and sexual assault are much higher for women than men.”
An article entitled, “Rates of violence against the homeless are worse than you think” spells it out in upsetting detail. It also contains a link to a comprehensive report entitled, “Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness which details stats from 2016-2017.”
Here are some of the statistics from the article and that report that jumped out at me:
- Life expectancy for someone who is homeless is 20-30 years less than the general population.
- About 13,000 American homeless people die on the streets each year.
- 1 in 3 homeless people have been deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence, including having things thrown at them. Some are urinated on, intimidated or threatened, or verbally abused or harassed.
- While 1-3% of the general youth population report sexual assault, 21-42% of homeless youth have reported sexual assault. 1 in 3 teens are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of living on the street.
- 1 in 3 homeless youth engage in survival sex.
- The experience of violence in the lives of homeless women: A research report, showed that 78.3% of homeless women in the study had been subjected to rape, physical assault, and/or stalking. Those who experience such assault while homeless also lack access to legal, medical and mental health services, which can worsen the post traumatic effects of the experience.
- The report also briefly focused on Seattle, my city, by saying, “many cities do not often provide free public restrooms that are easily accessible. For example, Seattle, which has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S, only had one functional 24-hour restroom, downtown, as of 2015.”
Homelessness is a rough life for anyone, but it’s even more so for women. So when I see Bridge Woman organizing garbage in the ditch, oddly enough I’m happy she’s there. Yes, I would like much more for her, but given the current state of the world, I think that that ditch is probably a safer place than many of her current societal alternatives. It makes me sad, but I genuinely believe that it’s true.
As winter approaches, and the cold, raw, Seattle weather settles in for the duration, I worry about Bridge Woman. I’m relieved to see that she now has warm clothing and good shoes, and she looks clean enough that she would blend in with the general population if only she were not so focused on the task at hand. I assume that she has been in contact with someone who cares, at least, either personally or professionally.
I hope her situation improves even more.
It probably won’t.
When the ditch is flooded with icy water, she may not enjoy her project quite as much. She’ll most likely choose to pass her time elsewhere. I hope that she continues to find safe places, ideally places that are warm and dry, where she won’t be hassled, even if it’s only for a few hours a day.
Gazing out the window at her, I count my blessings and think that she deserves better. I wonder if people understand how much we have let this woman down, or if they think she gets more than she’s entitled to. I have no idea what she wants or what she can get. I hope she is loved.
At a bare minimum, I’d like to think that all but the most cold-hearted among us can agree that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe. I’m glad my bridge has provided her with that kind of respite, if only for a short time.
I hope, dear reader, that like me, you use this holiday to give thanks for all that is good in your life, rather than thinking back, with pride, on the wholesale theft of this continent and all the bloodshed that was required to rip it from the hands of the people who were already here. If so, then Happy Thanksgiving!
Gratitude should not require a holiday. But if you’re giving added focus to it on this day, please consider ordering my book, Notes on Gratitude. And happy Thanksgiving, dear reader. I’m so glad you’re here!