Talking Around the Problem: How Two Views of Homelessness Get It Right and Wrong

All day today, Seattle writers, media outlets, and advocacy groups will be talking online, using the hashtag #SEAHomeless, about the crisis of homelessness in our city in an effort to draw attention to a problem that can easily become background noise if we let it. As readers know, I’ve shifted my attention here at The C Is for Crank to cover homelessness, and especially the intersection of homelessness and addiction, more frequently, because I believe it is the central crisis at this time and in this city and that all conversations about affordable housing and urbanism and city-building are missing a key component when they don’t center the issues that make it next to impossible for thousands of our neighbors to secure safe, affordable housing.

Because the truth is, virtually none of the homeless and formerly homeless people I’ve met, nor the outreach workers who go out to offer help and make sure they’re OK, say that homeless people prefer to be homeless. I hear from housed people who resent the homeless for committing petty crimes or just being visible on our streets that “they just choose to live that way,” as if becoming housed is as simple as really wanting to get your shit together. They talk about forcing people into treatment or jail, or ordering them to just “go to a shelter,” as if beating addiction was just a matter of willpower, or as if living on a dirty mat on the floor without loved ones, pets, or possessions was a better option than camping in the woods, or as if life skills were things people acquired by just wanting them enough, or as if trauma didn’t exist. This leads, inevitably, to calls for city leaders to divide people experiencing homelessness into two separate and unequal groups: The “truly homeless” and those other ones. The former deserve dignity and assistance, the argument goes; the latter, scorn and jail cells. As someone who believes in the dignity of all people, including those whose addictions drive them to commit crimes, I reject this distinction; while people who commit crimes should be punished appropriately, homelessness itself is not a crime, and punishment that ignores root causes won’t solve the problems that lead to crime. Fundamentally: All homeless people are “truly homeless.”

With that in mind, I’m reposting a piece I wrote a few months back called “Talking Around the Problem: How Two Views of Homelessness Get It Right and Wrong,” which looks at ways to bridge the gap between people who believe homeless people just need more compassion, and those who think they need a swift kick in the teeth.

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In conversations about how best to “help the homeless,” we housed people steer down all kinds of mental cul-de-sacs to convince ourselves that nothing can be done. We blame policymakers for “just throwing money at the problem.” We tell ourselves that handing a buck to a shaking addict on a street corner will only enable him. We decide the problem is too big to manage but at least smiling and waving as we drive by a Real Change vendor is better than nothing, and absolve ourselves because we’ve acknowledged that person’s humanity. We mentally divide the homeless population into worthy and unworthy groups—the “deserving” who are just down on their luck and the “undeserving” who made bad choices—and tell ourselves we’d love to help the former, if only we could, but the latter should be left to fend for themselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways people on both sides of the compassion gap can fail to apprehend the problem of homelessness (and, especially, ugly homelessness, the homelessness of people with problems), after attending two events this past week that both centered on this question: What can we (housed people) do about the homeless?

Partly because each side defines the problem differently (are homeless people who lie, cheat, and steal victims who need our help, or nuisances to be “cleaned up”?) arrived at very different solutions–one focused on data collection and criminal justice crackdowns, the other focused on compassion and humanization. Having listened closely to both frustrated homeowners and well-meaning do-gooders, I’m convinced that both have essentially arrived at half the solution: The homeowners want someone else to provide housing and help (and force people on the streets to take it); the do-gooders think individual kindness will produce the necessary empathy to start talking about more substantive changes.

The first group is one I’ve written about quite a bit before: Organized, angry homeowners. Last Wednesday,  a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, made up mostly of homeowners from Ballard, Magnolia and Queen Anne, met at the Seattle Children’s Theater to rehash their grievances and demand that the city crack down on the homeless addicts they blame for a recent upsurge in property crime in their neighborhoods. (For the first time, they also invited a resident of South Seattle, a realtor named Damon Benefield who moved to Rainier Beach from Las Vegas two years ago, but he spoke for just two minutes, about violent crime, and neither he nor the issue of violent crime was addressed again. That’s him on the left in the photo below).

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Homeowners from about 10 neighborhoods stood on stage and enumerated their complaints, which ranged from concerns about “the drug epidemic that has made our way into our beautiful city” (tell that to the south end, or downtown Seattle circa 1985), to a mom who said her son moved to Oregon to escape from the dangers of Ballard High School, to the literally incredible claim from a Magnolia resident that  “in the last three months of this year, we’ve seen more crime than we’ve actually seen in the last five years.”

After the litany, representatives from city departments and SPD, including Chief Kathleen O’Toole, took the stage to reassure residents that their concerns about property crimes were real and that the city is taking them seriously. Assistant Chief Steve Wilske rattled off the number of RVs identified in Ballard, Magnolia, and Interbay, and assured Magnolia residents that they once they finished “chasing one RV around Magnolia” their neighborhood would be RV-free. He also noted that since the department had redirected officers from other areas to focus on North End property crimes, car prowls and other petty crimes were “down significantly” in that precinct—”much more so than citywide.” And he said SPD was trying to free up more officers to answer residents’ 911 calls more quickly—”When you call 911, I understand how important it is that you get an officer there very, very quickly,” he told the crowd.  (This weekend, Ballard residents who called 911 in response to an assailant at La Isla restaurant on Market St. waited more than 15 minutes for cops to arrive on the scene).

Next, the group brought out a couple of formerly homeless addicts who affirmed the reassuring belief that addiction is a choice, that tough love is the only thing that works, that addicted people should be forced into treatment or thrown in jail, and that any help for the struggling addict merely enables them in continuing to make poor life choices instead of mustering up the willpower to beat addiction. “Let housing happen after treatment,” one of the speakers, “intervention specialist” Rachel Angerman, told the crowd, which applauded enthusiastically for the strategy I’ve come to think of as “Housing Last.”

(Why do people who dismiss addicts in general as worthless “bums” who shouldn’t be given “handouts” embrace this odd, small subset of addicted people who advocate tough love? I think it’s because it validates their belief that if you work hard enough and do things the “right” way, bad things won’t happen to you—that addiction and homelessness are for the weak and selfish, not for  people who go to work every day and earned that roof over their heads. They’re wrong, which is self-evident to almost anyone who has worked with addicts or gotten an eviction notice on their door after depleting the last $1,000 in their savings, but for those who haven’t had either experience it’s easy to believe that you’re exempt.)

Finally, the keynote speaker, state Sen. Mark Miloscia, delivered a lengthy encomium praising the policing strategy of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, and arguing that “strengthening marriages and families” would end homelessness and addiction. Miloscia concluded by calling for tracking of all homeless people who seek services like food and shelter. “How can we accept people taking services and remaining anonymous?” the Federal Way Republican asked.

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Needless to say, all of this drives me—a bleeding-heart liberal, privacy advocate, and a person in recovery myself—bananas. I react viscerally to the notion of making food and shelter contingent on treatment, and the comments I see on places like Nextdoor suggesting that we let homeless people die in the streets if they “refuse to help themselves” make my eyes well with tears and my fists clinch in rage. I don’t care if a homeless person uses my $1 to buy drugs or a sandwich, and I believe fervently that you can’t reach someone if they’re dead, so the best thing to do is help and hope the suffering addict stays alive long enough to find his or her moment of clarity (and that help is available when they do). I don’t judge people for being addicted, and I don’t think there’s any point in “applying all the laws equally” when what that means is confiscating people’s only asset when they can’t move their RVs as often as a homeowner moves her Mercedes.

So it may come as some surprise that I recoil with almost equal force from suggestions that the only thing we have to do to solve the “homeless problem” is have more compassion—that if we just stopped demonizing our homeless neighbors and celebrated our shared humanity, the solutions would take care of themselves. Much as I believe that compassion and empathy are muscles too many people allow to atrophy, I’m also convinced that embracing the abstract principle of “compassion” too tightly can be just another way of talking past the problem.

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On Sunday, I spent some time discussing these individual solutions, at a $30-a-person “fireside chat” and “solutions dinner” at the Cloud Room, an exclusive, sleekly appointed event and coworking space at the Chophouse Row development on Capitol Hill. About 30 people, including Chophouse Row developer Liz Dunn, lounged on low-slung couches and divans, or sprawled on lush, cream-colored shag carpeting and watched a presentation by Rex Hohlbein, an architect who left his day job to document the lives of homeless people, a project called Facing Homelessness.

Hohlbein said he got the idea for Facing Homelessness when he met a former logger named Dinkus McGank, who was living on a bench outside Hohlbein’s office. Hohlbein began taking photos of McGank and other homeless people, and posting them on his Facebook page, a sort of Humans of New York for Seattle’s homeless.

Hohlbein’s thesis* was that the main thing people need to do for the homeless is see them as human. “When I see a Real Change vendor as I’m riding by on my bike, even if I don’t buy the paper, I always shout out, ‘I LOVE REAL CHANGE NEWSPAPER!'” Hohlbein said. He also suggested telling homeless people by the side of the road, “You have a beautiful smile.” His final suggestion–illustrated by a photo of a homeless mother and child, both beautiful and blond–was that the attendees ask themselves whether they’d allow this mother and child to live in a tiny house (conveniently, Hohlbein has designed a prototype) in their backyard. What if they could pay $450 in rent? What if the mom had been vetted to make sure she didn’t have a drug problem? Wouldn’t it help neighborhood kids to see homeless people as neighbors (albeit neighbors living in enclosures in people’s yards), and wouldn’t it help skeptics who think all homeless people are drug-addled derelicts to see that some of them are just be good people down on their luck?

Perhaps it’s obvious why this shit makes me cringe. If not, here’s my counterthesis, in brief: Homeless people aren’t zoo animals to be put on display to enhance housed people’s empathy and sense that they’re “doing something.” People with substance abuse problems and mental health issues are just as worthy as sober single moms who are down on their luck. And individual solutions not only absolve those individuals of advocating for collective, and specifically governmental, action, they do so at the expense of the vast majority of people in need. I could write an entire, separate post about how a project that relies on the individual largesse of people living detached single-family houses with yards can’t coexist with the immediate need to change our zoning laws and invest in dense, affordable housing in all parts of the city.

I’m not saying individual solutions can’t be inspiring. After brainstorming over a “participatory feast” of raw asparagus salad with pink lady apples, roasted vegetables with spring ramps, and lentils with cheese from Kurtwood Farms, the group offered plenty of ideas: Business cards for the homeless, so housed people would see them as more than faceless piles of laundry. An app to let Amazon know what items to deliver free to local shelters each wee. “Meet your homeless neighbors” dinners where housed and homeless could break bread together and celebrate their shared humanity. Campaigns centered on the plight of homeless children.

These are all fine ideas. (I especially appreciate the idea of having a dinner with, rather than serving dinner to, homeless community members). The problem is, then what? Do people who feel overwhelmed at the size of the problem buy absolution for the price of a tiny shed in their backyard? Does listening to your homeless neighbor’s problems over dinner in the park solve any of them? Does feeling sorry for a homeless child do anything for her addicted mother? At one point in the evening, because I’ve talked to homeless people as well as the outreach workers who work with them every day, I was asked what homeless people want. My answer was simple: “A home.”

This may seem obvious, but it isn’t: Not to the well-meaning technophiles who want to create an app for shelters to ask for diapers, nor to the tough-love homeowners who insist no one deserves any help with housing until they get their act together on their own. My sympathies lie with those who are at least compassionate, if a little clueless, because they’re more likely to see how close we all are to the edge, but neither they nor the I’ve-got-mine crowd are much more likely than the other to fix the problem.

More than once at the Cloud Room, I heard somebody lament that we keep “throwing money at the problem.” My response to that was: We’re going to have to throw a hell of a lot more money at the problem if we actually want to fix it—money for housing, first, then for treatment, job training, and mental health care for those who need it. Housing first doesn’t mean housing only, but it does acknowledge that when people have a roof over their head, they’re more likely to find it in themselves to take the next step, whether that’s taking a shower, getting in a job program, or checking in to detox and getting clean. Individual solutions won’t make any of this happen any more than individual complaining.

In other words, both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. The NIMBYs are right that we need systemic solutions; they’re wrong when they say the best response is for individuals to do nothing. The do-gooders are right that we all need more empathy; they’re wrong when they say the best response is individual action.  Solutions take money, time, and political will–not endless community gripefests or solutions-oriented brainstorming sessions.  I applaud anyone who at least wants to help, but I’d suggest their time would be better spent lobbying their representatives for more funding for housing and detox beds than on figuring out how each individual can do “their part” to solve a collective problem that must be solved collectively.

To that end, I will say that there’s one element of Sunday’s event I endorse

wholeheartedly: The dinner was a fundraiser for Mary’s Place, the city’s only shelter and day center for women and children. It raised $300.

*In fairness to Hohlbein, I’ve seen him shouted down at neighborhood meetings where residents were actively hostile to his idea of humanizing the homeless, so he’s more than willing to venture outside friendly spaces. The anger I’ve seen directed at Rex tells me that what he’s proposing–the idea homeless people are part of our communities–is still a radical idea.

5 thoughts on “Talking Around the Problem: How Two Views of Homelessness Get It Right and Wrong

  1. Before you use a quote from me that I posted on Nextdoor Loyal Heights, I suggest you put it in the proper context. It was referring to a psychopath that was breaking windows and threatening diners before he started cutting innocent people. My daughter and her friend were at this location less than an hour before this occurred. What if it is my child that is attacked next time, or yours, that is if you have children. I strongly suggest you either remove my comment or clarify exactly who I was referring to, Ms. Barnett. I especially love the part about this ‘poor’ guy being framed. Read this:

    By Seattle Times staff
    Originally published April 25, 2016 at 4:07 pm Updated April 25, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    A Seattle man accused of slashing two people with a shard of glass after breaking a window at a Ballard restaurant has been ordered held on probable cause for investigation of assault and malicious mischief.

    Ricardo A. Galvez, 22, is scheduled to appear for a bond hearing Tuesday at the King County Jail, according to Dan Donohoe, spokesman for King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

    Seattle police said Galvez was high on methamphetamine and PCP when he kicked in a plate-glass window at La Isla, in the 2300 block of Northwest Market Street, around noon Saturday. The window was valued at $1,000, according to an affidavit of probable cause that outlines the police case against Galvez.

    A 57-year-old woman and her 59-year-old brother were confronted by Galvez, who tried to stab the woman in the neck with a glass shard from the window, police said. The woman suffered a scrape on her throat, and a second cut on her left knee.

    Diners intervened and pinned Galvez to the ground until officers arrived and took him into custody at the scene. As he was being placed into a patrol car, he kicked an officer in the right shin, police said.

    According to police, Galvez told the arresting officers, “I didn’t do anything. I’m being framed. I want my dad and I’m being framed.”

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  2. Many have done work in the collective fashion trying to exact money that is their right and it hasn’t worked. Witness the teacher’s strike. Still legally mandated funds are not in budgets and children haven’t stopped aging on through those impoverished classrooms. They, their families and their communities are betrayed by the system approved method of lobbying. What else can you suggest?

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  3. Erica,
    You certainly have a talent for binaries and over-generalizations. There are many positions on homelessness and they don’t neatly fit into categories of homeowners and non-homeowners. Also, this country has had a homeless crisis for at least the past 35 years. It has reached unprecedented levels recently because of the dwindling away of the middle class and the dearth of a livable wage. You can thank our federal government for that and its adoption of neoliberal Reagan-era economic policies that ensure the capitalist class prospers and then expects local governments take care of the poor. Mayor Murray has instituted the same neoliberal “grand bargain” with companies like Vulcan, Amazon, and Google. No subsidized housing in South Lake Union, thank you. Better to put Seattle on the map as a “Global City” and worry about the consequences later.

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  4. Erica, you have become the most clearheaded observer of this truly-American problem of how we treat people who are experiencing homelessness. Bravo.

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