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Diogenes, Street People, and Homelessness
March 15, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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It is commonly said that Seattle, Washington is in a homeless crisis. We share that with many other cities and smaller communities, but it looks particularly ugly here. Our city has prospered since the depths of the Great Recession, but we have not all pulled together. We have rowed our separate ways.

Go back 20,000 years and home was likely just a camp fire for every human who was not lucky enough to live in a cave. 2,000 ago being homeless was frowned upon; even slaves slept indoors. We hear the tale of the Greek named Diogenes, one of the earliest known philosophers. Diogenes was homeless on purpose, and quite critical of the customs of the civilized people of Athens, two centuries before Jesus of Nazareth. And if I recall my Bible, Jesus was a homeless adult, when he was not couch surfing.

Lately I have been going to meetings of our local neighborhood homelessness committee. I am a problem solver by nature, but I have learned to think and gather facts before trying to solve a problem. For problem solving purposes, people being without homes is really just a category. There are a lot of separate problems. Right now Seattle people abut ending homelessness are polarized into two camps. One camp, always there but relatively inactive, has recently been brought to the fore by a documentary called Seattle is Dying. Its take is the real problem is drugs and homeless people who are damaged by them. On the other side are advocates for the homeless like my committee, who try to feed, clothe, and shelter people.

This may seem abstract, even if you see someone in the street who appears to be homeless, until there is a homeless camp near you. Truth is, it was news of a particularly bad homeless camp that led me to attend my first committee meeting. It was not that close to my house, but it was just a few blocks from where my eight year old granddaughter stays when she is with her father (and where she stays with her mother the streets are filled with homeless people, too).

Yes, homeless camps, I mean illegal ones, come in varieties. Birds of a feather flock together even among the homeless. In this case the camp was established in a narrow strip of land between a Starbucks and a single family home. Starbucks has tried to maintain a public-friendly open bathrooms policy. The Starbucks bathroom became the campground's bathroom. Workers and customers were harassed. Customers' cars were damaged. Trash, including used syringes, overflowed from the camp. Complaints to authorities were made.

In late December 2018 there was a "sweep". Sweeps are controversial in Seattle. The city's political establishment is liberal-progressive, sympathy with the homeless is high, and the courts tend to be unhelpful. Sweeps have evolved from simply running people out of a camp a few years ago to helping them move out. Every camper is offered a space in a shelter during a sweep, and other social services as well. Most campers simply refuse help. You are not allowed to use drugs in shelters, and even those who are not addicts prefer their own tents to a bed in a shelter. Tents give you privacy.

A few days later, maybe sooner, tents appeared behind a building nearby, across the street from a residential block. I walked by soon afterwards. The tents were clustered together, it was not a big encampment, probably less than a dozen people. A couple of people were standing around, talking on cell phones or pretending to. It looked like a drug sales point to me, though I walked on by, not staying to see if buyers were coming and going. I then went to my homelessness meeting. Two representatives from our city council representative's office were at the meeting, the new site was discussed, the usual sympathy for the homeless was mouthed. I thought the new site would soon be gone. No one mentioned it at the next two of our monthly meetings.

It should be understood that our group (which is actually a committee of other groups, mostly churches) is not about closing homeless camps. The idea is to get real shelter, actual apartments, for people. But we lack money to even provide dorm style shelter most of the time, much less fancier digs. It is easier to give people food. I have to say, no homeless person has reason to starve in my neighborhood. But shelter is church basements during the winter months. The participating churches each do this for one month. Of course there are also city agencies and programs, but not so much in our neighborhood.

This year is an election year for our Seattle City Council. Because of the homeless situation and high cost of housing some incumbents are not running. Those running for re-election are considered at risk. One of the candidates in our district, Ann Stattler, was asked to come and see the local homeless camp by people in the neighborhood. I saw an announcement, which was the first I knew that the camp still existed. I knew from her promo material that the candidate has not held office or run for office before, but believes drugs are a major contributor to homelessness. So she is advocating for increased city spending on drug rehabilitation, in addition to spending more on low cost housing options.

This time when I walked by the tents no one was near them. They looked pretty much the same as three months earlier. Arriving on time there were four people from the neighborhood, and eventually the crowd reached perhaps a dozen to fifteen. I talked to people, including the candidate, for about an hour. Everyone reported problems in the neighborhood, mostly thefts and drug use and dealing by people near the camp. The manager of the business said they rented the building and had their electrical box damaged when the campers ran a line to their tents. We were told by the police that they could not do anything, given their instructions from on high. In fact the courts have said a tent is like a home, it cannot be entered by police without a warrant. Hence a drug dealer can keep a stash in a tent and not have to worry about other thieves. Also, for practical purposes, possession of under three grams of heroin or meth is no longer a crime in Seattle. Oh, and the police had seized a handgun there the day before, though no one was arrested, because by the time they arrived it had been stashed, but not carefully enough.

That said, we know that many people are homeless because of ordinary misfortunes and high rents, not drugs or alcohol. One couple there told us of a friend who was homeless (but in shelters) for months after being evicted when her apartment was closed for redevelopment. They knew their landlord was thinking of selling their small apartment building, and were afraid for their own future.

Keep in mind that the city (and county and state and feds) are already spending astonishing amounts of money on subsidized housing. There are hundreds of housing units in our neighborhood that are subsidized one way or another. Waiting list, however, are long.

I have spoken very little at our committee meetings, since I don't run any operation to actually help the homeless. But I gave a brief report of the gathering to the group. Immediately one person condemned Ann Stattler as a right-wing anti-homeless person, and implied I must be too, and that anyone who said homeless people used drugs or committed crimes was part of a plot to deprive homeless people of their rights.

I doubt that church lady has ever been homeless herself, or a hobo, but I don't know. Still, after a lifetime of church ladies who scold people for sexual urges and not believing in Jesus, it is nice to be with ones who are helping and defending the poorest among us, even if they are sometimes a bit in denial of the facts.

Street people, by the way, are not necessarily homeless. I have known, to various degrees, a number of drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists and thieves who usually managed to keep a roof over their heads. Especially during the day, if you see someone in the street who is a bit ragged, or seems mental, there is a good chance that they already are getting a disability check and subsidized housing. I was once asked for a handout in the street by someone I did the conservatorship papers for, who had a higher monthly income than me.

I think Seattle should immediately borrow a billion or two to create enough housing and rehabilitation facilities to get every single homeless person off the street, whether they like it or not. I suspect I could find $1 billion that could be shifted to the project in the annual budget, which is $6.0 billion, but of course that would piss off those who thought the funding was for them. So borrow the money, get the job done quickly, and pay off the debt gradually.

And Seattle should take over the sale of heroin and meth. That might get us in trouble with the feds, and the cartels, but it would help us steer people into rehab, or keep the cost of having a habit down enough that crime would be less necessary.

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