Sunday, May 18, 2008

Inconvenient truths

When Nancy Reagan was leaving the White House she said what she’d miss most was the convenience. Apparently First Lady’s don’t really do anything; they have it done for them.

Being homeless is the polar opposite. In Seattle for example, most homeless ``live’’ in the downtown area. To get a pass to sleep in a shelter they have to go to the Central District, a few miles East of the downtown (and uphill), and then head back downtown, sometimes with only minutes to spare before the shelters close.

Then after sleeping in a shelter, sometimes on the floor and practically on top of other people (I once heard a homeless person say people shouldn’t sleep so close together unless they’re in love); they’re kicked out of shelters, sometimes as early as 5:30; even though there’s no place open for another two hours, it’s like being in a hurry not to get anywhere.

And being homeless means always waiting in line; waiting for breakfast, waiting to do your laundry; waiting to take a shower. In recent months, the city of Seattle has added a few more inconveniences. Since the shelters are pretty full these days, people have taken to sleeping outside more than ever. However, if you camp outside, the city has thrown a few more obstacles in your path.

Since last summer, the city has conducted ``sweeps’’ of campgrounds. If people weren’t present – say working or looking for work – people had the only pictures of family members destroyed or backpacks with their only forms of ID confiscated.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who unfortunately (for him) looks like a grownup version of Pugsley, the child character from the Addams Family TV show, announced a series of protocols at the end of March – a more humane way of dealing with homelessness. Homeless activists say that the loopholes in Nickels’ protocols are large enough to drive an SUV through.

It was around this time that I joined the Real Change organizing project – quality people fighting the good fight. RCOP has sponsored two campouts on the steps of City Hall, both times in a drizzling rain, and recently we made an appearance at the City Council’s Public Safety Human Services and Education Committee (it seems odd that this committee deals with homelessness and not the Housing and Economic Development Committee).

Tim Harris has a play-by-play description of the day on his blog – I don’t know if we made any headway but Nickels and the Council’s homeless guy, Tim Burgess, know that someone’s watching.

Most of the RCOP people spoke in the open forum portion of the meeting. I decided to focus on what happens to anyone who has his or her personal belongings confiscated, the stuff’s taken to West Seattle, away from downtown on the other side of the Sound. Still not far if you have use of a car, but it’s almost an hour bus ride. And, oh by the way, the last bus stop is still a quarter of a mile away. Not ideal for someone with health problems, and if your ID or bus tickets were part of the confiscated goods; then things really get dicey.

It adds up to inconvenience for the homeless again. Not something they’d put up in the White House.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

And Now A Few Words About Homelessness

Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1960’s and `70’s I never saw any homeless people. The closest may have been Freddy The Freeloader, a character on the Red Skelton show. I think even Red grew tired of playing the character after the while.

Then around the `70’s or early `80’s, there was a guy that started sleeping in the park near my house. I remember seeing him a few times and how unsettling it was, the soot caked on his face because there was no place to wash up. Around this time, local legend has it that a transient known as John The Bum (these were definitely politically incorrect times) had a memorable chess game against Providence’s notorious mayor, Vincent ``Buddy’’ Cianci at Leo’s Bar and Restaurant. I don’t know how the match came out but in retrospect it seemed like the mayor could have done more for John than just play chess with him. At least the people who ran Leo’s gave him odd jobs and a place to sleep sometimes.

I may have missed a few homeless people wandering about Providence back then (the homeless are generally invisible to the rest of society) but statistically there wasn’t a lot of homelessness from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. Maybe Franklin Roosevelt just knew how to run a war more profitably than George Bush but there were also housing programs in place after WWII not to mention things like the GI Bill which put my father through college.

In the 1980’s, the shit started to hit the fan. Hospitals closed and the mentally ill were put on the streets. In the 1990’s, low-income housing dwindled as many big cities decided they only wanted yuppies living in their town.

As someone who’s been called a homeless advocate I sometimes think we make the homeless situation more difficult than we have to. Radio talk shows for example, invariably focus on panhandling even though about one percent of the homeless partake in that endeavor. Well-meaning types think you can cure homelessness with job programs even though about 30 percent already do some kind of work.

Alcoholism and mental illness; those are toughies. I don’t know how to solve them; but homelessness- build more low-income housing and don’t tear down what we already have. It would be a step in the right direction.