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Warm trees, cold people

The absurdity of people living on the cold streets of the richest nation in the world shows up sharply against a backdrop of bright public art.

Warming our tree trunks, leaving people in the cold

Warming our tree trunks, leaving people in the cold Judy Lightfoot

As the wintry weather sharpens, so does the irony. Trees in our downtown parks wear warm, colorful knitted blankets around their trunks while homeless human beings huddle beneath them, wrapped in rumpled plastic. On a recent Monday morning, seven sleepers would soon awake from chilly dreams in the small downtown park at Fourth and Jefferson south of the King County Courthouse. The towels and T-shirts hanging on an iron fence domesticated, somewhat, a scene warmed only by flame-striped fabrics wrapped around the torsos of the trees.

Thirty years ago, the number of homeless Americans was infinitesimally small. Then federal fiscal policy began to shift, shrinking support for the creation of affordable housing while expanding tax benefits for homeowners. Living-wage manufacturing jobs started declining throughout the country. In Seattle and other metropolitan areas, inexpensive SRO (single room occupancy) units disappeared as cities sought to rebuild their downtowns and failed to create low-cost units in exchange. Fair market rents in King County are currently unaffordable except for people earning twice the minimum wage.

Now poverty rises ever more steeply, and the causes of homelessness (use of the word was as rare in the early 1980s as the phenomenon itself) comprise a long list.

That there are millions of people in the richest country in the world with nowhere to live except in parks, under bridges, or in temporary shelters has become a normal fact of life to Americans who grew up during the past couple of decades. And for all of us, regardless of when we were born, ragged, plastic-wrapped human beings have become an ordinary sight on Seattle's streets. They're as familiar to us as the latte-carrying citizens walking from the Metro tunnel toward their offices each Monday morning, or as the leaves dropping from the incongruously brightened trees.

As part of Crosscut’s coverage of social concerns, Judy Lightfoot writes about how the region's people face challenges in a time of economic stress and diminished expectations. She often draws on her weekly one-on-one coffees with individuals sharing our public spaces who are socially isolated by homelessness or mental illness. Formerly a teacher and professor, she also writes about books, education, and the arts. Email judy.lightfoot@crosscut.com.


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