When we push out the down-and-out, what kind of city are we?

It was just another one of those campers that parks on Seattle's side streets being hauled away, like so many are nowadays. Two dogs were inside, impounded along with their home. But the sight of this little bit of inhumanity raises questions about our city's soul.
Crosscut archive image.

The RVs show up in neighborhoods, park for a few days, and then move on

It was just another one of those campers that parks on Seattle's side streets being hauled away, like so many are nowadays. Two dogs were inside, impounded along with their home. But the sight of this little bit of inhumanity raises questions about our city's soul.

Seattle's skyline is dotted with towering cranes that mark the location of new buildings. The neighborhoods see older affordable single family homes bulldozed to be replaced with multiple new town homes per lot. Judging by the rate of development we must have become "World Class" by now. We boast a new art museum, library, a sculpture park, taxpayer financed football and baseball stadiums. We have a posh new City Hall and a city being administered out of a skyscraper. The three-masted schooners carrying timber out of Seattle have sailed into oblivion and been replaced by massive luxury cruise ships. Taxpayers are facilitating the development in South Lake Union and the SODO district with subsidies and tax breaks. The building boom seemingly has no end. So many folks have moved to the described "vital downtown area" that the noise from the "vibrance" they were seeking is beginning to irritate them. But in all our affluence and apparent success, our city is rapidly losing its humanity and tolerance. Sure, we tolerate different lifestyles, at least if they have money or green cards, but we are becoming more intolerant of those who don't write code for Microsoft or Adobe, or do research at the Hutch. We have created a climate of development that is rapidly ridding Seattle of anyone who doesn't have the capacity to hold a high-paying job. It's not progress, it's "economic cleansing." Every day we are dumping people on the street, priced out of their homes by high land values and new development. Politicians have mistakenly bought into the myth that if we build higher, bigger and denser that it will produce affordable housing or prevent sprawl. It isn't working. New development costs much much more. Yesterday morning, I looked out the window to see a Lincoln tow truck dragging a somewhat dilapidated pickup camper down the street. There were things hanging off the camper and the image was reminiscent of photos taken by Dorothea Lange of sharecroppers escaping the Dust Bowl in Kansas on their way to California's promised land during the Great Depression. The image shocked me because this particular camper had been parked adjacent to our local park. I have met and talked with the occupants and met their two much-loved dogs. As neighbors, they are more considerate, politer, and quieter than some others who live nearby. They are regular folks by any standard with the one exception, the place they call home is a camper. Their big crime against the citizens of Seattle is that they waited a few hours too long before driving away. Usually, they move on after a few days to avoid violating the city's no-parking-over-72-hours law. On this day, with no sticker on their windshield and a mayor's get-tough policy, their home was unceremoniously hauled off to an impound lot with their dogs still inside. I went to the place where they had been parked and found a few of their belongings, which had been leaning on the back of the camper, still lying in the street partly dragged away by the tow truck. Within minutes the man and woman returned, having gone to take a shower, and found their home and their two dogs missing. I have no idea where they slept that night or if their dogs got water or food or were even discovered. For people trying to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, one wonders if they had enough money to get their camper out of the impound yard before their dogs died. No doubt some civic-minded local resident concerned about his property values, and unwilling to speak to these folks, called the city and arranged for the removal of their home. Couldn't our great city have waited another day for them to move on? Have we become so intolerant we can't even let someone park under a tree at a wide spot in the road? They didn't depend on public housing, or handouts. All they wanted was a decent safe place to stop, a grassy area to walk the dogs, and clean park bathroom nearby. I couldn't help but ponder if in Seattle's early history there might have been a few folks camping in the surrounding woods before they became leading citizens of the community. But there is more to the story. About 300 or more feet from where they were parked is a substantial, well-maintained two-bedroom home that is owned by the city's parks department and has been boarded up for over a year. It's perfectly habitable. Additionally, Seattle Housing Authority owns other single-family homes in the immediate area, several of which have been vacant and boarded up for more that two years. These folks could have parked in any of the driveways of these vacant homes and avoided the mayor's wrath. The City of Seattle's web site lists 2,672 employees for the administration of Housing & Human Services and Parks for the 2006 fiscal year. Expenditures for these two departments administrative costs are shown as 10.2 million dollars. Wouldn't you think that many people could find a safe place for homeless people to park their camper? Agreed, there are many issues involved, and it may require totally new thinking in dealing with the many different kinds of homelessness. Of course there are bad people, but most of those who have been forced to live in campers or cars aren't a threat to our city. They don't molest children, sell drugs on the corner, manufacture meth or scatter their trash in the park. They could have been your grandparents during the Great Depression of the late '20s and early '30s. Some have speculated that a third of our nation's people lived in makeshift housing during that Depression . The big crime committed by the folks who lived in the camper was going out for a shower and trying to exist in a city that has lost its direction and sense of values. If we can't develop the tolerance to accept someone who doesn't want to go for handouts or live in public housing, then we sure as hell don't deserve to be a "world class" city.


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