Some years ago I had reason to hire a Millionaire Club worker. I will call him Charlie to protect his identity. He was, or still is, an alcoholic, but he also holds a university degree in sociology. He is a good citizen by any measure. Over a period of three months we often discussed world affairs and our city. He defined himself a binge drinker. He would be sober for several months then drink himself into oblivion for a couple of weeks then clean up and start work again. I often visited him where he camped under the freeway.
Charlie and I had many talks about the homeless and how to deal with the many different reasons people fall out of the larger society and conventional housing. In these talks he described in greater detail the various categories of homelessness, their social or physical disorders that forced them to live on the streets and the attempts of government to intervene in their lives Once, I asked if he had a million dollars what would he do with it. He paused, stared at the clouds for a moment, and said he would buy 'êa new tent, sleeping bag, and a new pair of boots.'ê 'êWouldn'êt you like a house or warm dry place to live?'ê 'êOnly occasionally," he said.
After what amounted to a three-month course in sociology as we worked together, I began to understand better those that live on the fringes of our city'ês more affluent culture. Now I wish I had been able to record these discussions and create a primer for those responsible for designing and administering homeless programs. Charlie believed those responsible for shelters and public housing programs were from a world so different that they simply could not grasp or have any real concept of how the homeless think or perceive their world. He alluded to the missionary who thought it his duty to invade a primitive culture and bring the WORD of the gospel and modern ways to indigenous peoples. It'ês not the same, he said, but it has some similarities.
The first item to be discussed in the primer for government housing administrators was that most assumed they knew what was best. He told me that the level of arrogance among program directors is astounding. 'êThey assume,'ê said Charlie, 'êthat because we were living on the streets, and that since we had made bad decisions in the past, that we were too stupid to understand what they were attempting to do with us. We are most often treated as children or damaged goods. They seem incapable of understanding that while some homeless want a room at the Olympic Hotel with room service there might be others who want to live in a tent instead of being herded into shelters like animals.'ê
It isn'êt possible to repeat all of the discussions we had, but two things surprised me or at least made a big dent in my thinking. The first was that I was surprised that he had a very hard attitude toward the homeless. He didn't believe in pandering for money or handouts. He thought you had to help yourself as much as possible. It was why he worked for money.
On the other hand he believed that there were categories of people that needed far more help than they were getting. I will try to explain his thinking. He started from the premise that the public and our city had limits to what they were willing to direct toward the problem. He understood budgets very well and knew funds would always be limited. He also understood that the public, who paid taxes, had only so much humanitarian spirit to go around and would limit what would be spent. He would say there is only so much government can do. Next he said that many homeless people simply couldn'êt, and others wouldn'êt, be able to change their status in life enough to get them off the street. He mentioned drug addiction, mental illness, and alcohol. He included himself in this category where public programs had a very slim chance of making enough difference to be effective. He believed some might be helped, but most would never be productive citizens again. He also talked of really dangerous people, sociopaths who, in his opinion, were dangerous and would never change.
'êWell then,'ê I said, 'êwhat would you do?'ê
His response as usual was clear, sensible, and logical. He said simply, 'êput most of your money and resources in providing exceptional care and support for families with children. Decent lodgings, food, medical attention, education, training that leads to paying jobs.'ê Surprisingly he included time limits on accomplishing it. I asked why this choice, weren'êt there other deserving people around whom, but for loss of a job or an illness found themselves on the street. His answer was clear. 'ê No child by choice wakes up in the morning under a bridge or in the back of a car and decides that'ês what they want out of life. If we have limited resources then lets stop the downward spiral and get these families back on their feet.'ê He added, 'êif a few addicts remain in the gutter then so be it.'ê
His comments were harsh, but then so is the world in which he lives. There was something so simple about his analysis you can'êt help but wonder why we try to save some folks who can'êt be saved. He thought we were foolish to try to help everyone and not have the resources to help those whose lives we could really change. Though he didn't allude to the lifeboat illustration I suspect he would have thought it appropriate. If you haul too many out of the freezing waters into one little lifeboat it may sink and end up not helping anyone.
Of the months of talk there were several reoccurring puzzles. Why do some camp in the woods, under freeways, and in tent cities instead of going to shelters? For Charlie it was simple, but very difficult to explain. To him it was a mix of independence and need for privacy. It'ês a concept of personal space and the tiny bit of ability to be in charge of one'ês self. It'ês an internal sense that our mind and spirit are not being invaded by someone else's expectations, agenda, or behavior. It'ês self-determination and personal territorial preservation. In fact, a lot of folks who aren'êt homeless feel the need to be alone or have a place where they can feed their soul. Whether people choose a home with a picket fence or a tent under a freeway, it'ês as much the escape from the pressure of too many people as it is refuge from the wind and rain.
One day I asked Charlie if he would like a nice little apartment with heat and a bathroom, secure from the hostile people in the streets. He answered, sometimes; but there are some of us who just need to be outside to feel the air and seasons come and go. 'êWe'êll never change.'ê
There is no question Charlie doesn'êt speak for all homeless. He never tried. But he did point to many like himself who didn'êt fit into the model bureaucrats seemed dedicated to provide.
Why in this great city of ours can'êt we comprehend that the little cottage with the white picket fence, or a little apartment, or a facility with food and bathrooms may not be part of the answer for every homeless person? It isn'êt everybody'ês dream, nor is it possible. Charlie simply couldn'êt exist in a shelter with a room full of cots.
Seattle could, if it really wanted to, find a place where people could pitch a tent and be safe. Maybe it would be a Nickelsville or a hostel of campsites. It could easily be made safe and sanitary. Would it bankrupt the city to provide garbage cans or porta-potties? In the 1920s Seattle allowed a Hooverville to exist. They had their own policing and rules, and its residents made sure that the greater society wasn'êt disturbed. Even if the City created a place similar to the campgrounds in state parks with showers bathrooms and clean water, it would answer all the complaints some officials have about public health and safety.
Currently the City budget directs $5.1 million to serve the homeless of Seattle. The failure of surrounding jurisdictions to do their share in dealing with the homeless burdens Seattle even more. Seattle'ês homeless budget identifies $1.1 million for administration, which includes salaries. The two top housing administrators for Seattle have a combined salary of $231,537. That generous stipend ought to be able to find some form of safe camping space in the city for people who don'êt choose to live in shelters.
I haven'êt seen Charlie in awhile, but I would venture a guess that he fully understands that a City'ês response to homelessness must go beyond building a campground or serving only families with kids. The need is too great. But he very likely would say that how we proportion our funding could make a difference. He might also say that our administrators that do the planning need to seek the advice of those closer to the problem. Why not seek the advice of advocates like Tim Harris and John Fox both who understand better than the City what challenges face the homeless person?
And last, let'ês try Charlie'ês plan. If indeed you can'êt save everyone or change everyone, then let's do a fantastic job with families with kids who have dreams beyond living in the backseat of a car.