There was a time during the westward expansion when the slogan 'êGo west young man, go west'ê was often heard. Families and individuals were searching for a future, and the great Northwest offered a new life and opportunity. People came on foot, horseback, by ship and by wagon. They kept coming even after cities were established. They still are.
In the early days most were broke and out of work when they arrived. They camped alongside trails and in wooded areas around town. (As I argue below, there is a lesson in this old practice of informal campgrounds.) They made do as best they could till they found work. With the first pay, boarding houses became temporary home where the bed and fare was simple, but it beat sleeping in Seattle drizzle.
As time passed those who could stand the winter rain found a place in our society, in our culture and economy. A good many started businesses of their own and were the fertilizer that grew the city around them. They didn'êt ask for welfare or housing from the city and expected none — which is just as well since there wasn'êt any money for civic aid anyway. They changed the culture, even the landscape where we live, not always for the better. Seattle hills were clear-cut of trees and sluiced along with our sewage into Elliott Bay.
The people still come. We no longer have great expanses of ancient timber surrounding our city where the weary immigrant could spread his bedroll. Some have no money and no place to live, and Seattle like most every major city grapples with what to do with such people. Some cities will sweep the streets of the homeless if important visitors or conventions are to occur. Seattle denies the problem part of the time and raids homeless camps under freeways and greenbelts every so often to appear to be doing something.
The most important lesson in dealing with homeless people is to grasp that homelessness exists for many reasons and requires different approaches tailored to these varied populations. Drug addiction, alcoholism, and severe mental problems are just a few of the causes. Others have serious health or physical handicaps. Some may be escaping the law. Others may be like the classic hobo who simply dances to a different drummer and will not live under a roof. There are also far too many folks who have just made a lot of bad decisions and don'êt know how to break the cycle. And there are folks who have played by the rules and done everything right but still lost their job and their house and their savings.
There are no simple solutions, just different ones for the different types. Striking a sensible, affordable middle ground between punitive programs and approaches too generous to sustain has seemed to evade our city government. Meanwhile, non profit organizations have created an industry of their own to build and rent low-cost public housing. Government is happy to pass on responsibility to these groups, but few if any of these deal with the true homeless.
The saddest part of all our efforts to deal with homelessness is that we don't understand well enough the differences between the groups. City administrators can'êt seem to sit down with the actual homeless people to understand what might work. The most vivid example are tent cities shifting among church yards.
In every group, whether druggies, alcoholics, criminals, or crazy people, there are homeless people we aren'êt going to be able to fix. We simply don'êt have the tools or money to cure some problems, but we can move on to working with people we can actually help. One category to put first on the list to help is young families with kids who arrive to find jobs, want to work, and get a new start in life.
There are other folks who don'êt really want help, not even cash or free apartments to live in. These are folks who have a streak of independence and stubbornness. Some, like those first settlers in an earlier century, simply want to camp out. They can'êt stand shelters. There are others who sometimes live in old campers, motor-homes, and converted school buses. Their job options are meager. Sometimes they own dogs and cats to keep them company. Most work as often as they can, but their pay is minimum wage or less. Many are very proud people. Many are very good people. They hate living in group shelters or the kind of housing well-meaning city officials think appropriate for everyone without money. So what should we do for them?
The ones who live in their school buses and campers already believe they live in their own (energy efficient) homes. Some of these folks are transients, others Seattleites like the rest of us. Their presence scares the hell out of Seattle'ês new urbanites. Our city and some of our upstanding citizens see their presence as a threat. Without talking to them they assume they are druggies, boozers, criminals, or human trash. Of course there are drug users or alcoholics among this group — in the same proportion as the general population.
Before Seattle became obsessed becoming a 'êworld class city'ê there was a bit more tolerance for the vagabond who lived in a camper, old truck body, or school bus. In fact there were fewer people parked on the streets because there were a number of close-in trailer parks where for a reasonable price one could park and live. Trailer parks are the most compact low-cost unsubsidized housing available. However, Seattle, unlike some more progressive cities, has no zoning designation for trailer parks. The zoning is key to keeping them taxed at a low rate, and not getting priced out by "higher" uses. Most trailer parks here were located in commercial zones that were eventually taxed at a higher use, forcing the trailers out.
Most of these homeless vagabonds just need a safe place to park without harassment. The only crime they regularly commit is trying to stay an extra day at a good parking spot with a nearby public bathroom or shower and food store. They don'êt ask to be put up in the new public housing projects whose cost is now in the millions. (The new Park Lake public housing project is estimated to cost $66.9 million.) These folks don'êt ask for food though many do go to the food bank. They aren'êt eligible for unemployment and few are receiving any kind of welfare. All they really want is a place to park.
Seattle spends $2,902,973 in pay for 41 employees in the Department of Housing to figure out how to deal with the homeless. Wouldn'êt it seem to make sense if the City were to find a chunk of ground somewhere in the town, maybe build some toilets and showers, and let people park their campers and school buses, or put up their tents? Maybe it could be similar to Forest Service or state campgrounds. And if you want it safe and well managed and maintained, hire some of the residents. In the Depression, when Seattle had a shack city called 'êHooverville'ê where the stadiums now sit, it was kept safe by the residents themselves.
Of course, this is not a solution for all homeless, but it could be just a small part of a larger solution, keyed to one distinctive part of the homeless population.
Agreed — times have changed and we aren'êt the same city we were century ago. We can'êt just let folks camp out anywhere in the city. But why we are so very different than those that settled this country? Have our common sense and tolerance genes become totally recessive?