Unexpected 'news' from Nickelsville

Tell a hopeful story! Worthy causes such as ending homelessness need positive messaging.
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Homeless advocates and Nickelsville residents gathered for a press briefing on Dec. 21

Tell a hopeful story! Worthy causes such as ending homelessness need positive messaging.

About 60 people attended a public meeting last week at Nickelsville, currently being hosted by New Hope Missionary Baptist Church on 21st Avenue near Yesler. Announcements of the meeting in early December billed it as a “press conference,” but in a crowd swelled by tent city residents the only reporter I saw was from Real Change, an event co-sponsor along with SHARE/WHEEL.

The announcement of the event may have extinguished media interest instead of sparking it. The mass email arrived at Crosscut and elsewhere in the form of a broadside that ridiculed Danny Westneat for a Seattle Times column noting a decline in the demand for shelter beds during the winter’s first cold spell and hazarding the possibility (among others) that the King County Committee to End Homelessness (CEH) might be making progress. Although I share the righteous indignation that must be felt by many individuals living in Seattle tents and by people concerned about those who do, the invective dampened my enthusiasm about the meeting. Still, I’m glad I went.

In the keynoter’s “Declaration of a State of Emergency in 2010,” some of the information was as chilling as the muddy ground under my shoes and stung like the smoke from the burn barrel. For example, according to a mid-November statistic cited from the King County Medical Examiner's office, the average age of homeless individuals in King County who have died so far this year is only 48. Such a waste of life. But the speeches and handouts that day also divided the people present into opposing camps (“We are unwelcome in your public spaces, and are harassed by your police…”), and they called CEH’s 10-year plan to end homelessness “a fraud.”

It made me recall what Saul Alinsky, who launched modern community organizing along with the Industrial Areas Foundation, said about the place of anger in confronting injustice. The emotion can provide some of the fuel people need to engage in long struggles for change, but the vehicles it powers shouldn't attack like tanks with guns ablaze. Alinsky taught his organizers to work with cold anger — with coolly strategic energy aimed at achieving well-defined goals.

Strategic, clear goals are what 10-year-plan leaders chose. CEH project director Bill Block emailed the following reply to my query after the meeting: “By the end of the year the number of units opened (new construction, rehab or dedicated vouchers) will be around 3,300, with another 700 in the pipeline. Every one of those has taken people from emergency shelter or the streets or time-limited transitional housing. It is the equivalent to creating that number of new emergency shelter beds, but with much better outcomes.” Block added, “There are many people in desperate need out there, but a staffed shelter bed costs almost as much as a housing voucher, so we have chosen to focus on long-term housing. I just wish we had more resources so we could house even more people. The advocates are correct when they say that everyone should have the opportunity to have safe, affordable housing.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offers advice different from Alinsky’s to groups working for social justice. Citing current social psychology research Kristof writes that the general public responds to need “not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation.” He adds that the hopeful stories should each “focus on an individual, not a group.”

Just one individual. In an experiment Kristof cites, people were asked to donate to a hungry girl or boy. “In each case, research subjects were quite willing to help and donated generously either to Rokia or to Moussa. But when people were asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together, with their photographs side by side, donations decreased.” According to a researcher Kristof consulted, “our empathy begins to fade when the number of victims reaches just two. As he puts it: ‘The more who die, the less we care.’" This hard truth, Kristof concludes, means it’s counterproductive to “make people feel guilty if they don't help, rather than good if they do. ... The challenge is to acknowledge both the desperate needs and also the very real progress …, the prospect of improvement in real people's lives if the help goes forward.”

As I said, I’m glad I went to the press conference. I got to see my old Nickelsville friends Richard and Damien, who told me that Bruce and Donna, a married couple I last talked with months ago at the tent city when it was located in South Seattle, now have an apartment in Shoreline. At the bus stop afterward I met Rob, a young man living in TC3 who is taking classes in dealing craps, virtually guaranteeing himself future casino employment at $26 per hour or more. “I used to drive Blue Star buses,” Rob told me, “but $11.50 an hour wasn’t enough for a Seattle-area apartment.” He became homeless when he and his ex split up, but now besides getting trained in a marketable skill he is taking a course in how to buy a foreclosed house when he saves up enough of his future wages.

Like the Florida ex-convict “George,” the subject of “A Nickelsville saga with a happy ending,” and like my friend Gus, now a paid resident caretaker at a University District church, Rob and many others use tent cities as temporary quarters while they build better lives that include homes for themselves. Would a hopeful story about Rob, or about one formerly homeless individual now housed as a result of the 10-year plan, make Seattle more generously responsive to the homelessness emergency than would a hard-hitting “Declaration of Emergency”? Based on Kristof’s argument and on the opinion of Al Poole, division director for Homeless Intervention at Seattle Human Services, the answer is yes.

The Committee to End Homelessness's September progress report is available online, and the December update, with data that Block references above, will be added soon. Video taken at the Dec. 21 Nickelsville public meeting is posted at YouTube.


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