In yet another effort to address homelessness, the Seattle City Council held a special meeting in City Hall for the Human Service and Public Health Committee. And for the first time in a while, I found myself finally cheering on what was being said.
“We need to move past this decision of studying it and being intellectually busy about this issue,” said Rex Hohlbein. Hohlbein spearheads a “Facing Homelessness” page on Facebook to combat the negative stereotypes around the homeless, making their faces more visible to people through his black and white photography.
“Often that group is defined by a negative stereotype, but we can change that view by coming closer,” he said. Hohlbein went on to elaborate that if people just took five minutes to talk to a homeless person, people would begin to identify and then empathize. “We start to notice our reactions to that person, something that isn’t possible when we look at the group of 10,000 faces.”
The reactions people have to apparent poverty are anger, annoyance, disgust, and fear, according to Seattle University law professor and human rights advocate, Sara Rankin.
“Regardless of what that person is doing,” she said, “just the presence of human desperation elicits those reactions from people.”
Rankin talked at length about the criminalization of homelessness. The disgust people have for visible poverty manifests in public policies and laws.
In fact, Seattle gives more citations than any other surveyed city, according to a Seattle University study. From 2010 to 2015, Seattle gave out 5,814 citations. The most frequent one, at 71 percent, was for sleeping or camping in public places. Others were going to the bathroom in public, aggressive panhandling, sitting or lying in particular public places, and camping in particular public places.
Other studies also point out that these types of laws are largely expensive and ineffective.
“I believe that we’re stained by what I call the influence of exile,” Rankin said. “These are deeply ingrained social and class distinctions that can guide us even to enact laws and enforce laws that reduce the visibility of poverty in public space.”
So what can we do about it?
Catherine Hunt, who was previously homeless for three years, discussed cultivating compassion.
“For me, the real crisis was beginning to doubt my sanity,” Hunt said, “and that has to do with the stigma the public places on them, and myself, us…They would avert their eyes, have a look of disgust.”
The grey-haired woman’s voice quivered as she reflected on her past experiences, pictures and memories surely flashing through her head behind her glazed-over eyes.
Hunt said there are barriers to leaving, because you do get a community and some friends after a while who you don’t want to leave. Should a person even reach transitional housing, there are disincentives, she said, because you can’t make more than a certain amount of money to live there and you can’t go to school, and a million other things.
Richard McAdams of Union Gospel Mission, who was also previously homeless for ten years, said solutions start with the relationship.
“Community needs to realize it’s not them and us,” he said. “We are one community, and we are all one step away from being homeless.”
For McAdams, his barriers had to do with criminalization. Having gotten into drugs at a very young age due to family issues, he got a felony on his record years ago that still bars him from getting access to resources and housing today.
For Hohlbein, the answer lies somewhere in just simply being open to it, to helping the homeless or even having a discussion, in the moment, without fear, and without judgment.
“Somewhere in growing up, I think we complicate it,” he said. “We need to make each other important.”
But thank god the Neighborhood Safety Alliance was there to bail out every uncomfortable, privileged person in society.
Cindy Pierce of NSA was present during the public comments section to say that “not all people were represented in this meeting.” Namely, the holy, flawless “tax-paying citizen,” which I assume is broadly White, decently paid, and in a residential neighborhood in the eyes of Pierce.
“The criminal activity associated with some of the homeless,” she began listing off, “I didn’t hear you talk about the property crime committed by the addicts…trespassing…the taxpaying citizen about how they feel when they witness filth, garbage, and human waste in their beautiful city that they once felt safe in.”
If you’re not about ready to explode at this commentary, I applaud you. Thankfully, Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw cleared some things up for pompous Pierce over here, who, by the way, had the audacity to tell the homeless man who spoke before her that she wasn’t “talking about him” with her commentary.
“We invited people who actually experienced and studied homelessness,” Baghsaw clarified. “It’s not that your view has been discounted, but that we wanted to bring these people here today.”
Rankin also sought to clear some things up: “The laws actually don’t apply equally when we talk about criminalization laws. I’m not talking about laws that determine otherwise criminal behavior…This isn’t really about behavior that is already covered, by the way…We’re talking about laws that regard reasonable life-sustaining conduct.”
A few public comments later, Susan Russell took the helm, having been homeless herself but currently in transitional housing — at this stage she said should still be considered homeless.
“I know what it’s like to be hungry,” she said, triggering herself and starting to cry. “I know how humiliating it is to be homeless. I watched people die.”
Russell has been feeling like nothing she does matters, even her advocacy efforts.
“I understand using drugs and not wanting to fall asleep because the worst things happen to you when you fall asleep,” she said. “I know what it’s like to have to go to the bathroom with nowhere to go. Until you’ve lived it, you’ll never, never understand it.”
And that is perhaps what Pierce needs to get off her high horse and realize.
“We have to make the moral decision that we are no longer going to accept that people are living and dying—” Hohlbein cut himself off because he began choking back tears. “We are not going to accept sweeping our parks because we don’t like how it looks when it’s the only option for people when they’re outside. We’re not going to accept taking people’s vehicles to impound when it’s their only place of home.”
“We are not going to accept treating people like litter.”
Rather than treating homelessness as an external problem, Seattle might want to take a deeply internal look at itself first before doing so.