Sunday, March 9, 2014

Homeless in Seattle

Pike Place Market at dawn.
Maybe the first thing you notice about Seattle when you're walking the streets of downtown is that everyone is drinking coffee; the second thing you'll notice is that Seattle, while exciting and hip, also has a problem with homelessness. According to the research immediately available on the internet, it looks as if Seattle and King County have around 8000 homeless people, living in their cars, beneath underpasses, in the controversial "tent cities" that move every couple of months, in doorways and other places around the city.

The problem is so overwhelming that it even has a Facebook Page, with--oddly enough--over 8000 likes. It's an uplifting page devoted to encouraging people with seemingly insurmountable problems. And here's the thing: it could happen to any of us.

For the moment, I live in an affluent area, have the money to pay for my health insurance (which is incredibly expensive in Germany) and the occasional dinner out. I travel, as you know. My life is peaches and butterflies. There are birds tweeting pretty melodies outside my window because I can afford tons of birdseed. But don't think for a second I don't realize how this safe, warm life could change.

It was chilly on my early morning walks in Seattle. I couldn't sleep. I think I told you that. So I put on a few layers and went for walks at 5:00. I walked until the sun was up and the (exorbitantly expensive) grocery stores were open. Who can afford to buy food in the US anymore? Has food become a luxury item? After a two-hour walk, I was hungry. Really hungry. Was it Ralph's that was finally open? Whole Foods didn't open until 7:30. At Ralph's I browsed, looking for something gluten-free and filling for breakfast. There was an oatmeal cookie for $2.99. A cookie for three bucks! An apple for $1.50 would have been the cheapest snack, and I would have been hungrier after five minutes if I'd eaten it. There were salads for around $7, but they looked like yesterday's leftovers. I finally found rice cakes--I don't like them but they were the only gluten-free snack I saw on the shelves that might have been more nutritious than tortilla chips--but I put them back when I saw the price: $4.99. For rice cakes! OK, they were apple cinnamon--tasty, tasty--but still. I left the supermarket demonstratively hungry. A protest. A luxury. My hunger was a luxury, yet I'm so aware how quickly this could change.
Another picture of Pike Place Market--because I don't take pictures of people.

Before my trip to Seattle I decided I wouldn't splurge. I'd eat very little and drink almost nothing. My expanding middle would thank me when I got back to Munich. My life was relatively carefree when I booked the trip; but by the time I flew to Seattle, life had become tighter, less secure. In hindsight, it was a foolish--yet of course wonderful--thing to do with my money. I'm really thankful to the people who bought me lunch (you know who you are), and shared your cider (you know who you are too). You are sweet people.

When I arrived at the airport in Seattle, I was thrilled to discover the light rail costs only $2.75 for a single trip to downtown, and that my hotel was a short walk from the downtown station. On the day I left to fly back to Munich, I trotted down to the station at 5:00 a.m. because the receptionist at the hotel told me the first train ran at 5:15 a.m. When I got to the station, it was closed. There were several homeless men literally clinging to the metal mesh barrier for warmth. It was really chilly that morning. Shivering, one of the elderly men let me know--in an educated, articulate and fatherly voice--the first train on Sunday ran at 6:30. And just like that, my trip to the airport cost me $50 instead of $2.75.

That's how life can change. From one moment to the next. You think you have control, that you can squeak by, saving money here and there. But then something happens. You lose your job. Your health deteriorates and you have no insurance. You go--and I mean no disrespect--crazy. You lose control. You start shouting in the streets because you're fairly sure no one will notice you if you don't. You find yourself encircled by police. They're telling you you've broken some law. And you're shouting What the hell isn't broken? Everything's broken, and you weren't prepared for how fast it could happen. (I saw so many of these people, but you won't see pictures of them here. I don't take pictures of people in desperate situations.) 

Apparently Seattle and King County spend $46 million a year on solving the homelessness problem. I found this hard to believe, so I started reading about the projects in the area. Most of this money, if I'm not mistaken (research is not my forte), is put into the construction of housing. The issues are complicated and unfortunately political. There's squabbling about which organizations can do what. The city of Seattle closed down Operation Sack Lunch in 2012 because it was outdoors, the city claiming it would be better to have an indoor homeless feeding program. It's now 2014, and the city hasn't used any of its $46 million to create an indoor alternative (according to the information I've read, but let's hope it's inaccurate). Operation Sack Lunch, though, is still going strong! Here's a look at what they did in 2013:


Another organization doing a lot for the homeless in Seattle is the Downtown Emergency Service Center. Here's their mission statement:

"The Downtown Emergency Service Center works to end the homelessness of vulnerable people, particularly those living with serious mental or addictive illnesses. Through partnerships and an integrated array of comprehensive services, treatment and housing, we give people the opportunity to reach their highest potential. At DESC, uncommon efforts produce uncommon results that eliminate homelessness, one person at a time." For more information about DESC, go HERE.

If you're from Seattle and know of other organizations working in this area, let me and my readers know in the comments. 

I must be off,
Christopher

PS: I Must Be Off! is hosting its second annual Travel Essay Contest! Go HERE to learn more. Deadline for entries June 30, 2014!

_______________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, Camroc Press Review, Feathertale, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen.


6 comments:

  1. As always, thought provoking and inspiring...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, Lori! Thank you so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  2. Really poignant and compassionate post Christopher. It's something that really hit me in the gut during my stay there, and I was especially cognizant of it at Pike Place Market. Still haunted by things I saw and I am finishing up work on a poem about it. Since I also live in an area where this situation isn't literally in my face every day, I've been pondering this on some level ever since I returned home. I DO know this. When I returned home late Sunday evening, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for all I am blessed with in this life ~ my home, my family, pets, friends, food, social support network, and many other things, too numerous to mention here. Thanks for posting this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, Michael! Thank you so much for this response. It was devastating in Seattle to see so many homeless people.

      Delete
  3. You painted a vivid picture of this city of contradictions. I had a very similar experience when I visited three years ago. In fact, it inspired me to write (after a several month 'block') about a character who, indeed, found himself homeless in Seattle. As a woman, I did not feel safe walking the streets before dawn, but I was able to witness the early morning movements of those less fortunate through the window in my hotel that overlooked an alley.

    I am blessed with fortune--we all are, even when it seems the world conspires against us. Thank you for this reminder of the goodness and luck of our lives. Peace...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Linda! Thank you for stopping by, and thank you for your response here.

      Delete