- Weekly Meditation Archives
- Weekly Reading Archives
The other day I asked a friend who had served in the administration
of Seattle’s former mayor, Greg Nickels, what he made of the current
level of homelessness in Seattle. Last fall Mayor Murray joined
other west coast mayors in proclaiming a “homelessness state of
We see that emergency all around our new neighborhood of Ballard. In
addition to a new city supported and sanctioned encampment on
Ballard’s main thoroughfare, Market Street, and a new safe park for
people living in vehicles, there are tent encampments in many places
in Ballard -- under railroad trestles, in industrial areas, along
the Burke-Gilman Bike Path.
My friend thought for a long time before responding to my question.
When he did he said he was “confused.” He went on to say that
everything he knew suggested there was a correlation between
economic downturns and homelessness, but that no longer seemed to be
the case. The local economy is good. Unemployment is low. There are
jobs. But homelessness not only persists, but grows.
There are many factors contributing to homelessness: the high cost
of housing, addiction, and mental illness among them.
But “confusing” seems right -- an honest admission.
We’ve tended to approach homelessness with a problem/ solution
format. Problem: homelessness. Solution: more housing, more
affordable housing, more shelters, more sanctioned encampments.
Applying these “solutions” has not solved the “problem.” We’re
confused. We’re frustrated. Maybe even angry. We’ve tried to “fix”
this, but homelessness stubbornly resists our fixes.
Sometimes admitting our confusion, our frustration, and the failure
of our usual approaches to a problem, can be a humbling beginning to
finding another way, another approach.
I’ve wondered if a part of what’s missing is a community norm that
says “homelessness is not really okay.” This would cut two ways. On
one hand, it means more safe and clean shelters -- enough that no
one has to live on the street or under the freeway in a tent. On the
other, it would mean that tent/ homelessness encampments on public
lands would not be tacitly allowed and sanctioned -- as is presently
It’s very hard for a liberal city and culture like Seattle to say
“no.” We seem to think that if we provide low-cost housing, shelter
beds and services, people will use them and get on with improving
their lot in life. This is true for some. And we should, as a city
and county, make every effort to provide clean and safe shelter for
all of those in need in need of it.
But we should also say, and mean it when we say, that unsanctioned
and permanent homeless encampments on public lands, will not be
tacitly tolerated and supported.
If someone wants to live in a tent on their own land, that’s their
business. But allowing people to live on public lands is not good
for them or for a community.