I’ve shied away from blogging about social issues, but I can’t let this one sit.
Larry Osterman blogged about Tent City 4, which will soon relocate to the grounds of Northshore United Church of Christ in Woodinville. I live in Woodinville. The Church is located about a block away from where my eldest daughter goes to school, and about two blocks away from where my son goes to school. Larry quotes an e-mail message written by John Gronquist, and John's eldest son is a good friend of my son. I also know the Reverend Paul Forman, pastor of the Northshore United Church of Christ, and I was not at all surprised when I heard that the Northshore United Church of Christ stepped up to the plate on this issue.
But my personal connections to these circumstances are not why I’m talking about this. Rather, I have a personal connection to the issue that I think can provide some insight.
There is a young man who spends his nights sleeping in a spare bed we have in our playroom. He’s been staying here for almost a year now. Within 24 hours of taking up residence with us, he was actively looking for work. Within weeks of taking up residence with us, he had two jobs. Yet, even with the income from both of those jobs, he still wouldn’t have had enough income to establish his own residence. That’s merely the nature of the economy in our area. Housing costs are seriously high here, and Microsoft and its employees have played no small roll in the rise of housing costs over the past decade or so.
He faces discrimination at one of the jobs. The store manager has reduced his hours in favor of employees who have less seniority than he has. Only Ali’s situation is so tenuous that he’s afraid he’ll lose the job entirely if he stands up for his rights. To make matters worse, the manager has begun scheduling his hours at times when she’s not in the store, which prevents him from even discussing the matter with her directly.
Ali’s a bright young man, but he lacks skills. He’s easily smart enough to get through college, but he still needs a place to stay. Ever try to get financial aid without a phone number and an address? Ever try to cram for an exam while sitting on the front steps of a downtown building? Were it not for the bed in our playroom, Ali would be one of the people living in Tent City 4. He’d have difficulty finding even one job, let alone the two that he holds down, and getting through college would remain nothing but a far-off dream.
I’m not saying that people should do what we have done for Ali. There is no social service agency capable of connecting homeless people up with those willing to open up their homes. The only reason we’ve been able to do this is through a fairly large network of friends who know what we are willing to do and have connected us up with people who need the assistance we wish to give.
Nor, for that matter, am I saying that our experience with Ali is typical. Our experience with Ali is purely anecdotal. The particular circumstances of any given person or family are as likely varied as there are homeless people or families. As such, I tend to look askance upon any generalization of the homeless, whether that generalization be favorable or unfavorable.
The one undeniable fact of our experience, however, is that, even with two jobs, Ali would have remained homeless in the Seattle area. Of the varied causes of homelessness, the primary cause is simply the lack of affordable housing. It’s not that homeless people refuse to avail themselves of social services in King County. It’s not that some are drug and/or alcohol addicted—indeed, in many cases, continued drug and/or alcohol addiction is as much caused by the circumstances of homelessness as are the circumstances of homelessness caused by continued drug and/or alcohol addiction. It’s also not mental illness or anti-social behavior.
The fact that Ali has a place to stay is due in no part to any inherent capacity, quality of character or aspect of industriousness that he has and that people who do live in Tent City 4 don’t have. The fact that he has a place to stay is simply due to sheer luck. Our experience with Ali should give us all reason to believe that there are no inherent character differences between those who are homeless and those who aren’t; that on the whole, the only difference between those who are homeless and those who aren’t homeless is that people who are homeless are, quite simply, homeless. The character, capacity and personal issues of those who are homeless span the same gamut of character, capacity and personal issues of those who aren’t homeless.
Having a degree in Economics, I understand some of the dynamics that have lead to the recent increase in homelessness in the Seattle/King County area. And there is no simple solution. The development of affordable housing requires an exercise of political will that I don’t think we have right now. Until we do put together the political will to resolve the issue of affordable housing, we’re going to have a Tent City. And, as far as I’m concerned, my back yard is as good a place as any for them to pitch their tents.