No Shelter: Counting the Homeless in Seattle by Mary Anne Mercer

We are all in the Huffington Post, thanks to a superb essay by Mary Anne Mercer. She writes about homelessness and inequality, and how tragedy becomes normalized. To every One Night Count Team Captain and volunteer who makes guests welcome, and keeps our community’s count safe, respectful, and accurate ~ thank you. 

No Shelter: Counting the Homeless in Seattle (originally published 02/04/2015)

It was three AM. I was walking down a street in one of Seattle’s toniest neighborhoods with my 25-year-old daughter and another young woman. We were part of Seattle/King County’s One Night Count of the homeless, a massive effort to document the number of “unsheltered” persons on a random winter night, after the shelters had closed their doors.

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Photo by C.B. Bell

It was my first time, but fortunately my companions were veterans of working with homeless populations. We spent the next two hours covering specified streets and alleys, peering behind trash cans and into parked cars, doorways and little park-like spaces. The effort, a project of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, was carried out by nearly 1100 volunteers who spent a few early morning hours documenting the men, women and children who had no indoor shelter.

It was a clear, cool January night. We strolled past glittering display windows for the many new condominiums and apartment buildings in the area — brightly lit, elegant showrooms with upscale décor and expensive furniture, plush sofas and carpets. As we moved past a low wall lined with manicured shrubbery, I glanced at a long mound covered by black plastic, nestled under the greenery. The three of us stopped, and suddenly I heard the faint sounds of a popular song. I jumped, and looked over at my daughter, who nodded knowingly. Yes, there was someone under that makeshift shelter, and they were doing what many young people do to lull themselves to sleep after a stressful day — playing music.

We walked a few steps farther, and she said in a low voice, “That counts as a structure, and there are usually two in that kind of space.”

I reached for my clipboard and made two tally marks under “structure, gender unknown.”

We were assigned to a neighborhood with modest numbers of homeless, and by the end of the night we had tallied just a dozen sleeping outside. The entire count, however, revealed 3,772 King County residents without shelter that night — in cars, tents, doorways, parks and under bridges. Additional people were in shelters or in transitional housing. In all, there were nearly 10,000 souls who were without homes on a chilly January night in and around Seattle, a city of 650,000 people.

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Photo by Nathan Tain

 

That tally exceeded last year’s by 21 percent, and yet is an underestimate. Many homeless take great pains to be invisible to passersby, and it is impossible to cover every space where people might sleep in the county.

Most people can’t remember a time when the homeless weren’t an ever-present part of living in a city. But homelessness is, after all, about extreme poverty. It’s also about ever-rising inequality, the dramatic reduction over the past few decades of American jobs that pay a living wage, paired with millions of home foreclosures that were part of the 2008 economic crisis. For homeless single men and women, substance addiction and mental illness are key causes as well. These factors all combined to create a country where an estimated 1.6 to 3.5 million people, as much as 1 percent of the total population, are homeless at some time during a given year. Many of these homeless are employed, but working part time at service and other low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the expense of housing.

We get a deeper understanding of the pain of homelessness by looking at the individuals who endure it. An estimated 1.5 million American children are homeless at some time during the year. As many as half of the children who “age out” of foster care at age 18 end up living on the streets. Up to 40 percent of homeless adults are military veterans. Most are subject to open discrimination, and many to violence on the streets, with little recourse to protection from the police. Encampments of the homeless are regularly disbanded and forced to move on to other locations, where they are equally unwelcome.

We are a country that not only tolerates this ongoing tragedy, but has come to expect it.

After we finished counting in our assigned blocks that night, the three of us went back to the organizational center for a massive breakfast of eggs, bacon and fried potatoes. Relishing the savory meal, I caught myself saying to my daughter, “I’m glad it didn’t rain — we didn’t bring an umbrella.” I realized I had already detached, distanced myself from the people we had counted, returning to thoughts of my own comfort during our two hours on the streets. Is this how it happens? I wondered. A moment of empathy, quickly eclipsed by personal everyday concerns.

Seattle is fortunate that our mayor Ed Murray is committed to spending more resources to address the immediate problem of homelessness, but we can all be doing something to help. Volunteering with local organizations that support basic services for the least fortunate is a useful activity that can also remind us of the many social problems that poverty and homelessness produce.

But solace for the symptoms won’t cure the problem. If we are to address the conditions that bring about homelessness, Americans need to understand the repercussions of our dramatically rising economic inequality. Learning more can provide both motivation and a means of action. A resource that documents a dizzying array of the causes and effects of US inequality, as well as current approaches to addressing them, is Inequality.org.

Public policy produced the current crisis, and public policy can change it. The growing power of corporate America has led to legislation that protects the wealth of the 1 percent while keeping wages stagnant. In 2010 the Supreme Court determined that that US corporations have the rights of people – even while real human beings don’t have access to one of the most basic human rights, shelter. There’s a lot wrong with that. Unless we find ways to address our worsening inequality, we’ll keep counting those thousands of men, women and children living on our streets and in our alleys, well into the future.

The One Night Count: A Lesson in Gratitude

Photo Credit: Joe Iano for SKCCHThis is the second in a sequence of posts spotlighting the experiences and takeaways of some of our One Night Count volunteers.

The One Night Count is a snapshot of the number of people who are homeless outside. Overnight Thursday – Friday, January 23-24, hundreds of volunteers from across King County showed up to help with the One Night Count at headquarters in Seattle, Shoreline, Bellevue, Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, White Center, the University District, and Renton. This year, in the wee morning hours from 2-5 a.m. volunteers documented 3,123 people trying to make it through a winter night outside, while shelters were full.

While volunteers share the same mission during the Count and a common vision of our community without homelessness, each volunteer has their own unique story. Keep coming back to hear more of their stories.

This moving and powerful story was written by Kahla B-K, a first-time counter who is interning at Solid Ground, and was originally posted on Solid Ground’s blog. Kahla has graciously given us permission to re-post it here for you all to read. Here are her words:

As we gathered in the wee hours of Friday, January 24 at the Compass Housing Alliance for our initial One Night Count volunteer briefing, I thanked the twinkling stars above it wasn’t raining. Over 800 of us would spread out across King County to search for and count people sleeping outside without shelter. The One Night Count (organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness) would be a snapshot of homelessness between the hours of 2 and 5am.

As the count began, my team and I quietly weaved our way around the streetlamp-lit areas first, peeking into parked cars and doorways. There was no one in sight. It seemed as if everyone else in the world had vanished. That feeling was probably what allowed me to peer into the dark gaps between dumpsters, or make my way into the spaces between buildings I would never, under normal circumstances, walk into at night. The mood was warm – light, like the glow from the lamps overhead. But that would change.

The cold reality
As the condensation slowly turned to frost, the warmth I had felt was replaced with a shiver. A large park was last on our map to check. We had been told before setting out that we would likely find people here; people really do come to this park to sleep. I was fearful; beyond the reach of the sentinel streetlights, the shadowed expanse behind the vine-choked fence was eerie and unnerving.

It’s one thing to think about the experience of homelessness while warm and safe in bed, but actually going to places where people without homes might sleep was entirely different. I couldn’t imagine having to decide where to sleep each night, let alone the circumstances that would lead me to believe that entering a dark park – without a flashlight – was the best option. What I felt was probably only a glimpse of the fear people experiencing homelessness deal with every day.

We found no one sleeping in the park, however – perhaps we just couldn’t see them. As we ended our search and began our walk back to our group’s meeting spot, we admitted how relieved we were to have a zero tally. That’s when we met John (name changed for privacy).

A face of homelessness
I knew immediately when I saw him that he was homeless. No one, if they could help it, would be out wearing only a thin hoodie and track pants. He threw a smile our way then politely asked us who we were with – noting the bright yellow “volunteer” stickers plastered all over our clothes. A member of our group explained what we were doing out so late at night. John paused and looked down, and then said that he, too, was without a home.

He told us his story and of the complications preventing him from getting the help he needed. All the problems he recounted wove perfectly into the pattern of homelessness – all the issues that agencies like ours are fighting to dismantle. As we talked, he shivered uncontrollably, so strongly at one point he almost lost his balance. And then, diplomatically, he asked if us if there was anything we could do to help.

My coworker and I locked eyes; no words were needed to express how we felt. We had nothing to offer at that moment. If we felt helpless, John’s feelings of utter hopelessness must have been overwhelming. Indeed, he started to sob for a moment in the crook of his arm, hiding his face so we couldn’t see. With tears still caught in the lines under his eyes, he explained his medical condition and the barriers he’s faced seeking treatment.

Clearly suffering from the cold, he said he needed to go to the hospital and asked if we could call 9-1-1, so we did. Fearful of what might have happened to him if we hadn’t been there to call for help, I was suddenly grateful for the icy phone I squeezed in my pocket. He asked us to stay with him until the ambulance arrived. He was still shaking and having trouble standing, so we walked over to the stairs behind us so he could sit. We continued to talk – about his childhood and how he got his name – named after his father’s wartime buddy. He made jokes about what it was like fighting for bathroom time in a house with four sisters.

A human connection
When the fire truck pulled up, he held out his hand to me to shake as he thanked us. He did not let go, but held my hand as he continued to talk on, not wanting us to leave. I didn’t try to pull away. How long had it been since he was able to just talk to someone – for someone to listen? How long since he was comforted by another person’s touch? No, I wouldn’t let go until he did – or until the paramedics made me, which is what happened.

We didn’t wait to see if they would take John somewhere or leave him; after touching base with our whole group, we went our separate ways. And as I drove by on my way home, John was gone. I hoped he was on his way to a warm bed.

The impact of that night lasted far longer than the cold that soaked into my bones after only three hours outside. I shivered the rest of the morning thinking about John and my experience participating in the One Night Count – my electric blanket turned all the way up. Two pairs of socks, two sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of pants weren’t enough to warm me – inside or out. While the experience of homelessness is impossible to understand in just a few hours’ time, I came away with a very important lesson that I keep reminding myself of: Be grateful for all that I have – not just a warm bed or a cell phone, but a loved one’s open ears and caring embrace.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information on the One Night Count, please visit: www.homelessinfo.org.

How the One Night Count changed my perspective.

Overnight Thursday – Friday, January 23-24, hundreds of volunteers from across King County showed up to help with the One Night Count‘s Street Count of people sleeping without shelter. They started at headquarters from Seattle to Shoreline to Bellevue, Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, White Center, the University District, and Renton. And together, over three hours, they helped us to document 3,123 people who were trying to make it through a winter night outside, while shelters were full.

While volunteers share the same mission during the Count and a common vision of our community without homelessness, each volunteer has their own unique story. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting the stories of One Night Count volunteers.

This first story is from Rebecca R., who coincidentally shares my first name and last initial! Here are her words:

I did not know what to expect going into my first One Night Count. I work with people who are homeless every day in my job at the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank, but that’s different. For starters, it’s not in the middle of the night. Next, people usually come to me; I don’t seek them out, potentially invading their space and privacy. So I woke up at 1 a.m. Friday morning feeling a strange mix of excitement, nervousness and grogginess.

I requested and was placed at the Renton Headquarters. The rest of my team was made up of our Team Captain, two other counters, and me. It was wonderful to connect with other people who work in fields that are different from mine, but that all touch the same populations.

We set out right at 2 a.m., all piling into our Team Captain’s car for our first stop. We stopped at stores, parks and underpasses, always searching for sleeping forms or tents. We tried to be as quiet as possible, so we wouldn’t disturb sleeping people. None of us complained about the early hour or the cold, because how could we, when we were looking at people sleeping outside? The One Night Count really puts things into perspective, highlighting the day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute struggle of people who literally have nowhere to go. There is no place for people to sleep comfortably and safely outdoors. At best, they find an isolated spot, crawl into a sleeping bag and wake up with the sun. Worst case, people are assaulted, have their possessions stolen, or told to move on.

By 5 a.m. we had covered our assigned area and headed back to the Renton Headquarters to warm up and grab some breakfast. Our team had counted a total of 7 people, including a few people in campers and tents.

I can now see our customers who are homeless with new eyes. They are coming into the Food Bank having struggled for hours to get warm, dry and comfortable, plus get a little sleep. If they seem out of it or irritable, who wouldn’t be after that ordeal, day after day, night after night? The One Night Count is not only a count of people who are homeless in our community, it is a reminder that we cannot judge someone’s attitude, action or ability to accomplish seemingly simple tasks if they do not have a safe and warm place to sleep.

I am not saying it is feasible to immediately house everyone who is living outside. But what we can do, right now, today is to look at our homeless neighbors with new eyes. We can find it within us to smile instead of look away. Buy a hot cup of coffee for someone who looks cold. Feel compassion instead of irritation when someone asks for change. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to help with the 2014 One Night Count, and for the chance to see so many people with a new perspective. 

Rebecca, we’re grateful for you. Thank you for sharing in this work to ensure safety and survival for people who are homeless, and to see an end to homelessness in our region.

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