Premier is Oct. 21 at the Admiral Theater
Premier is Oct. 21 at the Admiral Theater
By Tomasz Biernacki
I recently read an open letter to the Mayor, on WestsideSeattle.com, regarding frustration around the RV dwellers on Harbor Ave SW and the homeless situation in general. Other posts on social media echo this same dissatisfaction (disgust even?) at city leadership and the homeless population. All of us in Seattle can, on some level, relate to the familiar line of thinking: that homeless people are dangerous drug addicted criminals, lazy ingrates who don’t want to work, or are not “from here” and are only in Seattle to take advantage of the available services.
Much of this ideology is misguided, misleading and frequently flat out inaccurate.
I myself live near Harbor Ave in West Seattle. A few times a week, my wife and I walk along this corridor to Alki Beach. For a long time, I wondered “who are these people, why do they live in RVs?” I found myself wanting to say hello, but did not know how. One day, about six months ago, someone posted an angry message on the Facebook group “West Seattle Connection.” The message came from a distraught RV resident on Harbor Ave whose window had been shot out with a BB gun the previous night. I reached out and took the opportunity to speak with her about the incident and her life in general, and in turn, she introduced me to others in similar situations.
As I got to know these folks, I realized that what I knew about homelessness (the stereotypes and stigmas, fear and even revulsion) was wrong and often unfounded. The people I met living in RVs and cars on Harbor Ave were just normal people. Every person I met had a unique story; there was no blanket explanation pinpointing why they were there. They were people who work but couldn’t quite make ends meet, people with disabilities or who were getting on in years, people who were facing addiction (often triggered by the trauma of homelessness itself), and people who were dealing with mental or physical health challenges with minimal access to healthcare. Despite the different backstories, there was one common thread: all of them share the same passion for life that you and I do.
The deeper I dove into researching this subject, the more I realized how wrong we are about the issue of homelessness.
I approached city council members and ex-mayors to hear their perspectives. The general theme was that they continue to try and find effective, visible, ways to address this complex issue with the limited resources available to them. They are under constant attack from groups that, in my opinion, do not really care to be part of a healthy society. Their primary interests lie with maximizing profits, which doesn’t do much to support the community.
Additionally, I have spent time with people who provide support to our homeless neighbors. These volunteers have an infectious passion for helping others. They work tirelessly to feed, clothe, and provide medical services to ease the suffering that is happening on our streets everyday.
These service providers wrestle with the same doubts and frustrations that we all do, but unlike most of us, they are actively helping our neighbors in need. By being engaged with the homeless population, they actually witness the realities of our current economy. They understand that most people become homeless because they lose their job, or have a health crisis, or in some cases develop a drug addiction stemming from prescription pain killers that were prescribed because of a necessary surgery. They understand that the vast majority of housed people are closer to homelessness than they’d like to admit. This year, the Federal Reserve released a report stating that 40% of Americans couldn’t cover a $400 emergency, and a Bankrate poll last January found that 60% of respondents couldn’t cover a $1000 emergency.
In some ways, homelessness is the canary in the coal mine affecting the most vulnerable amongst us.
I have met with advocates who promote a more humane approach than the tactics we are using now. They are directly involved in the political actions and protests that resulted in winning sanctioned encampments and more humane laws that do not punish or criminalize homelessness or poverty. These advocates understand that the economic forces we live within will push more and more of our neighbors closer to poverty and increase rates of homelessness. At the same time, I met with the people who actively oppose the elected officials’ efforts; spreading propaganda, fear, and misinformation through social media and blogs. Their message is based on the notion that homeless people are inherently lazy, dangerous, must be criminals, and should just be swept from the city.
Their solutions rely on wishful thinking that if we are just harsh enough, we can force the homeless to get treatment, to "just get a job," or that they will just leave. Better yet, the “opposition” leans heavily on the tired trope that since the city government hasn’t completely solved the problem yet, we shouldn’t contribute any more tax revenue to an already underfunded task force. These moral loopholes patently ignore the fundamental issues that cause homelessness in the first place. I personally have come to believe these people are using the crisis - the lives of people already struggling - as a wedge issue for the upcoming city elections to make us angry, to divide us. These groups aren’t proposing real solutions to truly solve this problem.
They’re disregarding the forces that drive this upside down economic system we all function in. They oppose any new funding sources that can attack this problem head on, while the reality is that the scale of response has to meet the scale of the problem. The REAL solutions that can solve this crisis will cost REAL money.
I have embedded myself at sanctioned camps were I have spent countless days getting to know the people who are desperately fleeing the horrors of living on the streets. I have gone into unsanctioned camps where there is active drug use and people are literally dying. I have met people who live in parks, green belts, cars and on the streets. They sleep in doorways, are in pain, miss their families and their communities.They suffer from mental and physical health issues and have lost a grip on their lives. And, contrary to popular belief, they are embarrassed about where they are. They still wish for a better future and yearn for the opportunity to start again; many of them just need a minute to get back to where they were before. They want to be human again. Nobody wants to be homeless.
A few days ago I spoke with an RV dweller on Harbor Ave who I have become friends with. He said he read the same letter that I mentioned. He felt shame. He is heartbroken about his situation. He is not a dangerous person, does not use drugs, and keeps his vehicle and the surrounding area clean. He takes on as much work as he can find in construction and doing odd jobs. He wanted to tell me all this so I would tell you. In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken to over the last six months eagerly shared all the positive things they are working on to better themselves. Some are starting classes at South Seattle community college this quarter, some just applied for jobs in retail and hope for a call back.
Throughout this journey, I brought my camera. I listened to countless stories and filmed interviews, and have compiled as much of it as I could into a documentary film called Trickle Down Town. It’s a story about us. It’s a story about Seattle. My hope is that it will provide insight into the complicated world that is homelessness. The people I have gotten to know do not match the typical stereotypes of what most of us think about the homeless. I don’t claim that I have found THE solution to homelessness. There are as many reasons and solutions to the problem as there are people who experience homelessness. But the common connection here is affordable housing for the people who are struggling in this trickle down economy. The common connection is family and community support. The solutions will require all of us. It’s going to take all of us to solve homelessness. Making this film changed my view on homelessness forever. I hope it creates a crack in all of us to let the light in.
The film will premier October 21st, 7PM at the Admiral Theater in West Seattle. It will be a free event but tickets will be needed. For more information or to purchase tickets check their site
The film will also be shown Saturday, November 3, at 7:00 pm. at High Point Neighborhood House, 6400 Sylvan Way SW, Seattle 98126.
- The event is free (donations accepted) and open to the public. No tickets. There's a social time, with refreshments, from 6:30 to 7:00.