In the past month, articles have been printed detailing the impact of the homeless on Snohomish County communities. These articles have quoted words like “vagrant” and “squatter,” and attributed the phrase “gypsy travelers” to a local mayor, each of which can criminalize and de-humanize homeless persons — already the most marginalized and in need of support from communities. These are individuals, children and families in our community facing homelessness, and rather than supporting them, these articles speak of efforts to further alienate them. One article detailed work to remove the homeless from Everett through a task force, while another article discussed clearing out a known “home” and encampment for people who are homeless and have been for years.
The problem is not these individuals and families who are suffering. The problem is that no one is looking at why homelessness is prevalent and what we can proactively do to alleviate it. We are looking at the person outside the grocery store and just wishing they were gone. We want to think they came north from Seattle — that’s where the “vagrants” live. We want to think they aren’t part of this community here in Snohomish County, but the truth is that they are core members of this community. These folks are our veterans who fought for the freedoms we all enjoy, they are our kids, or kids who went to school with our own children, they are folks who, although they’ve tried, haven’t recovered from the economic recession, or countless other stories.
The men, women, children and elderly we see on the street corners, in encampments and on park benches have very few opportunities to change their lives. There are extremely limited resources for emergency shelter, transitional housing, affordable permanent housing, mental health, drug and alcohol services, and work opportunities. Imagine you lose your job and your home — sell everything. f lucky, you access one of the few emergency shelter spots in our community. In your best case you immediately find a job, you save up your first two paychecks, but then you have exhausted your stay at the shelter. Now you no longer have a place to sleep, so you sleep outside. You no longer have a shower or a place to wash your clothes. You still can’t afford first and last month’s rent to sign a lease. You lose your job again because you can’t show up to work on time, and clean. At some point, you just give up.
The individuals highlighted in recent articles are homeless citizens who this community has let down. We complain when they are in the city loitering, and we complain when they are in the woods. Where do we want them to go? Are we prepared to give another chance to someone who hasn’t been successful maintaining a job? Are we prepared to offer them the necessary health care and other services they desperately need? Are we prepared to feed a friend in need? Are we prepared to help them get off the street or out of the woods and into affordable housing? If not, then this is not a community.
Until we start facing homelessness as a community problem instead of an individual’s problem we cannot address the underlying issues of homelessness. What if rather than displacing our homeless citizens, this community created a place for them to go that was safe, and had sanitation? A space where those in need could have shelter, receive services and support, and if possible, get back on their feet and break the cycle of poverty for good. Did you know there are cities in the United States who have successfully developed such places? It’s a remarkable idea and it works. Create a safe area where homeless people can live safely with sanitation — port a potties or established bathrooms. A community where all citizens are welcome and valued: This is our collective goal.
The Homeless Policy Taskforce (HPTF) is a group of 60 representatives from city and county government, non-profit agencies, advocacy groups, faith organizations, Indian Tribes, service providers, (homeless, mental health, HIV/AIDS, and other disabled populations), housing authorities and developers, and philanthropic organizations, and is an integral part in finding solutions for building communities and alleviating homelessness.
Cassie Franklin is CEO of Cocoon House and Co-Chair of the HPTF. Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett is Director of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness and Co-Chair of the HPTF.