I didn’t truly understand the nuances of homelessness until I started writing about it. I had accepted a reporting position at a daily newspaper nearly a decade ago, and one of my first assignments was to cover a certain city’s homelessness crisis.
I suddenly became a de facto referee for that city’s homelessness debate.
On one side, downtown business owners blamed the homeless for scaring away customers and creating an unsafe environment.
On the other side, activists worked tirelessly to find services and shelter so that the homeless could take back their lives.
Caught in the middle of the debate, seemingly without a real voice, was the actual homeless population. I made it my mission to spend time on their “turf.” I often walked around downtown at night to see what residents meant when they said Olympia was a different place when the homeless ruled the sidewalks. Almost daily, I filled my cup at the Artesian Well, a free-flowing natural spigot of filtered water where the homeless population congregated.
Most importantly, I listened to their stories.
Vietnam War veterans made up a surprising number of people experiencing homelessness, and many times, their pride or lack of awareness kept them from seeking the help they needed.
I met runaway teens who were kicked out of their homes for being gay or transgender.
I talked with former drug addicts, including one who had overdosed on those same streets the year before.
One guy was an unabashed alcoholic who camped on a nearby lot, coming downtown once a week for food and a shower — and he was totally fine with his lifestyle.
I once met a woman in her 40s who had recently escaped a domestic violence situation, and if it weren’t for the fluffy holiday sweater and mom jeans, I would have never guessed she was homeless.
Yes, there were individuals who caused a higher proportion of problems for law enforcement and businesses.
I recall one man who could often be seen swearing and yelling at a light post, the symptoms of his mental illness on full public display.
Business owners had grown weary of people defecating or passing out in their entryways. The local police blotter included entries about people in the homeless community who usually committed crimes against one another, living in a world where it was safer to sleep during daylight.
The main lesson that stays with me today is that anyone can become homeless, whether through bad luck or poor decisions, and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
It’s easy to blame politicians who either haven’t acted enough, or have been looking for solutions in the wrong direction. I imagine that nobody likes the blight in areas where the homeless gather, and nobody wants to feel uncomfortable by being asked for spare change while pumping gas.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the homelessness crisis in Mercer Island, Seattle, King County and beyond. And perhaps the Golden Rule and basic empathy aren’t for everyone. But we will never end homelessness by clearing encampments, loading people onto a bus, dusting off our hands and hoping that someone else is manning the light at the end of the tunnel.
Andy Hobbs is editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.