While working on one of my garden plots in Seattle this weekend, an old neighbor stopped to chat for a while and I was stunned to hear him regurgitate the same myths about homelessness I've heard over and over again. It was during this conversation however, that it occurred to me that homelessness isn't an invisible problem; it's a highly ignored and marginalized problem which ends up making the problem worse for homeless people. Most people don't do it intentionally; it's just that they live in a bubble away from the realities of what and who the growing numbers of homeless people are.
My old neighbor immediately pointed to the chronically homeless drunks along the channel not too far from where he lives and just assumed that's who all homeless people were. I listened as he went on about the garbage problem these homeless left all along the waterway and how he and his daughter couldn't enjoy the park because of the homeless living there. That's when I told him that not all homeless people are like the ones he likes to refer to and people like me do not appreciate being stereotyped. That's when his face went blank and he stopped talking to listen to what I had to say.
The first thing I asked him was this: "If the homeless had permanent housing and support services, would they be hanging around in parks and alleyways?" Give people something better to do and a better place to go and the majority will, I said. At this point he then said that many of these homeless could get welfare and a job to which I then said "Really? Where? How can you get a job without an address? If you're mentally ill, who will hire you?" Once again, a blank stare from my ex-neighbor. That's when I told him that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem and the problem here is that too many people have the attitude that they don't have to get involved with anything so long as they're not affected. The truth is that everybody is affected by homelessness. When homeless people get sick to the point of having to be taken to the emergency room, who do you think foots the bill for that?
At this point, I told my old neighbor about not being able to keep a living wage job due to the fact that for me, full-time childcare is unaffordable and the only time I'd be able to work is when the kids are at school and even then, it would be part-time hours because there's no one to pick them up or drop them off in the mornings. I also informed my ex-neighbor that there's no such thing as welfare anymore and what's left of it is being stripped away. Although I don't agree with career welfare recipients, I do think there needs to be a better safety net for our citizens. It used to be that the Department of Social and Health Services could prevent homelessness but not anymore and if he thinks it does, try calling them as a needy person looking for help and see what happens. He was stunned to find out that Section 8 has been closed for years in this state. I then asked him to consider why there are so many more homeless people in the neighborhood than there used to be. Why did he think that was?
The look on his face told me that I had given him more to think about than he was expecting that day because he admitted that he hadn't thought about the homeless problem beyond anything outside of what he considered was an inconvenience, but that's the point, isn't it? People will continue to ignore homelessness until somebody steps forward and tells them what it's really like out here, especially if that somebody is an underemployed single mother that happens to be homeless.