“There’s just no solution for homelessness.”
That’s what my friend said as we passed the remnants of ‘The Jungle,” the massive homeless camp under Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle. He said it, as I have heard many other people say it before, as if homelessness were as inevitable as the changing of the seasons, as if homelessness were a natural force and had no discernable cause.
All of which is ridiculous — and patently false — but somehow reassuring.
If it is natural, there is nothing we can – or should – do about it. If it is natural, there was nothing any of us did to bring it about. There is no solution precisely because there is no cause.
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But with homelessness, we all know better. Like every social problem, it has a host of contributing factors.
The word “homeless” came into public discourse in 1980, the same year federal laws changed regarding the mentally ill. Instead of being cared for (and monitored) at institutions, the mentally ill were released and “allowed” to live on their own.
You don’t have to be a Realtor to know what housing prices (and rents) have done since 1980. And you don’t need to be poor to know that pay has not kept up with housing prices.
According to surveys, about half of the homeless suffer from mental illness, about a fourth are employed, and many previously owned homes.
The majority are not there by choice; many were dislocated because of changes in ownership, dissolution of a relationship, aging out of foster care or escape from abuse. The cliché among homeless advocates is that all of us are three paychecks away from being homeless.
Widespread homelessness is the result of market forces, shortsighted policies and misguided priorities.
The term “affordable housing” is also a relatively recent phrase. The assumption, just a few years ago, was that everyone needed housing and therefore housing should be, by definition, accessible to everyone.
The idea of children — or whole families — being homeless was inconceivable before 1980. Now it is normal, at least for some.
I still can’t adjust to the presence of individuals camped out in doorways, parks, alleys and libraries. This is not a natural phenomenon. This is a living expression of social neglect, cowardice and incompetence on a massive scale.
There is no reason — and no excuse — for semi-permanent, all-ages homelessness. But too many of us are comfortable with it as long at it doesn’t hit too close to home.
As long as it is other people — people we don’t know — anonymous and disheveled, hidden in the forlorn corners of our city, we don’t really care.
And that is why homelessness will only become a greater — more intrusive — problem.
I remember when there were no visible homeless people, when there was not garbage and human waste in every vacant lot, when libraries were not filled with weary people and their battered bags.
Our homeless problem took many years to create, but it need not take years to correct.
Providing housing for homeless individuals is far cheaper than cleaning up after them and rescuing them from acts of violence, disease or weather.
Yes, many have drug or alcohol problems. If you were homeless, you probably would too.
The solution is actually very simple: They need what we all need — a place to call home. As much as it might make us feel better, they don’t really need scarves or hats or blankets, or even snacks.
Affordable housing costs far less than the continuing cost to our reputation, our personal safety and the endless, pointless sweeps of homeless camps.
I often wonder what previous — or future — generations would think of our streets, doorways and parks filled with makeshift camps and shelters.
What do we tell our children, or ourselves, if we get close to that three-paycheck threshold?
And I wonder what the homeless think of us as we hurry by and pretend not to see them.
M. (Morf) Morford, a former News Tribune reader columnist, is chairman of the North End Neighborhood Council. Email him at email@example.com.