If land or by Seattle

Everett contemplates a volcano

I contemplate a volcano

It was in the parking log at Costco where a woman, looking wholly bereft of home and afflicted of something came right up to me as if I were an old friend and asked if I could help her out by giving her money. I had been completely focused on how to get twenty pounds of flour into a space the size of one small Pomeranian, which assuredly is no easy task. So I nearly jumped from hearing her inquiry, and it took me longer than it should have to explain that I didn’t actually have any cash on me, sorry. She shuffled off, not unlike a zombie, and I realized she could have been a posterchild for the anti-meth campaigns of the Pacific Northwest. My heart went out to her, and even so, I was a bit unnerved.

It occurred to me after this incident that different places have different expectations for interacting with strangers. In DC it’s either tourists who are chronically clueless about their surroundings, laden with a map of the city or not, or it’s someone panhandling. The lobbyists, lawyers, government workers, hotel staff, cab drivers, administrative assistants, Metro drivers, and other commuters all keep to themselves, wanting no part of any conversation with anyone else. I rode the Metro for years, and very infrequently did I ever hear two people conversing who hadn’t boarded together. MP3 players were the best thing to happen to the silent travelers of DC—suddenly everyone had an easy means for ignoring the world around them.

So people looking for money from the hands of strangers kept, for the most part, personal distance, and requests were limited to the actual sidewalk or on public transportation. I think that’s why I was startled here in Seattle. I actually had to spend the better part of a second realizing that this wasn’t an old friend or acquaintance of mine, because she walked right up to me, and I in turn was right up against my open vehicle. It was her lack of recognition for whatever vulnerability I had at that moment that started my first sense of anxiety.

But for my part, I was just as destabilizing to her, because as soon as I recognized that all she wanted was money, which I was actually out of, having just left Costco, I went immediately into my DC-generated response when I don’t have cash to donate, which is, “I don’t have any money on me, sorry.” In DC this ends the exchange, 7 times out of 10 the requester will then ask God to bless me or tell me to have a nice day, and then I’ll wonder how much of their request was tinged with a need for human interaction and a measure of dignity that someone will talk to them. This woman, on the other hand, seemed shocked that I’d make eye contact with her, much less have a quick answer.

It occurs to me that people are less straightforward in Seattle than in DC, so people looking for handouts need to be more in their face. But the other big adjustment seems to be about sobriety: I can’t remember even a single instance of a non-sober person asking me for money in DC. Not a one. But everyone in Seattle who has asked for money has seemed to have an affect for one reason or another. And there seem to be many more homeless folks here than back out east, and I have no idea why that is. I’m sure there are experts out there who analyze such things, who advocate for this solution or that, but I don’t know who they are or what their positions amount to. But I’ve never thought about how different cultural expectations for civility play into how people on the margins express themselves. And clearly, there’s some kind of effect or panhandling would look the same no matter the geography.

For our part, I’m very glad to once again have a home. We might have been without a fixed location for two months by choice, but I don’t for a minute want to lose sight of the millions of people who have lost their houses or who are without their own home but who desperately need their own place. We are very lucky people.

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Categories: ponderings, transplanted

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4 Comments on “If land or by Seattle”

  1. Hsofia
    August 10, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    Reasons I’ve heard for why there are more visible homeless in the big cities of the NW than some cities back east and in the south:

    -Milder weather year round
    -Greater political tolerance on part of residents, for loiterers, panhandlers, etc.
    -Few urban centers in Oregon and Washington, so homeless concentrate in handful of places
    -Good, affordable transportation systems; free downtown zones in Seattle and Portland
    -Can’t speak for Seattle, but Oregon is #1 or #2 for highest hunger rate in country (for years running) and unemployment.
    -Mental health institutions shut down.
    -Availability of seasonal jobs
    -Safer streets, lower violent crime than other major metro areas
    -It’s really beautiful

    • evmaroon
      August 10, 2010 at 8:36 am #

      @hsofia: Your list makes a hell of a lot of sense. DC does have weather extremes that could make it difficult for a person who doesn’t want to contend with the shelter environment. One point I forgot to mention was that the DC homeless seem, on average, to be at least 10 years older than the homeless folks I’ve seen in Seattle, but this could just be bad memory.
      I think your second to last point is fascinating, given that Giulianni in NYC saw homeless visibility as a marker for crime and rounded them up like criminals when he was mayor. Homeless people want safe streets, too.

  2. hsofia
    August 10, 2010 at 10:41 am #

    In Portland – and I can see it in Seattle, too – there is a homeless subculture of young people who have run away from home or foster care (for whatever reason, sometimes it’s abuse, sometimes it’s not) and join street families. A lot of these folks travel south in winter to California, and then head back north in summer. A few years ago, a mentally disabled young woman was murdered by her street family and her body was left on the Esplanade (a popular recreational path) near downtown Portland. When they rounded up the family, it was about a dozen folks, and I don’t think even one was over 30. Her name was Jessica Kate Williams. A bunch of people were sent to prison for what they did, but of course, there were no more resources allotted to helping young people in that situation.

    • evmaroon
      August 10, 2010 at 10:51 am #

      Wow, that’s heartbreaking. There are so many, many people on the margins who become throwaway in one way or another. In the summer of 2006, I think it was, four transgender women of color were murdered in DC, and as any details came out one could see just how strapped of services the city really was, while at the same time its criminal justice system seemed happy to harass them and keep them in an untenable situation on the streets. I’m with Dean Spade when he rails against putting more money into law enforcement…if just half of it could go to more addiction recovery, safe homeless shelters, meal centers, and other programs, well…I suppose I’m idealist.

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