Together, citizen advocates, volunteers and the public and private sectors can reduce the number of times the bells chime in memory of those who died homeless, in shelters or under bridges in our community.
Earlier this month, I attended St. James Cathedral’s Requiem Mass for the 127 homeless members of our community who spent their last moments in shelters or under bridges. They were as young as an infant (“Baby Boy ‘A’ ”) and as old as 71 (“Chester”) but shared a common bond, nonetheless.
No headlines, photos or histories honored them in the way other Americans lost to recent tragedies have been. Unfortunate enough to live in a city that couldn’t meet their basic human needs in life, at least in death we named them as best we could.
What an aberration in this, one of America’s most prosperous cities. Indeed, we see the increasingly yawning gap reflected in local headlines: “ ‘We still need to eat’: Tech boom creates working homeless”; “East Coast offers homeless insights as West Coast struggles”; “Student homelessness in Seattle growing at New York City rates.”
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Is this Seattle?
Walking to my condominium on First Hill, I see the stark contrast between the lives of my inside neighbors and the lives of my outside neighbors. My inside neighbors went to college, have advanced degrees. My outside neighbors speak in voices, sleep on benches and buses, and battle addiction, having been brought low by the harsh headwinds of rising housing costs, domestic violence, lack of mental-health care and opioids.
The problem is ours, but so is the solution. I am convinced a drive that combines advocacy and private and government funding will turn this situation around. The possibilities are unlimited.
I am so proud of my inside neighbors, who have formed a Committee on Homelessness; hosted nonprofits; and emptied their closets and storage bins to donate clothing and other supplies to our outside neighbors. We are preparing Thanksgiving for the homeless. We make sandwiches for a men’s shelter. We deliver warm clothing to YouthCare and furniture to St. Francis House. We help young children learn to read. We hope doing so will inspire other buildings to do the same. One neighbor, a psychiatrist, visits St. James Cathedral, where 150 homeless are fed every night. “I just listen to their stories,” he tells me.
And any of us can promote improved mental-health services. According to a 2016 report from the national nonprofit Mental Health America, Washington state is second worst in the nation in caring for adults with mental illness. Anyone can be an advocate for improving the mentally ill’s chances, whether attending Seattle City Council meetings or by writing our state Legislature. Even if it means higher taxes for adequate services, ultimately it will save incarceration costs and emergency services, while making our streets safer.
Public financing also could make a critical difference, and we’re fortunate Mayor Tim Burgess and Mayor-elect Jenny Durkan support the Mandatory Housing Affordability Program to encourage developers to incorporate affordable housing into their designs.
I have every expectation that Mayor-elect Durkan will thoughtfully pursue a wide variety of strategies to address this crisis.
Finally, nonprofits like Compass at First Presbyterian exemplify collaborative efforts between the government and private sector. There is much we can do for them. We can volunteer. We can write checks.
When those bells chimed 127 times — once for each deceased homeless person — I prayed for a 2018 with fewer bells for our homeless neighbors. I prayed for a day when the Requiem is canceled because our neighbors are housed and supported. But until that day, I am convinced that we can take substantive steps that save lives now.
We just have to do it together.