This past week, the leaders of Seattle and King County announced they’re rushing to open a slew of emergency shelters for the homeless — including one, as caught my eye, in the port industrial area down on Harbor Island.
“In the last three weeks, the City of Seattle and King County have worked quickly to rapidly create almost 1,900 spaces for individuals experiencing homelessness, so we can slow the spread of COVID-19,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said.
This is a good and necessary development, so I’m not criticizing it. But it did give me pause — because of how officials had declared a homelessness emergency in our region due to lack of shelter more than four years ago.
In fact a slew of public health experts called for the rapid deployment of temporary shelter just like this, including possible FEMA-like tents down on Harbor Island, due to a “public health disaster” in Seattle’s unauthorized encampments way back in … 2018.
They didn’t do it then. Yet the 1,900 spaces created just in the past three weeks is nearly double the total emergency shelter beds put up by Seattle and King County in more than four years of responding to the emergency that they declared in November 2015, according to their websites.
The new emergency seems to have made that old emergency more … emergent.
Some of the new shelter is in places that it couldn’t have gone before, such as community centers (which are temporarily on coronavirus shutdown). But I was struck by how a Seattle Times story said the main purpose of the 1,900 new spaces is to ease often intense crowding at the existing shelters — where social distancing is impossible, as people can be crammed together, on mats on the floor, much closer than 6 feet apart.
It’s one of the many times in the past few weeks I’ve caught myself wondering: Why, before coronavirus, were we tolerating it like that in the first place? Yet that’s the way we’ve been doing many emergency shelters for decades.
Ditto with the jail. King County announced it temporarily won’t confine people suspected of minor, nonviolent offenses, to avoid stuffing multiple prisoners into each cell — again due to COVID-19. But was it sound policy to be doing that anyway?
Nobody knows where the coronavirus is headed. But it already has exposed some uncomfortable realities — directly in front of our noses to the point that we could no longer see them.
Take, say, the digital divide — the online haves and have-nots in our schools. It’s been talked about as a serious problem for decades, but nobody ever does much about it. That’s why I was so impressed, in my last column, that Los Angeles is trying to convert its entire school district to online learning during the coronavirus lockdown (so are New York, Miami, and many other big urban school districts, but so far not Seattle).
It probably won’t work that well, in the short term. But Los Angeles is not going after the present crisis so much as that other entrenched one. The goal is to figure out how the digital gap might be bridged, the educational culture changed once and for all, after the coronavirus has passed. (Maybe municipal broadband would help?)
Here’s a more trivial example: Airline change fees. I was rebooking a $160 flight home from college for my daughter recently when the agent said “oh, of course there’s a $200 change fee, but we’re waiving that due to the coronavirus.” As if the airline was doing me one giant pandemic favor.
But why do we ever allow any business to levy a fee that, in this case, amounted to 125% of the original charge? It’s usurious and ought to be restricted, pandemic or no — especially now that we taxpayers are bailing out the airlines.
“All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is (expletive), with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest,” wrote Dan Kois in a great essay at Slate.com. I would add “inertia” to his list of reasons, but he’s on to something.
His example was how the feds had suddenly allowed passengers to bring 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer onto planes — without apparent concern about planes getting blown up. It’s “because the (liquid carry-on) limit was always arbitrary,” Kois writes. “Just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day.”
The question is, when this is over: Will we go back ? Back to the absurd, gouging rules and to numbly looking the other way at crises in plain view like homelessness? Given the theater rituals of modern life, probably we will. But we are being temporarily jarred, at least, to see.
Speaking of being jarred, my idea that every bored, quarantined Seattle high schooler read the same book got tons of response — a lot of it slagging my pick for the book (“Lord of the Flies”).
“Your reading recommendation is sorely out of date. Seriously,” one teacher wrote.
She suggested “The Marrow Thieves,” by Cherie Dimaline — about a contagion of sorts that only afflicts white people. Other picks for our new Quarantine Book Club were Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” “A Journal of the Plague Year,” “Station Eleven” (about a swine flu outbreak), “Severance” (a “zombie pandemic” novel I’m currently reading) and a 1024-page Italian masterpiece called “The Decameron” (about the Black Death, and written in 1353!).
A great dystopia book that relates to everything in today’s column is “Blindness,” by José Saramago. It’s about the descent into madness of a society that suddenly goes blind. Can it relearn how — and more importantly what — to see? A school district could do worse than to discuss this for the next few weeks.