Tuesday, January 24, 2023

A new home amid the unhoused in Seattle

Although partially occluded by the tall buildings across the street, the view of the Seattle harbor area from our apartment in the Belltown neighborhood is a source of endless fascination, especially at night, what with ferries and water taxis coming and going, the colorful Seattle Great Wheel turning, and the reflection of lights on the water. Through a combination of online ordering and going all over Seattle by foot or by public transport, we are slowly acquiring the basic things we need to live “normally” here. 

We have discovered Pike Place Market and its warren of shops, we have tried several different kinds of new-to-us cuisines (Laotian, Filipino), we’ve been taken aback by the high prices of just about everything, we’ve been forced to remember that the prices on stickers and signs for non-grocery items don’t include sales tax (as price tags do in Europe), and… we are daily reminded of the disparities in fortune, of rampant economic and social inequality, of classism and racism, every time we step out of our building.

Much of downtown Seattle’s unhoused population used to subsist in a large encampment right at City Hall, several blocks away. From what I’ve read, continuous, destructive police sweeps during 2022 have driven the people into other parts of the city — and in particular, into Belltown. Small tents and sleeping bags, repurposed umbrellas, blankets, shopping carts dot the various entryways all along Third Avenue — particularly the entryways of vacant buildings marked for demolition to make way for even more high-rise office and apartment buildings. (In other words, buildings like ours.)

I know that France and Germany both have large numbers of unhoused people, but there were none in our tiny village and very few in Grenoble. Even in Berlin, the unhoused population was some 6,500 out of 3.5M, versus 11,700 out of 2.5M for Seattle, so we did not see as many “rough sleepers” there as we do here. 

I have a lot to learn about what Seattle and the state of Washington are doing, and what charities and non-profits are doing to try to address the needs of the people on the streets, and how I can meaningfully help. That so many people — including veterans, the disabled, and the mentally ill — in one of the world’s wealthiest countries are without a safe place to live and to shelter from the elements isn’t something I can comfortably ignore anymore. And for some reason, this problem did not figure among the many other reservations I had when thinking about moving back to America. How naive and wildly overprivileged of me.

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