Driving to work this morning, I heard on the radio that a man had fallen to his death from a Seattle freeway ramp. The police thought he’d lived at a homeless camp. The incident reminded me of an article I’d read last week about a 21 percent increase in the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets or in their vehicles in King County.
The annual One Night Count found 3,772 people camping along freeway overpasses, in campers and cars, in doorways, and under bridges. In addition, a 100 or so people were found, riding night owl buses to keep warm and dry. It’d never occurred to me that riding a bus all night was an alternative to being on the street or in a shelter until I read an article about The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority bus 22, which runs 24-hours, going from East San Jose to Palo Alto, California. Every night and into the early morning hours, the bus is full of homeless people, paying $2 for the two-hour, one-way trip.
They ride the bus all night, sleeping between the herky-jerky stops, and then disembarking at the end of the route, getting back on the bus a few minutes later, to go the other direction.
The increase in homelessness, at least in Seattle, is tied to soaring rents, loss of older, more affordable apartment buildings, persistent poverty, unemployment, and inadequate treatment of resources for the addicted and mentally ill.
Several years ago, I helped move residents from a tent city being hosted at a church in Redmond to a synagogue in Bellevue. I remember showing up, and seeing piles of pallets, on which the residents pitched their tents. While handled with great dignity, the tent city was a horrific existence, especially when it rained, when a trip to the porta-potty required putting on shoes, and slogging on muddy paths.
I made a couple of trips in my car, moving residents and their possessions between the church and synagogue. One man, with a British accent and a gentle manner, had a suit, shirt, and tie in a cleaner bag. I asked about the outfit. He said he used to be a programmer for a company in Seattle. He’s gotten laid-off and couldn’t find another job. He wore the suit when he interviewed.
It was a startling admission, and just showed how quickly someone can “fall” when they can’t find employment or as happened several years ago, can’t afford the mortgage on a house or condo. I wonder how many whose houses were foreclosed are still living in apartments or with friends and relatives. On a regular basis, the Seattle Times has articles about people being displaced when their affordable apartment was renovated and turned into more expensive apartments or sold as condos.
Even though people think of homeless people existing primarily in downtown Seattle, it’s in plain site on the Eastside. When I lived in downtown Bellevue, I remember seeing an elderly woman begging by the freeway off-ramp. After getting home, I gathered up all my change and bills, and walked back to the off-ramp. She was dressed in soiled, but tidy clothes, a safety pin held the collar of her shirt together.
She said that she took care of her mother until she recently died. She then found herself on the street. To this day, I wish I’d offered her the extra bedroom in my apartment. She could have taken a shower, and I could have purchased her clean clothes, and investigated social services the following day.
I was reminded of her a few weeks ago when I was getting on the freeway in Kirkland. An elderly woman, wearing men’s loafers (they appeared to be several sizes too large) and shabby, mismatched clothing was holding a sign, indicating she was homeless. The signal turned before I could reach for a dollar or two to give her.
A few hours later, at Pike’s Market, I watched as the women in the restroom step aside to make way for an elderly woman, also wearing men’s shoes, and pushing a cart, filled with her belongings. They seemed embarrassed by her, but I was embarrassed in an upscale town like Seattle there are around 8,000 people without shelter every night.