When Homelessness Comes Home

I’ve been observing, volunteering and writing about homelessness in Seattle for the past 28 months. My writing, and subsequent activism on the issue, was sparked by regular encounters with people sleeping on the streets of the University District.

I’ve worked in the neighborhood since the fall of 2012, and because I parked on the street about a half-mile from work, I walked through the neighborhood every weekday. Seeing all the people sleeping in doorways finally got to me, and I started speaking out.

Urban camping.

Seattle, We Have a Problem

A year ago, I moved out of the Greenwood neighborhood where I’d lived since 1997. The rent was rising rapidly in my apartment building — after it was bought by a large developer; how very Seattle — and I decided to make a change.

Competition for affordable apartments in Seattle is steep, and I felt pretty lucky to find a fairly cheap one-bedroom place in the U-District. I essentially went from living five miles away from my job to five blocks away. I was (and remain) elated to be able to walk to work every morning in less than ten minutes. It’s also nice that I’m equally close to ROOTS, the youth homeless shelter where I volunteer every Saturday night.

What’s the catch? Well, the new place is much smaller than my previous apartment. Tiny kitchen, no more deck, bathroom closet or storage area. The building isn’t as nice. The neighborhood is much louder and busier. And the parking isn’t secure (even though they charge $70 a month for a space).

I didn’t actually think the parking thing was going to be a problem. After all, I drive a beat-up 2004 Prius. What could go wrong?

What I didn’t expect was for my car to be prowled twice in the first two months (the only thing they got was an old broken laptop — what, aren’t my Billy Joel CDs worth anything?). It was a little disconcerting, but I shrugged it off. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that there was a medical marijuana dispensary directly across the alley from my building. I was relieved when the shop closed down in early July. (It was immediately torn down to make way for another expensive new apartment building; they grow like mushrooms in the Seattle rain around here.)

Urban Camping

What I REALLY didn’t expect was what happened over the weekend… when a young couple started bedding down in the parking spot directly behind mine. That’s them in the picture.

I’ve definitely seen homeless people hanging around in the alley behind my building, which the parking area abuts. They’re usually quietly going through the dumpsters. I just chalked it up to being part of the deal when living in the U-District. Of all people, I should understand. Mostly, I ignored them and they ignored me.

$70 a month.

(For some reason, I don’t feel the same comfort level in stopping to talk to them as I do with the people hanging out near the Safeway. In this situation, it would feel more like I’m asking them what they are doing.)

But somehow, this is different. These two people are on my property, in a way. It would be like if you owned a home and people started sleeping in the street right in front of your house, next to your car. (In fact, I know someone who lives in a van parked on a Seattle residential street, so that scenario is actually quite real.)

The first time I saw them was about 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I was getting into my car to head to a friend’s house. I almost pulled away, then stopped the car and got out. I walked up to them and said, “Excuse me. I just wanted to let you know that I volunteer at a youth shelter near here. It’s called ROOTS. If you’re between 18 and 25, you can stay there.” (I don’t know how old they are, but it looks like they probably fit the age range.)

At first they ignored me, but finally the guy (without opening his eyes) murmured, “No, we don’t stay at ROOTS.” His (I presume) girlfriend snuggled up closer to him. I didn’t know what else to say, but finally I blurted, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to be able to stay here very long.” And then I drove away.

I thought maybe it was a one-time thing, but I saw them again the next morning in the same place. Later I saw two guys hanging out in the spot during the day, their stuff piled next to them. Once it appeared that one of them was brushing his teeth. He seemed to be saying something to me, but I had the windows rolled up and the music going in the car, so I just kept backing out and ignored him.

Tonight, five days later, there was one person sleeping there. This is starting to become a permanent thing, apparently. (Maybe they are paying $70 a month for a spot, just like me?)

Engage or Ignore?

So, my question is, what do I do? Do I try to talk to these people? (They are usually asleep, or at least trying to, or feigning it.) Do I report them to my building manager? (Surely someone else has already done so, or she has seen them herself, since she lives here too. But they are still there.) Do I call the cops?

And if I do report them, am I being a hypocrite? After all, I’m the guy who is always talking about treating the homeless as real people, deserving of compassion and respect. Complaining to the manager or calling the police doesn’t really square with that stance. (And if the cops do come and remove the couple from their spot, they’ll probably just end up sleeping somewhere else nearby. Perhaps out in the open, in a less safe space.)

And why do I not feel comfortable talking to them, and seeing if I can help? Maybe bring them some food, or just lend an ear?

Is it because they are so brazen? Because they project an attitude of, “Leave us alone”? Is it because they are younger than me, and bigger? Or do I somehow subconsciously believe that if I ignore them, they’ll disappear?

Or maybe… maybe it’s because they aren’t just hanging out on the corner, or in front of the Safeway or another business. This has become personal. It’s an encroachment, hitting me where I live — literally too close to home. I think that’s the most likely explanation.

And so I walk by the sleeping figure one more time, unlock the door, and head into my apartment. Where I sit, writing, and wondering if the homelessness crisis in this city is just going to keep getting worse. And worse. It seems that way. And your neighborhood could be next.

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