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Homeless in Seattle
The hard dry ground under Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct is a refuge of
last resort for people without a home. The freeway on stilts carries
more than 100,000 vehicles a day along the waterfront. Exhaust fumes mix
sourly with the salt air off Puget Sound. At night a chill seeps in
among the warehouses, razor wire, freight tracks and shipping cranes.
Bill Block '71 believes King County's
10-year plan to end homelessness can be successful, but nobody ever said
it would be easy ...
By Michael Balchunas
One fall day, Davina Garrison, 42, who was living under the viaduct, was
set upon and clubbed in the head. Trash was piled on her, and she was
set on fire. As this happened, perhaps 100 cars and trucks a minute were
streaming by on the highway 60 feet above. When police sought to notify
her next of kin, they could find none. It was Thanksgiving, 2005.
"I think as society grows, people disconnect from those outside their
immediate circle," says Bill Block '71. "The small town took care of the
homeless in the town because they knew them."
Block, who participated in some of the city's landmark projects, such as
Pike Place Market, during his career as a real estate attorney, wants to
help ensure that somber stories about homeless people are supplanted by
Seattle's growing successes. Hard hats decorate a shelf in his modest
downtown office, mementos of groundbreakings for housing projects for
homeless or low-income people in which he has had a hand.
The year Davina was killed, a committee began carrying out a 10-year
plan to end homelessness in King County. Block, a former chair of the
Authority, is the plan's director.
"We do know what we need to do to help people leave homelessness," says
Block. "And it is within our reach to succeed." One who has found a home
is Michael Garcia, 46, who sells Real Change, an advocacy
newspaper, on a busy corner near Block's office.
Vendors like Garcia pay 35 cents each for copies of Real Change
and sell them for $1, keeping the difference. He belongs to an advisory
council that works with Block's committee.
Stylish in a bohemian beret and scarf, Garcia cheerfully greets more
prosperous passersby, many by name, and they respond in kind. "I feel
that all these people are my brothers and sisters," he says. "They have
their sorrows and tribulations just as I do. I try to present the best
aspect of homelessness that I can."
The Davina Garrison case was very disturbing to Garcia. "I just pray
that it wasn't some type of vigilante," he says. When he had no home,
Garcia rotated among three or four relatively safe places to sleep,
staying in shelters only when it was too cold to survive outside. He
still is haunted by a scene in the movie The Fisher King,
co-produced by Lynda Obst '72, in which a homeless character played by
Robin Williams is attacked and brutally beaten. "There really is a
homeless community," he says. "We try to look out for one another."
Garcia and his fiance share a $400-a-month studio apartment, tenuously.
"I would be hard-pressed to come up with a $50 rent increase," he says.
Because of his past conviction for a drug-related nonviolent crime, he
says, most landlords will not rent to him. He is not sure Seattle's plan
will work. "But I have hope," he says. "It's obscene that we have so
many people homeless. In other countries, this isn't allowed to happen.
"It can happen more easily than we may think. "One bankruptcy, one
addiction or one conviction can be a one-way ticket to homelessness,"
says Block. He is certain that the committee's plan can succeed, if the
public and political representatives can muster the will.
Block's real estate expertise is key because a major element of the plan
is the acquisition or construction of 9,500 new housing units by 2015.
That part is off to a reasonably good start.
But there is still a $30 to $35 million shortfall in the annual amount
needed to house and care for the 24,000 King County residents who become
homeless at some point during a year. About 8,000 are without a home any
given night. Many of them work, but can't afford housing. About 2,500
county residents without homes have severe disabilities and are
unemployable. "They work 24/7 just to stay alive," Block says.
Nelia Rose Barnes, 54, managed to keep working most of the time-as a
dental technician, medical assistant or chiropractor's aide-during a
10-year skein of heavy drug and alcohol use that began about 1993.
"Even when I was using, I always had a job," she says. "I never did live
on the streets. I would spend nights at shelters, going from place to
place." From an upper-middle-class background, she is a devout Christian
and has often taught Sunday school. The part of the Bible most resonant
to her is the wrenching story of King David's sons Absalom and Amnon,
and the rape of their sister Tamar. "It shows how if you keep things
secret, things can upset a family," she says.
She became a client of the Lutheran-administered Compass Center, which
provides a variety of services to help homeless people regain stable
lives, about 12 years ago. She relapsed several times, but "I've been
clean and sober for about three years now," she says.
Last year, she had both of her arthritic knees replaced. She had no
health insurance, but found a benevolent surgeon with the Compass
Center's help. Also last year, she started as a yearlong volunteer tutor
with the AmeriCorps service program, helping students at an elementary
school with reading. "This has been the experience of my lifetime," she
says. She has high hopes for a future part-time tutoring job at the
school that would supplement her disability income.
She lives in a studio apartment in permanent, subsidized housing for
low-income people adjacent to the Compass Center. "My apartment is so
beautiful," she says. "There are so many little things they provide
here, like a bathtub. The laundry is free-a little thing like that means
a lot when you have a low income."
She credits the Compass Center staff and volunteers for helping her.
"These people really want to help you succeed," she says. "I've had a
second chance at life. God has surrounded me with people who love me."
A key slogan of Block's committee is "housing first," accompanied as
needed by services such as job training, employment and addiction
counseling, health treatment and day care. The Compass Center even
provides a bank to serve very low-income people, including those without
a home. It has about 1,600 accounts.
"We know that you really can stabilize people with housing and
services," says Block, who grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.
After Pomona, he attended the University of Chicago School of Law, and
was a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. The son of a
prominent Chicago lawyer, he came to Seattle in part, he says, because
"it was big enough to be interesting, but small enough that an
individual could still have an effect."
He no longer practices law but works full time toward the committee's
goal of ending homelessness. "It fits what I do," he says. "It's a lot
of figuring out how people can work together, and that's really what I
Christine, 35, who like Garcia is a member of the committee's advisory
council, does not want her last name used. She has too much to lose.
"It has been five years almost since I was homeless," she says. "I was
in a domestic-abuse situation, drug-addicted and alcoholic. I went into
transitional housing after court-ordered treatment. I did not want to be
in prison. I wanted to have a life.
"I had become pregnant, and I knew when I had the baby, I would have to
leave the housing. The manager let me stay, against the rules, or else I
would have been on the streets. I did not want to take my baby onto the
With help from social agencies, she got a job, found childcare and was
accepted into subsidized housing with her infant and an older child
after a two-year waiting period. She worked as a law-firm clerk, but
when the firm downsized, she lost the job. She had 30 days to find
another one or lose all assistance.
"People gave me the help I needed," she says. Christine has now worked
as a litigation clerk at another firm for two years. A high school
dropout, she is an avid reader. She has obtained a GED. But her success,
like Garcia's, is built on a rickety foundation of low-wage work. "My
life is a lot better, but I still have the reality of where I came
from," she says. "I've been poor all my life. I'm making about $28,000
or $29,000 a year now." She makes that much by working two jobs. On
weekends, she does demos for a tea company. She wants to take college
courses and increase her income, but it is almost impossible. She is
already working six or seven days a week -- a lot of time to be away
from her children. She has neither the time nor money to attend classes.
Still, Christine says, "It doesn't seem that bad, compared with where I
was. I feel blessed."
Block's committee helps coordinate the work of many agencies. Bill
Hobson is the director of Downtown Emergency Services, probably
Seattle's largest single agency serving people without homes. A former
teacher, he started as an entry-level shelter counselor in 1984.
"In Seattle and King County, for the first time in my tenure, all the
right people are at the table," he said. "I think everybody is pretty
motivated to have a dramatic impact on this dismal social problem."
Changing people's attitudes would be a start."The average person's
perception of homeless individuals tends to be fear, and less benignly,
disgust," says Hobson. "There's also an attitude that, 'The poor have
always been with us.' Does that legitimize turning our backs on them?"
Hobson's agency has drawn national attention, and virulent criticism,
over a housing and treatment site for chronic alcoholics. The site, 1811
Eastlake, has been denounced by some because clients are not required to
stop drinking. "Housing first" is the idea, coupled with treatment and
services aimed at changing behavior. "There's this myth out there that
homeless people don't really want to change," Hobson says. "It's crazy."
Daniel Davies, 49, says he wants to change. He slept the previous night
in front of a Quizno's sub shop, which has an awning. Now he sits
cross-legged on a grimy blanket at a street corner, shaking a styrofoam
coffee cup containing 15 pennies, a dime and a nickel. People walk by on
their way to the Pioneer Square shopping district. Most do not glance at
him. Once in a while, someone drops something in the cup.
"I'm a pretty good mechanic," says Davies, whose conversation sometimes
rambles. "But I'm not capable of holding a job." He has high hopes,
however; he is waiting to hear about an application for Social Security
disability. Meantime, he rattles the cup all morning as people pass by.
At lunchtime, he pulls 11 dollar bills from his pocket. "God has smiled
on me today," he says.
He looks down the street for his friend Red, a homeless man who was
recently attacked and struck on the head. Red needed surgery, and now
has to wear a protective helmet. Davies fears that he too may be
attacked. It's an old worry. When asked how long he has been living on
the streets of Seattle, nurturing hope for a windfall, his reply is
startling: 15 years. He came from Fresno. "I fell in love with this
city," Daniel says. A vexing problem in King
County, as elsewhere, is the low-wage job.
"To be able to afford housing in this county, you've got to make $15 an
hour," Block says. "That's double the minimum wage. Someone who's a day
laborer may be living in a shelter because it's the best way to save
money, because you just can't afford housing.
"But it's not just a housing issue. Our society no longer provides the
social supports or treatment for mental illness or substance dependency
tha we used to. If you combine the stripping away of those supports with
the fact that minimum-wage jobs aren't enough to get along, people who
used to be on the margins fall off the edge." Leslie Moffatt, 47, wears
a Nautica fleece pullover and a yellow hard hat while standing in line
in the cold drizzle for a dinner of a lunch-meat sandwich, soup and a
cookie. "I haven't had a regular job in six months," he says. He had
worked for one company for six years, making $13.85 an
hour as a warehouse technician, but lost the job when the company was
sold. He sleeps in shelters and works as a minimum-wage day laborer,
usually at construction sites, often helping to build high-end
condominiums. The irony is not lost on him.
Moffatt says one of the worst aspects of not having a home is the way he
is treated. "People talk to you like you're some kind of idiot," he
says. "On Christmas Eve, I was on a construction job. They wanted us to
sweep the sidewalks. But they gave me a broom with hard bristles, and I
tried to tell them a soft-bristle broom was needed on this particular
surface. They treated me like I was crazy.
"I don't want to be disrespected. Sometimes, it's like you're not even
human because you're homeless. I just want to be treated as a human
He has several goals for his future: "Permanent housing, more education,
a better job, and hopefully soon, a nice lady."
The scene outside Operation Nightwatch, the shelter-referral agency
where Moffatt often eats after a workday, is disconcerting. The
storefront opens for mealtime each night at 9. At 8:45, ghostlike
apparitions materialize from the dark mists, first one at a time, then
suddenly dozens, scores. They range from teenagers to the stooped
elderly, people of all races, wearing anything from plastic bags to
In the rain, they line up, silent and orderly, around the corner and up
the street. They look like parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors.
They look hungry.
Inside, church volunteers are slapping bologna between slices of bread.
On a blank wall, a string of small letters in silver foil spells out
"Happy St. Patrick's Day." When the food is ready, the volunteers pause
to pray. A mural above them depicts two hands holding up the Seattle
skyline, a destitute person sprawled on the ground and an angelic figure
helping the fallen soul. The mural says: The Lord is my shepherd, I
shall not want ... and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
During the prayer, a little too early, someone outside rattles the
locked metal grate over the door. "Nine o'clock!" a security guard says,
and the rattling stops. By 10 o'clock, about 140 homeless people will
have eaten, and many, if not all, who want one will have a referral to a
shelter. If space runs out, the agency may be able to provide a bus
ticket, or a blanket. Or just the prayer. "I think people are realizing
that we shouldn't have a society in which this
number of people are homeless," Block says. "Seattle is a very caring
town. It is a town that feels responsibility for its fellow citizens.
And it is still a town where people know each other and work together."
He pauses. "But it is easy to just ... walk on past."
The root of the problem is not just money, but attitudes.
"I think we need a basic shift back in how society thinks about the
vulnerable and incapacitated among us," says Block. "I think there used
to be a point at which people said, 'That's someone I need to help.
That's just part of what a town does.'"
The cardboard sign says:_Stranded Need Food And Gas For Me And Dog Food
For Bailey Boy To Go Home Thank You And God Bless You For Your Help. A
plastic pail with a few crumpled dollar bills and some change sits in
front of Rosetta Chilcote, 65. Her husband, Junior, is 56. Gray-haired
and bearded, Junior leans against the wall outside the ferry terminal,
across Alaskan Way from the viaduct, within sight of where Davina
Garrison's body was found. Bailey Boy is a fierce-looking German
shepherd, quiescent for now.
Their Suburban, rimed in fine dust and dented, is parked under the
viaduct. Two animal crates take up most of the back, with another German
shepherd. "That's Wolfie," says Rose.
She and Junior and the dogs have been living in the Suburban since July,
she says. They will be under the viaduct tonight. Junior, who has a
disability, says he has tried to find work. "They keep telling him he's
too old!" Rose says, indignant. They have a plan, almost like a Grail.
"We need to get to Burlington, Vermont, where they have low-income
housing," says Rose. "They say you can get into low-income housing there
for $100. That's not bad."
Junior, pointing to the viaduct, says, "I know two people died over
there, and another one down there. One or two on that freezing cold
night in the winter."
"It costs so much to get into a place here," says Rose. "Over $800."
Junior is staring hard at the viaduct. "I've got no intention of dying
on these streets," he says.
"Anything's possible," Rose says, referring to the chance that Seattle's
plan may succeed. Junior's eyes brighten. "Somewhere out there," he
says, "there's a place with our name on it."
Rose looks up from the cardboard sign and pail. "We'll be happy!" she
says. "We'll stay."
Did you know?
-- that an estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans experience
homelessness in any given year, amounting to 1 to 2 percent of the
-- that the homeless in the United States include about 600,000 families
each year, making up between 40 and 50 percent of the homeless
-- that the total number of children in those families is estimated at
about 1.35 million?
-- that without a housing subsidy, a family has to make $16.31 an hour
(or $33,924.80 annually) to afford housing at the national fair market
-- that families exiting homelessness with a housing subsidy are 21
times more likely to remain stably housed than comparable families
exiting a shelter
without a subsidy?
-- that housed and homeless poor families have similar rates of mental
-- that about 9 percent of America's homeless live in rural areas?
-- that the chronically homeless make up only 10 percent of the homeless
population but use about half of all resources devoted to the homeless?
-- that the U.S. government now spends approximately $2 billion per year
on programs dedicated to alleviating the effects of homelessness?
Information provided by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.