Conversations surrounding homelessness in Seattle have reached a fever pitch. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Seattle is dying. People experiencing homelessness are an increasingly visible part of day-to-day life in the City of Seattle and despite measures taken by the City, faith-based organizations and local nonprofits, the metrics indicate that it has not improved. The truth is that homelessness affects men, women and children, veterans, trauma survivors, and people of every age and ethnicity. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address the complexity of homelessness.
In June of 2019, I published my master’s thesis Investigating an Asset Based Approach to Housing and Homelessness: A Phenomenological Case Study, which examines the structural response to homelessness, surveying how city, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations respond to this population. I argue that the community’s response to homelessness is a critical missing piece if meaningful change is to be made in rehousing the homeless population. This article will share the lessons from my thesis and explore the institutionalized responses to homelessness with recommendations for what I will describe as an asset-driven model for collectively addressing homelessness. This is both a social and economic argument that takes into account the collective efforts made by the city, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits, and asks the individual citizen to become involved as well.
Putting Homelessness in Context
During the production of my thesis I had the opportunity to interview three individuals who chronically experienced homeless in Seattle but have recently found permanent housing through Facing Homelessness’ Block Project. I’d like to share the story of one individual to illustrate the complexity of homelessness. To respect his privacy, I will refer to him as Zee. Zee is a 50-year-old African American man who was raised in an upper-middle-class family in Riverdale New York, just North of Harlem. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Fordham University with a focus on television and broadcast programming and moved to Seattle in 1991 to pursue a career in public broadcasting. This is not the story you imagine when you learn that Zee was also homeless in Seattle for eight years. His future was promising, but as he puts it, “I was living my dream when I met my nightmare.”
Zee’s partner, Brad, was self-destructive, taking him down a path that “led to basically my financial ruin, my mental breakdown and then my substance abuse.” Zee reinforced that his experiences while being homeless led him to substance abuse, not the other way around. He expressed that living homeless is a dehumanizing experience where “you can’t sit down anywhere. You can’t lay down anywhere. There’s nowhere to sleep. They say go to the shelters, you go to the shelters and you get robbed, you get assaulted. You catch parasites and diseases. They’re very unsafe and unclean.”
When Zee did find a clean shelter that provided a safe place to sleep, the waiting list often prevented him from being able to stay there. He mentioned that the Emanuel House Winter Shelter run by the Union Gospel Mission in Phinney Ridge was one such shelter. He preferred the Emanuel House Winter Shelter because it was one of the cleaner safer places to stay with a small and predictable population. This was a much different shelter experience than he had while seeking shelter in Downtown Seattle.
When I asked Zee to share his story, he pointed out that “I think what a lot of people forget is that everyone wants to know how you became homeless. Homelessness is a very traumatic and victimizing situation. What we try to get people who have not been homeless to understand is that when you ask someone to share that story, basically you’re asking them to re-victimize themselves.”