Tag Archives: homelessness

Shelter and safety for everyone

I met my friend Lawrence* because he lives in my neighborhood, and I know—at least by sight—most people who live in my neighborhood. Lawrence and I frequent the same bus stops and walk many of the same routes. After crossing paths numerous times, we officially introduced ourselves. Eventually, we became friends.

Lawrence has lived in Seattle for his entire life. Because he can no longer afford housing, he now lives in his van, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t running. The front windshield is smashed, and at least one of the tires is flat. Lawrence often needs money for propane, so he can keep warm at night. Like me, he suffers from a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and feet during even mildly cold weather. He also has arthritis.

I worry about everyone in our city who is houseless. I especially worry for those people whose faces and names I know, people I have formed bonds with. Every single night, I worry about Lawrence.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lawrence and I exchanged numbers. I told him to call me in case of emergency, like if he was out of propane, or just needed someone to help him problem-solve. About a week later (around the same time our region was beginning to understand the seriousness of coronavirus), I decided I could no longer live with the idea of him suffering on the floor of his van night after night. I texted to ask if he’d like to spend a few days in a hotel. He said yes.

I chose the Best Western Pioneer Square because I know someone who has stayed there several times and liked it. It is a fairly short bus ride from our neighborhood, is clean and comfortable, and includes a hearty breakfast. I called to make a reservation, then took the 27 to the hotel to provide my credit card and give them Lawrence’s information.

As I waited in line, the hotel staff were very busy, answering calls from people canceling reservations and helping guests check out early. It occurred to me that the fallout from this pandemic had created an opportunity for an emergent strategy of sorts. Hotels were losing business and would soon be empty. Houseless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What if we, concerned citizens of Seattle (and every city), pooled our resources to rent newly cheap hotel rooms for our houseless neighbors?

When it was my turn to register, I attempted to provide the hotel with some information about Lawrence, who, not surprisingly, isn’t as clean or neatly dressed as someone with access to shelter. I struggled with whether I should say something; I didn’t want to violate his privacy. On the other hand, as a person of color, I know for sure that disparate treatment happens. Lawrence is both houseless and a person of color, so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience any hassles when he arrived to check in.

I said, “This room is for my neighbor. He’s fallen on some hard times and is living in his van, and I just want to ensure that he will be treated with dignity.”

The person who was helping me leaned forward and widened her eyes. “Are you saying that he’s HOMELESS?”

I said, yes, that’s what I was saying. She said that the hotel doesn’t “do” homeless.

I should have left immediately, but I felt pressed. I had already given Lawrence the hotel’s information, and it wasn’t always easy to reach him. I had to help another neighbor with childcare (back when we were still allowed to do that) in less than an hour.

So, I pushed back. I said the room was paid for, Lawrence was a human being, and the hotel’s policy amounted to discrimination. She doubled down on the discrimination and asked me to assure her that there wouldn’t be any drug use.

Finally, after conferring with a coworker, she agreed to let Lawrence stay. I reserved the room for three nights.

On the third night, I decided that I could probably swing at least one more. Nighttime lows were still in the 30s, and I hated to imagine Lawrence back in his van under those conditions. I called the hotel to extend. The person who answered the phone cheerfully looked up my reservation. But as soon as her computer retrieved it, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to extend this reservation.”

I asked if I needed to come in and present my credit card again. She put me on hold. A moment later, a manager picked up. “We’re not going to extend this reservation,” he snapped. “If the guest can’t afford the room, then he shouldn’t be staying here.”

Lawrence is now back in his van. Everything is closed—libraries, community centers, coffee shops, every public space—so his van is the only place for him to be. I don’t see him very often these days, because I rarely leave my home. But sometimes, when I am out for fresh air, I see him walking to the store to buy water; he has no access to plumbing. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that he’s able to wash his hands at all—let alone frequently.

Even though we had a bad experience with the Best Western Pioneer Square, I’m still convinced that the idea—to provide guests for empty hotels and safe housing for those in our community who are most vulnerable right now—is a good one. Certainly, there are independently owned hotels that are on the verge of closing completely that would welcome a steady source of income.

All of us are threatened by this virus, and all of us are suffering from the havoc it has wreaked on our communities. Think about how you’re feeling right now—how lonely, fearful, and uncertain. Imagine spending every hour of every day uncomfortable, with no distractions, no people out on the street to help you with a few dollars, feeling abandoned and desperate AND scared of getting sick.

As we do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and financially afloat, we can’t forget our houseless neighbors. We as a community need to offer them more than “socially distanced” mass shelters. One obvious, short-term solution is for the city to rent rooms in empty hotels (owned by compassionate, openminded people) so that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, can stay safe—and as comfortable as possible—during this challenging time.

Can we find the will and focus to make this happen?

Image description: people holding a sign that says, “Housing is a human right.”


*Not his real name, which is much more awesome

God at the bus stop

When my kids were small — preschool and toddlerish — a sixtysomething man introduced himself to the three of us at a bus stop. His name was Emmanuel, a name I knew I’d remember  because of its beautiful meaning: God with us.

Emmauel told me that he looked out for our family. A few months earlier, he had met Bus Nerd — or, as he called him, “Detroit” — at the park, through a mutual friend who is widely admired in the community. Any friends of such a stellar human were OK in Emmanuel’s book. So, when he saw us around the neighborhood, he kept his eye out. Made sure we were OK.

Emmanuel and I talked for several minutes (periodically interrupted by the tugging and whining of my bored children) while we waited —  about books, and city history, and parenthood. But when the 14 finally arrived, he didn’t board with us. Instead, he waved goodbye and headed the opposite way down the street.

After that day, as often happens after I make a bus friend, I started seeing Emmanuel everywhere: at the library, the pharmacy, the community center, the park. Every time, he was happy to see me, like we were old friends. Every time, he was full of questions and observations and ideas, ready to continue our conversation where we had left it.

A couple of years into our street friendship, Emmanuel’s appearance started to change. He grew thinner. He lost teeth. His skin started to sag. One day, on my walk home from work, I came across an apparently homeless man holding a sign at an intersection. It wasn’t until I approached him with a small offering that I realized it was Emmanuel, thinner and more ragged than ever. He tried to preempt any questions by saying he was having a tough month and waiting on a delayed check. I went along with the pretense of lending him a few bucks until his check came through.

After that day, I continued to see Emmanuel around the neighborhood, but instead of holding court in front of the library, I would find him holding a sign on the side of the road. After that first time, it got easier for both of us. We returned to our friendly conversations.

On one of my chance encounters with Emmanuel, I was with the mutual friend who had introduced him to Bus Nerd. That friend told me he had known Emmanuel for almost 50 years, since his days as a student at the University of Washington. They had been part of the small group of student activists that had founded the university’s Black Student Union. Emmanuel’s passion and intelligence had helped inspire our friend to devote his life to public service.

These insights into a man I knew only superficially reinforced so many truths. That our circumstances and choices and predispositions and the systems we are subjected to all work together to create our life path. That when we’re young and passionate and full of potential, we are not able to predict — or sometimes even imagine — the paths our lives ultimately end up taking. That our soulless, unforgiving, profit-driven culture routinely breaks people. And that, even now, in this future he did not imagine for himself, Emmanuel is still inspiring people.

Emmanuel. God with us.

Buses are for everyone, part IV

Lava Mae bus

What happens to old buses after they’ve outlived their usefulness as public transit providers? Most are sold at auction and used for parts. A handful are lovingly maintained by an all-volunteer nonprofit and used to provide unique, low cost excursions to the general public. (Ahem.) And apparently, others are given away through various agency donation programs.

Friends, today I learned about Lava Mae, a new nonprofit in San Francisco that is repurposing retired Muni buses in one of the most beautiful ways I could imagine: as mobile showers for homeless people.

This is Lava Mae’s charge: provide sanitation, assist in deterring potential public health problems, and perhaps most critically, provide a much needed service to help a population struggling to retain a sense of dignity and self worth.

In essence, Lava Mae seeks to solve a small piece of what the United Nations and World Health Organization define as, and Lava Mae believes is, a basic human right: access to water and sanitation.

Thank you, Doniece Sandoval, for using your compassion, creativity, and commitment to provide dignity and hope to those in need. I can’t think of a better use for a bus.

Still more on transportation and choices

On Tuesday night, I took the 14 home from the TAC meeting. The bus was packed with people, including several homeless people, who all got off at the same stop. The last woman to get off was in worse shape (both mentally and physically) than the rest and took almost five minutes to make it from the disabled section to the front of the bus. She stopped to stare at the floor, stopped to talk to herself, and, though she was barely able to move the cart she was pushing, became extremely agitated with anyone who tried to help her.

I can’t lie: My patience and compassion were in short supply. (I had things to do, after all, not the least of which was to inhale a whole handful of Excedrin as soon as I arrived home.) I huffed. I sighed. Near the end of her trip down the aisle, I had begun to roll my eyes.

After she had finally made her exit, the man across from me started joking with his friend about how badly she had smelled. The driver joined in.

“Now that I know,” she said, “I can refuse to transport her.”

At this, another woman–one who had attempted to help the homeless woman with her cart–jumped to the front of the bus and began to lecture the rest of us.

“It only takes two months to become homeless,” she shouted down the aisle. “It only takes a couple more to become depressed. We should be thanking God for what we have.”

The driver sucked her teeth: “I’d like to thank God for soap and water.”

***** *****

I am sensitive to the fact that this incident is a good example of the reason a lot of my own peers choose not to ride the bus. It’s not just about the sensory unpleasantness of being near people in dire circumstances, or being reminded of the desperation that we might otherwise prefer to ignore. The thing is, folks don’t necessarily have 30 minutes to get from downtown up the hill to the Central District.

As a person who rides city buses (Toto, we’re not on the 545 anymore) on a daily basis, I realize that time losses like these are balanced by time savings in other areas (never having to search for parking; bus-enabled multi-tasking; no oil changes, tire changes, scheduled maintenance, or fill-ups; etc.), but you can’t explain that to a bus-averse person who’s on his second ride. And while I strongly believe that Metro should work to attract the riders who have a choice, the agency, with its limited resources, also has an obligation to serve (and certainly no right to ridicule) elderly homeless women who need transportation to shelters.

So yet again, I am confronted with this question: How do we create a public transportation system that truly serves everyone?

I’m not sure I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.