Report on Bellevue meeting on Homelessness: “The Difference a Home Makes”

On Thursday, May 18 I attended “The Difference a Home Makes: A Dialogue about Homelessness and Housing on the Eastside” at the First Congregational Church in Bellevue. The church donated the use of their attractive facilities for the meeting.

(See also Report on the Mercer Island forum on homelessness of May 15, 2018.)

The meeting was organized by five Eastside service and housing providers: Attain Housing, Congregations for the Homeless, Imagine Housing, Lifewire, and The Sophia Way. The event was billed as

… a deeply personal look at homelessness and housing on the Eastside. Hear directly from those who have experienced homelessness and who are currently receiving support from Eastside services organizations.

At this event, you will:

  • Learn about the services available to people struggling with housing instability or homelessness on the Eastside
  • Learn about the benefits of affordable housing
  • Hear the stories of those who have received services from Eastside organizations
  • Find out how you can make a difference

We heard presentations from homeless people (or formerly homeless people).

During the first part of the meeting, we were asked to use our cellphones to use an online tool and to guess the answers to some questions about homelessness. The questions exposed the (alleged) truth about the myths behind homelessness.

Myth #1: Homeless people are lazy and don’t want to work.

Fact: you have to work 150 at minimum wage in the Seattle area to afford a 2BR at market rates (assuming that 30% of your income goes to housing — people have to pay for food, etc). It’s impossible to support a family on a minimum wage job.

25% of homeless people have jobs but can’t afford rent.

Myth #2: Homelessness is a choice. Fact is: only a very small number of people choose to be homeless, they said.

Fact: 47,600 more affordable homes are needed (in King County).

Myth #3: Homelessness is due [just, mainly] to their own behavior.

Fact: 52% of homeless families with children suffered domestic violence.

Myth #4: Providing homeless services just attracts more homeless people.

Fact: only 9% of the homeless clients are from out of state.

We were encouraged not to judge the homeless. For example, if we see a homeless man with a dog, don’t question why he can afford a dog. It may be his beloved companion. (There’s a young Asian woman who often begs in Bellevue. I gave her a dollar the other day. Later I saw her sitting, enjoying a cigarette, and I thought: how can she afford to smoke?)

For the second part of the meeting, attendees broke up into separate, smaller groups to listen to stories from (formerly) homeless people.

A homeless woman described being cold and hungry in her car with her kids. She had been a victim of domestic violence. A homeless advocate challenged attendees to imagine making tough choices between staying in an abusive relationship (which often emerges gradually over time) and being out alone on the street, often with no assets, since abusive husbands often horde all the money and force their wives to be isolated and dependent.  Or the woman has to choose between leaving her kids behind with her abusive husband (who may abuse them or who may blame her for leaving) or taking her kids with her to live in the car, or on the street if  you have no car.

Lifewire serves abused women. Shelters often full. Homeless people try to couch surf with friends.

Statistics suggest that 1/4 of women suffer domestic abuse in their life, and 1/7th of men do too.

Two veterans spoke of being homeless. Robert has been battling homelessness since he left the military in 2000. He lost his job and ended up homeless in 2010. He ran the gambit of many ways to become homeless. Homelessness among veterans is way too high. One man put himself on the street so his wife could have a home. I asked why there are so many homeless veterans; the speakers said it’s unclear why, but it may have to do with PTSD.

John was living with his ex-wife to be near his kids. That didn’t work out and he ended up homeless. He slept in his storage unit for three months. (It’s very common, and the residents have to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection and to avoid getting trapped in the buildings at the wrong time.) The Veterans Administration helped him at the Compass Center.

Alita (sp?) was homeless during two periods. She worked three jobs in her 20s. She has a disabled dependent. She was married for 17 years. She chose unsuccessful relationships. Most of the guys were emotionally or physically abusive. Maybe it’s because her father was an alcoholic and her mother was a gambling addict. Her last relationship was hauntingly scary. She was saved by Sophia’s Way — the Cadillac of shelters.

Worked for the UPS, but injured her shoulder. Then grocery clerk. Embarrassed and afraid to be in a shelter. Had a background of using pills and of drinking. Never dawned on her that she’d be homeless.

A homeless client James from the Marshall Islands spoke. According to Wikipedia, “Politically, the Marshall Islands is a presidential republic in free association with the United States, with the US providing defense, subsidies, and access to U.S.-based agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Postal Service.” So, residents have a special immigration status. James has 11 children. At first he lived in Arkansas. He hurt his back. Drove. Stayed with relatives. Too many people for lease. Lived in car for three weeks. Finally at Mary’s Place. Nine months in shelter. Working full time now at the airport, fueling planes. Nice house. 33 unit building. Transitional housing, up to two years.

James is fortunate to get housing, they said. There is a huge backlog, because housing prices are so high.

When you’re homeless, getting a shower may be a one-day project.

Some of the homeless people didn’t “look” homeless.

Affordable housing is the crux of the issue, because it’s hard to find homes for the homeless. (duh!)  That was the theme of the evening.

At the beginning of the meeting they asked us to submit questions online. I asked, “How should we respond to those opponents of the Eastgate shelter who claim that its ‘low-barrier’ nature will result in increased crime in the vicinity.” I saw only two other questions (with lots of typos) in the online tool, and my question was up-voted by a couple of other people. I was expecting the meeting organizer to address my question at the end of the meeting, but they chose not to. I asked them about it, and they said to look online for answers.

But one (formerly) homeless guy asked me if I attended the city council meeting a few weeks ago. He said that a police officer reported that the highest crime spot in Bellevue is the west garage of Bellevue Square. Criminals target cars there. He also told of professional criminals who were arrested trying to steal electronics, etc. from Costco.

A worker for one of the homeless organizations said, off the record, that crime might increase around a shelter but that’s true of any group of people. (There are corrupt doctors, lawyers, CEOs, etc. My brother investigates insurance fraud among doctors. The governor of Florida’s company was fined for hundreds of millions of dollars of Medicare fraud. Crime was rampant on Wall Street; companies paid billions in fines. Steal a loaf of bread and they throw you in jail, steal a nation and you’re a hero.) Also, he said, if there’s a shelter the cops will know where to look. He’d rather have the homeless concentrated in one place rather than living in, say, Robinswood Park. He lives in that neighborhood and supports the shelter.

One thing that annoyed me, at first, was that there was a lot of free food and bottled water at the meeting. The food include vegetarian and vegan options. A speaker at the beginning said “There’s plenty of food, so enjoy!” I thought it was rather unseemly for there to be free food at a forum on homelessness. But who am I to judge (as Pope Francis asked)? I am blessed with a well-paying job in high tech, and we are spoiled with free food and perks. I’m sure the homeless advocates are paid low salaries compared to me. So I should be happy they get some perks too, I suppose.

These issues are complex.

The organizers encouraged attendees to share the evening’s stories on social media, to write letters-to-the-editor, and to contact city council members to support affordable housing. Use the hashtag #AHW2018.   See www.housingconsortium.org.

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