Trickle Down Town: a film about homelessness in Seattle

I went to see the film Trickle Down Town, by Thomasz Biernacki, about homelessness in Seattle. It was inspiring.

Mostly it was in-depth interviews with several people who faced homelessness. One is a (beautiful) young woman who became addicted first to Oxycontin and then to heroin; who went through a period where she sold her body for drugs; who spent time in jail; and who, in the end, became clean. She told the dramatic story of almost killing herself when she injected something in her vein without making sure what it was. She had a religious awakening. Now she runs some sort of faith-based service for homeless people.

Another person is a woman who works for the post office and who ended up living in an RV in West Seattle because of repeated rent increases. She made the decision that she’d rather live in an RV than pay $1000 a month for a tiny apartment far from where she worked. She faced opposition from homeowners in her neighborhood (one threw eggs at her RV). She also complained of less responsible RV residents who dumped their sewage on the street nearby. Also, a couple of the generators she bought were stolen.  The city used to provide more services and facilities for RV residents.

A third homeless person is an elderly former-machinist who got arthritis and ended up homeless. Now he has heart disease as well.

A fourth homeless guy is an African American artist. The film showed him at work on a sidewalk in Seattle, spray painting a colorful Seattle landscape, surrounded by a crowd of tourists admiring his work.

All four people spoke well and were likable.

Much of the film was about homeless camps in Seattle, such as Camp Second Chance in West Seattle., where they’re building tiny, insulated homes so that homeless people can get back on their feet. The film showed interviews with the people volunteering to build those camps, as well as interviews with academics and social services people working in the area of homelessness.

At the start of the film, we see glimpses of high-tech Seattle, as well as glimpses of lower functioning homeless people sleeping on sidewalks; they looked down-and-out.The film also showed glimpses of tent cities and less organized homeless encampments, with trash and needles on the ground, and a needle stuck into a tree trunk.

The film showed case workers driving around Seattle offering food and other supplies to homeless people on the street or in make-shift camps. As they drove, the described their work.   One homeless guy refused help and just wanted to be left alone.

I don’t know what percent of the homeless people are low functioning and hard to reach.

The film stated that there are only 30 spots for rehab for drug addicts. Homeless services are terribly underfunded, it said.

Many homeless shelters have rules like: residents must check out at 7AM and be back by 6PM.    Many of the homeless people go straight to the public libraries. Homeless people can’t get back on their feet if their main concern is getting their next meal, going to the toilet, and staying warm.

I wonder how Amazon/Jeff Bezos’ promised donations to attack homelessness will help. See Jeff Bezos’ $2 Billion Donation to Build Preschools and Fight Homelessness Is, Well, Morally Complicated.

The director, Thomasz Biernacki, answered questions afterwards. He said that the homeless people he interviewed for the film were high functioning and off drugs. The homeless camp (with tiny homes) had strict rules about NO DRUG USE.   For example, on New Years eve, one of the camp directors waited at the front gate and turned away any revelers who had alcohol on their breath.  The director said that the low-functioning homeless — those with active drug habits and serious mental issues — generally refused to be interviewed. He had trouble finding them on multiple days, and many wouldn’t be able to sign the consent form about appearing in the film. Their stories would be sadder, I’m sure.

One of the interviewees in the film mentioned that social networks including nextdoor (which the film mentioned by name!) often have misinformation. One interviewee said that it’s a myth that a large proportion of the homeless people using social services come from outside the area.

Note: someone on a social network challenged that claim, saying we should look at 2018 Point-in-time count data about homeless people: According to my reading of the report  (page 119), 36.7% of homeless people in King County came here in the last five years. But did they come because of homeless services? Did they become homeless after they arrived?   Answers to the second question on page 119 suggest that 20.4% of those who came here from outside King County came here to access homeless services or benefits.

48% of the homeless people either arrived homeless or had lived here less than five years before becoming homeless (30% for one year). But so what? Presumably they came here because of the booming economy but either couldn’t find (or keep) work,  or they became homeless because of the high housing costs. The first question in Section E: Residency (page 118) of is “Where were you living at the time you most recently became homeless.” 83.1% answered “King County.” So, 83.1% of the homeless were not homeless when they arrived. They were able to stay in an apartment or with friends or family. There is no indication that they all came here because they wanted to take advantage of homeless services.

I mentioned that a men’s homeless shelter was slated to be opened not far from the venue where we watched the film (Eastshore Unitarian Church, near Factoria), and that the issue has been very contentious. Someone else said that one of the city council members pretty much ran a campaign based on opposition to the shelter. I asked the filmmaker whether it would make more sense to house homeless people away from high-cost areas like Bellevue. He said that’s NIMBYism.

A concern is that the shelter will be low-barrier and so will house low-functioning people.  Someone (in the audience, I think) said that it’s difficult and very unpleasant to sleep in big rooms with many homeless men, because of snoring and theft.   I don’t know whether the proposed mens’ shelter will house men in big rooms like that.    In contrast to Camp Second Chance, which aims to be a stepping stone for high-functioning homeless people to become independent, the challenges about Bellevue’s mens’ shelter would be more about getting low-functioning people off the streets and safe for the night.

After the film I asked the filmmaker where he learned videography. He said he taught himself and this was his first film. Amazing!  He also said it took him about a year to make it, and he worked about 15 hours a day on it.

Definitely the film was in favor of taking care of homeless people. The film was uplifting. It was a call for compassion. The homeless people it showed are nice people who fell on hard times.

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