It’s been a rough few months for Nickelsville. First, came the rats. They were always there, but lately, they’d multiplied. One camper told me the vermin nose their way into closed tents to find warmth and food, and how this has a way of interfering with one’s sleep. The people from public health intervened, and Nickelodeons received assistance in the form of traps and concrete blocks.
And then came the rain.
As most of us prepared for Thanksgiving dinner parties and football, Nickelsville was ankle deep in water and in desperate need of water pumps and gas generators. Once again, the word went out and help arrived. People came with pallets of firewood. Tents. Blankets. Food. Nickelodeons got everything they needed except maybe a place to live.
Why would anyone choose to live in a swampy, rat-infested encampment out in the wind and rain and snow?
When most people think of a homeless shelter, they think bunk beds and homemade quilts. The better ones are like that, but most aren’t. Most shelter “beds” look like wall-to-wall vinyl mats on a warehouse floor.
In shelters like this, you keep your shoes under your pillow so no one steals them. Bed bugs and lice crawl onto your skin and leave their marks. There are people who are sick.
One of our vendors told me he’d been in jail and in shelter, and that shelter is worse.
This is an under-appreciated aspect of the War on Drugs. Almost 1 percent of Americans are behind bars and another 1 percent are homeless, and after a while, the cultures start to merge. Behaviors that are adaptive in one setting seep into the other. Guys like our vendor just keep their heads down and try not to attract attention.
This is very sad news. When we relegate our “surplus” people — the poor, the unwanted, the disabled, the unemployed and inconvenient and criminalized — to the prisons and shelters, the relative safety and freedom of a tent in a field starts to look pretty damn good.
It took 40 years to create the homeless underclass we have now, and we won’t fix this overnight. But meanwhile, we need to meet people where they are and accept that some of their choices might make sense.
A few weeks ago, homeless people from Tent City 4 on the Eastside split off from the SHARE-managed encampment to form their own community. The SHARE rules, they felt, were arbitrary and burdensome, and they wanted to do things their own way. Although I wish the conflict between SHARE and the newly formed Camp Unity was less heated, I’m glad it happened. Whenever homeless people create their own conditions of survival, it’s a good thing.
When the deluge came to Nickelsville, our community asked, “How can we help?” That, I think, is the right response. We figured that if homeless folks weren’t coming in out of the rain, they must have their reasons.
Come January, the temperatures will likely dip below freezing. There will be a One Night Count, and around 2,500 people will be found outside in King County after the shelters are full. Some of those people will be living in self-managed tent cities.
While this raises many questions, the first should always be this: How can we help?