Director’s Corner: Justice for “the Jungle”
A few weeks ago, homeless activists and our allies from Occupy Seattle showed up in force to the quarterly Governing Board meeting of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (cehkc). We asked that cehkc develop an economic justice agenda and do a better job of listening to homeless people.
Over the past four decades, homelessness has “evolved” into a human services problem. Wage inequality and job loss, the abdication of housing availability to market forces, the inaccessibility of health care and psychiatric services to those who lack work or money, the unending and expensive bloody wars of empire, the radicalized criminalization of the poor and an oligarchic government that seems determined to transfer all wealth to the rich, appear to be beside the point.
This point of view divorces the obvious moral travesty of homelessness from the equal travesty of its root causes. This is valuable and convenient to those who prefer things as they are.
By this logic, the problem of homelessness can only be solved by defining the problem narrowly enough to succeed, targeting our limited resources to the most needy and/or compliant and then showing the “success” that will, hopefully, attract more resources and fund ever-larger institutions of mitigation.
That’s the deal we’ve been offered: “Don’t touch the system that serves us, and we’ll throw down enough crumbs to offer the illusion of giving a crap.”
For the thousands of people who sleep on the streets of King County every night, that’s not good enough. One of them is Enoch. I met him a few weeks ago at the Occupy protest in front of Mayor Mike McGinn’s house.
Enoch is a former Army Ranger with a shot-up leg and a plate in his head. He lives in “the Jungle.” His years in Iraq in the early 1990s left him with enduring ptsd. For him the idea of staying in a noisy shelter, “sleeping two inches from the next guy and getting told what to do and how to do it,” is unthinkable.
What one notices right away, when talking with Enoch, is his sense of personal dignity. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to have your back during a firefight. Enoch is big, solid, self-assured and not about to take shit from anyone.
“I just want housing. I don’t want no psychologist. I don’t want no caseworker,” he said. “I don’t want to be put on drugs. I’m a goddamn person, and I want to be treated like one.”
In other words, Enoch won’t jump through the hoops that service providers like to call “the path to housing.”
For every “success story” where someone finally gets housing after what is usually years on the street, there are many others who don’t move as smoothly through the gears. We need to stop the machines that chew people up and spit them out, not just make them run more quietly.
Real Change is committed to listening to the poor and taking action, and we are organizing accordingly. Alan Preston, Real Change’s managing director, has a long history of working across class lines to promote economic equality. Once a month, he will be sharing this space with me as we work together to create dialogue and transformation.
It takes a lot of voices to make Real Change. Next week, you’ll hear one more.
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