November 21, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 47

Director's Corner

My neighbor ‘Mandy’ downtown

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

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One of my neighbors, I’ll call her Mandy, asked last week how she should act when she goes downtown. Until recently, she’d been one of those people who likes to keep some cash on her, just in case someone needs it. She’s a sweet, grandmotherly, salt-of-the-earth sort who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Then, during one of her occasional afternoon excursions to the symphony, someone asked her for change. When she apologized and said no, the woman rose from the sidewalk, grabbed my friend by the shoulders, and sort of shook Mandy around as the woman spat green mucous.

So, Mandy had been sick and figured it was from that. She was headed downtown on the bus with me, her first trip downtown since the incident, and was nervous about getting out of the downtown tunnel near Benaroya Hall. She asked if this was possible without actually using the sidewalks. It was around noon on a Tuesday, and she was terrified.

“What should I do?” she asked. “My son says I should just keep my eyes down and not look at them or talk to them. That’s not how I want to be, but I’m afraid.”

That afternoon, I told the story to a room full of homeless people and asked what I could have said to make things better. They all looked personally mortified. A man who sleeps in his car said, “One person like that makes us all look bad. It’s not fair.”

Another tried to imagine the perspective of the spitter. “She’s probably had a lot of abuse in her life. A lot of anger and rage. I bet your friend looked like a safe target who wouldn’t fight back.

“If she had housing and mental health services, everyone would be better off,” she said. “She’d have what she needs, and she wouldn’t be out on the street scaring people.”

If only it were that easy.

In recent months, the “civility” debate has reared its head again. At first, when the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau launched its “See It, Send It” campaign to highlight “street disorder,” it looked like the same old stuff.

There was a letter, for example, from a man who tried to shop at Abercrombie and Fitch but was repelled by the panhandlers, petitioners and pit bulls of Westlake. He called his luxury hotel, and staff sent a car to rescue him.

This sort of testimony doesn’t make me want to respond very constructively. But, you know, we’ve seen this let’s-end-street-disorder movie before, and it has a really stupid ending. No one I know wants to go there.

And we might not have to. This time, something is different. Mayor McGinn has convened a roundtable to discuss how the downtown can work for everyone, and people are listening to each other. They understand that this is complicated stuff. They see that quick, victim-blaming fixes aren’t really solutions at all and that everyone wins if we can deal with real problems in real ways.

And I’m hopeful that, maybe, sometime reasonably soon, my friend Mandy will be able to go to the symphony without fear, and that the spitter, bless her tortured soul, might also one day get the help she needs.

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