January 29, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 5

Director's Corner

It takes a long time to ring a gong 3,117 times.

By Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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Last Friday brought a steady stream of visitors to Westlake Park as one person after another took their five minutes to ring the One Night Count gong 3,117 times.  That’s how many people were counted outside in King County after the shelters had filled this year. 

This, a 14 percent increase over last year, signifies a growing problem in an increasingly unequal city.

A man named Jason, rail thin, fortyish, with a plug of tobacco in his front lip, stood by watching. “I was out there last night walking around,” he told me. “You have to keep moving to stay warm.”

He’d normally have camped somewhere, but his gear was recently stolen, so, he’s just been walking around.

“I won’t go to the shelters,” he said. “The people there smell, and it’s not safe. You can’t get any sleep, and they kick you out in the middle of the night. It’s not worth it.”

Ever since he was released from a four-year stint in prison about a decade ago, he’s been homeless more often than not. Work, for felons, is hard to find, and apartments are tough as well.

Jason isn’t a drinker, and he’s not on police radar. He’s too independent and proud to go to shelters and too stigmatized and persecuted for work or housing. He simply endures, and when he catches a break, it never seems to last.

“I paid my debt to society. I did my time. But I keep being punished. It’s not right.”

He and his partner had a place a little less than a year ago, but then the landlord found out he was a felon, and they were evicted.

“They said it was for violating the lease, for playing the home entertainment system too loud, but they never even warned us.  They just said, ‘You’re out.’  I knew why.”

They’ve since gone their separate ways. Being together and on the street was too hard. And things would only open up for her if she left him behind. He didn’t want to mess up her good thing by being around.

The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness offers little comfort to the Jasons of this world. 

Even homeless women with kids can wait three months or more to get indoors. The needs on the street have overwhelmed available resources, and despite all the gains in efficiency that come from programs with names like coordinated entry and rapid rehousing, people like him are last in line. Behind the “chronically homeless.” Behind families. Behind youth. 

Jason — able-bodied, middle-aged, unemployed and a victim of housing discrimination — is nobody’s priority, and while the city’s new “ban the box” legislation is a step in the right direction, eliminating a question about past criminal history on job applications doesn’t get Jason inside.

So, when we’re home sleeping, Jason is out there trying to stay warm. Or, in better times, he’s camped in a greenbelt. And there are many more like him, outside the system, not even trying to access shelter, surviving on the margins. 

It takes a long time to ring a gong 3,117 times.  Even at a steady clip without stops for breaks or speeches, it took nearly four hours to finish. One of the gong ringers counted, and said he hit the gong 90 times during his five minutes. 

“Ninety people,” he said. “When you think about it, that’s really a lot.”

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.Ring.Ring.Ring.Ring. Ring. Ring. 
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring. 
Ring.  Ring.  Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. 
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.  Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. 
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. 
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.

Yeah. That’s a lot. So is 3,117. So is one.

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