While Mayor Ed Murray was giving a speech on the homelessness emergency in Seattle, five people were shot and two killed at a notorious camping area where Beacon Hill and I-5 meet.
Though information is still scarce, the mass shooting of Seattleites is a tragedy and highlights yet another terrible way life without a home is so dangerous.
We wrote earlier this week about HALA and the city’s proposed plan to increase affordable housing. At the far end of that housing spectrum is, of course, homelessness. 3,000 students in Seattle Public Schools are homeless, and four of five of them are children of color.
Without homes, people die. Last year, 66 homeless people died in Seattle. Our city’s lack of shelter is a public health crisis.
“If there had been an earthquake, if there had been a flood that had killed 66 people, the City would ask for and expect aid from the State and Federal government,” said Mayor Ed Murray Tuesday (full speech PDF). “And while this crisis has developed over time, the effects have been equally devastating.”
Murray outlined a number of ways the city is working to address homelessness, like increasing shelter beds, reworking the city’s approach to homelessness services and a housing levy vote in November double the size of the previous levy.
We can end homelessness. But we need to take even more dramatic action.
Nickelsville, the Low Income Housing Institute and the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd partnered recently to build 15 tiny houses on church property in the Central District near my home. Each house cost about $2,200 to build and are wired for electricity. As with other tent cities in town, the tiny house community is organized and keeps an eye out for each other. Residents get a place to call their own, and that’s a huge deal. With a solid base, people can focus on accessing services, finding work, learning a trade or pursuing their personal life goals.
What absolutely does not help is denigrating our homeless neighbors. Just like you, every person without a home has lived a unique life and has a unique story to tell. Reading Real Change (or better, volunteering) is a great way to hear these stories. Because once you start seeing homeless neighbors as a singular group of undesirables who deserve their life struggles, you’ve shielded yourself from truly loving your neighbors.
Here’s how Mayor Murray put it in his speech:
Instead of cooperation and a shared voice, we have seen too much division and extreme rhetoric about who homeless people are and how to solve the crisis. In one tent on our streets, you may find a family that lost their home in a personal financial crisis. Go on down the street to another unauthorized encampment, you will find a person who is struggling in the grips of addiction.
In another tent, will be someone who is either dealing drugs or systematically engaging in property crimes to feed his or her habit.
So what does this have to do with bikes?
For one, look at these photos by the Seattle Times. That’s a big stack of bikes. Bike theft is a kind of street currency, something easily stolen, traded and sold. I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about bike theft in Seattle since starting this blog, and I understand how frustrating and even devastating it can be to have a bike stolen. A bike is your access to the city, it’s not easy to replace if you don’t have much money or insurance, and it’s a very personal item you grow attached to.
On the other side, a lot of bike theft is the result of much larger problems, such as extreme poverty and addiction. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything to prevent bike theft, but it does mean that we won’t get very far without going all in to address those larger problems. That’s why I can’t stand seeing phrases like “Death to Bike Thieves” because if those bike thieves are also homeless, death is a very real possibility.
It’s also why I can’t stand hearing people call for police action against people who simply look shady and have a nice bike. Profiling either on economic or racial lines (or a bit of both) is a very real danger and challenge for people, and the fight against bike theft should not make that worse.
Though there are certainly cases of big organized burglary rings that should be treated as such, bike theft as a crime of desperation needs to be viewed as a part of the public health crisis of homelessness and addiction.
On the positive side, bikes can be a huge lift to people struggling with homelessness. Once you have a bike, your transportation is nearly free. The bus is cheap compared to a car, but it’s expensive if affording even food and shelter is a challenge. A lot of homeless people use bikes to get around, and this is a good thing. It’s also why it’s problematic to profile a poor person by saying they stole it.
And, of course, it’s yet another reason why building a connected network of safe bike lanes is an important idea: It creates a very low cost transportation network in a city that is growing increasingly more expensive. People who are homeless deserve to get around the city safely, too.
So in this state of emergency, I put the question to you: What can the Seattle bike and safe streets movement do to be part of the solution to homelessness in our city and region?