The Homeless Find the
Streets Growing Colder
By Linda Parker
USA Today
SEATTLE - If you end up homeless in this idyllic Pacific Northwest city, you can be fined for sitting on the sidewalk. Or for drinking in public. Or begging too aggressively. Or sleeping overnight in a park.
Twice this year an encampment known as ''the jungle,'' where about 100 homeless people lived, was bulldozed on orders from Mayor Paul Schell.
Such is the attitude toward the homeless these days, even in cities like this one, which has a long history of compassion toward the poor. The buzz phrase among social activists is ''compassion fatigue.''
Weariness with the homeless on the streets, building since the mid-1990s, is so widespread that the nation's 50 largest cities, and innumerable smaller ones, have enacted regulations similar to Seattle's.
The move is fueled by frustration that homelessness persists, as well as fears that homeless people drive business and tourists from city centers. With no solution to homelessness in sight, the cities have shifted course.
New York City cracked down on what Mayor Rudy Giuliani calls ''quality of life'' crimes, citing even the squeegee men who wash windshields for spare change.
In Huntsville, Ala., firefighters washed away a homeless encampment with hoses last June.
In Chicago, sidewalks along Lower Wacker Drive leading into downtown have been fenced to keep the homeless out. The city sold permits granting owners exclusive use of the sidewalks around their buildings.
Tucson created zones downtown from which people who violate the city's anti-loitering laws can be banned.
Liberal San Francisco began clearing homeless people from Golden Gate Park a year ago. Now it plans to move them from four tourist zones.
Across the bay, Berkeley has begun sweeping homeless from storefronts on Telegraph Avenue, a hangout for street people since the '60s.
A change from the '80s
''Homelessness is just as much a tragedy and a national disgrace now as it was in the mid-'80s, but people are tired of it,'' says Laura Waxman, a former U.S. Conference of Mayors analyst. ''Then it was new. Now a whole generation has grown up with it.''
The shift is a change from the 1980s, when homelessness was a chic cause and Hollywood celebrities slept on sidewalk heat grates to draw attention to it. Then, homelessness was considered a temporary social ill, one that would recede with the next run-up of the stock market, more federal funding and local good deeds.
Instead, in the past decade, homelessness has become worse. The numbers climb every year, even as the nation embraces its longest period of robust economic growth of the century. On any given night, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are 760,000 homeless people on the streets - more than enough to create a city the size of Seattle, and 50% more than were counted in 1988.
In 29 major cities, the homeless outnumber shelter beds, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Surveyed annually, mayors universally said last year that the strong economy had ''little or no effect'' on curing homelessness.
In Seattle, the predicament is perfectly framed. About 5,500 homeless people live here. They are the nation's 13th-largest homeless population, and every night the city's shelters come up about 2,000 beds short. Shelter space is especially scarce for women; they are turned away five times more often than men. The waiting list for public housing has 17,000 names.
The city has money, heart and a red-hot economy, but no concrete answers. The mayor, for example, has promised to get all homeless women and children off the streets by Christmas. But it's a temporary fix. His plan funds more shelter beds and hotel vouchers for stays of up to three weeks.
''What happens then on New Year's Day?'' asks Joan Clough, who runs a women's shelter. The consensus among activists is that although well-intentioned, the mayor's effort won't make a dent. ''We have done a lot to address the needs of people on the streets in every way from private charity to government spending,'' says Mark Sidran, city attorney and architect of the so-called new civility ordinances. ''Yet most people think homelessness is worse. You cannot call it a success. You have to begin to ask, what's wrong with this picture?''
Gap between rich, poor widens
Seattle's experience in the last decade reflects the nation's in other ways as well, starting with the boom. The '90s made this city of jets and software start-ups rich. Unemployment is at a 10-year low.
Yet all that economic prosperity has widened the gap between rich and poor and pushed more people into homelessness by driving up rents. House prices are among the highest in the country. The apartment vacancy rate hovers under 2%.
Someone at the Seattle King County Homelessness Advisory Group did the math and calculated that a tenant must earn $13 an hour to keep housing costs at a third of the income - the standard requirement of banks making mortgage loans.
Seattle's housing crisis mirrors the nation's. The number of low-income housing units nationwide dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s while the number of low-income renters rose. By 1993, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the shortage was 4.7 million units.
''Progress'' and urban renewal eliminated the single-room occupancy hotels where many addicts and the mentally ill on the streets lived. In Seattle, the transformation is dramatic. The $30-a-month flophouses in the old Skid Road district - the term ''skid row'' originated here - are long gone, replaced by yuppie boutiques, cafes and workout clubs.
To Rick Reynolds, a minister who runs Operation Nightwatch, a refuge of last resort, the remake of the Seaman's Union Hall, home to 22 retired seamen, into a bed and breakfast for tourists stands as the final symbol of gentrification.
Flo Beaumon, who runs a defunct motel that provides temporary housing for working homeless people, says the twin realities of the '90s came into sharpest focus last summer, when she provided a room to a homeless woman who worked in the cafeteria at Microsoft.
Absurd as that sounds, it was only one absurdity. Beaumon faces new ones every day. Homelessness is like that, full of disconnects tragic and comic at once. When the cafeteria worker moved on, she was replaced by Jack Plowman,53, a homeless telemarketer who sold home-refinancing packages over the phone.
''The thing about homelessness is it's so time-consuming,'' explains Robin H., 40, who'd rather his two teen-age sons not read his full name in the newspaper. ''Your stuff is not in the same place. You have to take a shower here. Then you have to travel halfway across town to get breakfast. Then if you need any clothes, you have to go somewhere else.''
In the search for solutions, voters taxed themselves thrice to build low-income housing. Programs, public and private, include a school for homeless children, an art studio for homeless artisans, a restaurant, Fare Start, where homeless people are trained in culinary arts by top chefs. The city has so many church-run soup kitchens that the homeless themselves recommend against handouts to panhandlers.
''A guy came up to me asking for money,'' Robin H. says. ''I said, 'I'm homeless myself, and I don't have a problem eating. What's your problem?' ''
But all that effort has not stopped the rising tide. And that begs the question: If homelessness can't be solved here, where?
Sidran says it's time to rethink. He'd like to redefine the term ''homeless'' and exclude battered wives and runaway children, for which there are other solutions, and deal with the reality that most chronically homeless people are addicts or mentally ill or both.
''If you don't look at the underlying reasons why people lack housing, it's hard to come up with strategies for solving the problem,'' he says. ''I'm not saying there's not an economic dimension to homelessness, but overwhelmingly, it's a crisis of public health.''
Sidran is blunt, and in this supremely politically correct city, perpetually in political hot water. In his highly visible campaign to pass the new anti-homeless laws he was denounced as cruel. His ordinances were challenged in court, and although he won the court fight, he hasn't made much headway with his political foes.
This is why. He says things like: ''It's hard to be liberal when the guy standing next to you is peeing on your foot.'' Or: ''There's something incongruous about seeing a man with a sign that says, 'Please Help Me' and in the window of the store behind him is a sign that says, 'Help Wanted.' ''
His point, no matter how many people privately agree, falters on one inescapable fact: waiting lists for treatment programs are even longer than waiting lists for housing.
Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington, D.C., says the efforts to outlaw the objectionable behavior of the homeless are born of frustration.
''For some cities, it's easier to move people out of public sight,'' she says. ''But all it does is move people around. It makes it less likely to help. Arrest records don't help people looking for work.''
Seattle is now weighing an approach taken by neighboring Portland, Ore. There, ''tough love'' rules. Homeless people are denied shelter unless they are clean and sober. Treatment is offered.
Consequently, most of the drug users and drunks have disappeared from the streets of Portland. But they haven't all gone into treatment, and the problem is far from solved. Just ask the people running the shelters a hop across the Columbia River from Portland, in Vancouver, Wash.