[The following is an essay that I wrote for my current English course. It’s obviously a little different in tone from any of the… stuff that you’ve seen on this blog, like that incoherent string of sleep-deprived thoughts or the sexually implicit (no typo) discourse on the merits of the British accent or even the viewcount-exploding music stuff. You will notice that it actually incorporates something that I briefly wrote about before, though. It’s here for your reading and critique if you like, unless you’re someone that I’ve specifically asked to review it, in which case it’s here for your reading and critique whether you like or not. I am sorry.]
For a brief time in early 2011, the nation was abuzz over the story of a homeless man whose life had turned around literally overnight. Ted Williams, dubbed “The Man with the Golden Voice” by an engrossed media, was a former radio and TV announcer who had fallen into drug and alcohol addiction before becoming homeless. He lacked a permanent home, and relied on his voice to keep himself fed; but in January, a YouTube video made Mr. Williams a national figure, and within days the combined efforts and generosity of hundreds of donators and companies nationwide as well as the media had given him a completely new life.
Tales like this are heartwarming. But we don’t hear them often enough, nor does the story portray the reality of how life turns out for the vast majority of homeless people in the nation. It does not portray the reality of the homeless around us, in our immediate community. Just outside the cozy comfort of the University of Washington’s campus, an estimated 10,000 homeless people reside in the greater Seattle area (P-I Staff). These people have two things that they continually lack in common: a permanent place to call home, and a stable source of sustenance. The community relies on aid organizations and services, such as the Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS) program and its Friday Feast project, to serve these people and potentially resolve this tenuous problem. Both ROOTS and Friday Feast succeed in addressing short-term needs of the homeless; however, its efforts to provide them with a permanent solution for housing and food are hampered by the transitory, noncommittal nature of its services and limitations in resources. To overcome these obstacles and meaningfully alleviate the problems that the homeless face, the community, as a whole, must turn to more long-term solutions and tackle the underlying issues that cause people to be forced out onto the streets in the first place.
The need for food and the need for shelter are two of the traditionally considered basic needs of human beings. Lacking food and/or shelter is certainly physically painful: we try to avoid hunger and exposure to the elements on an instinctive level. In the often volatile weather conditions of Seattle, a healthy body and warm, dry shelter are critical, and without them the homeless often do lose their lives. Additionally, this condition is psychologically troublesome. Especially for those who fell into homelessness rather than being born into it, the fact that they can no longer sustain the most basic of needs for themselves is a crushing blow to their dignity. And even for others, the lack of guaranteed access to food and shelter represents a lack of security: the homeless live in continual uncertainty (which many people have a hard enough time accepting in their daily lives) over whether they will have enough to eat and a place to sleep. It is the ultimate form of insecurity.
When these needs are not met, people abandon other pursuits to secure them first. Those who do not have guaranteed access to food will seek out food; the same applies to those without a guaranteed shelter. A job and an income would satisfy these needs, but even ignoring the fact that it is difficult even for non-homeless people to get jobs during hard economic times, a homeless person would be more inclined to spend his or her time searching for what satisfies an immediate need. Thus the problem is self-perpetuating: a lack of food and shelter forces people to always seek out immediate food and shelter rather than work or long-term solutions, which means that they will continue to be unable to secure stable access to food and permanent shelter. The homeless find themselves stuck in a cycle that becomes very difficult to break out of.
The plight of the homeless does not stop there. Keeping contacts becomes nearly impossible when one doesn’t have a permanent address; this in turn becomes another obstacle to securing employment. The lack of shelter leaves the homeless exposed to possible violent crime, and also makes for an inability to obtain and safely store food in quantities.
It’s clear that society has a role to play in helping the homeless get back on their feet—they should not be abandoned to continue in the cycle described above. It makes sense from a utilitarian perspective: if only the homeless could break out of the perpetual cycle, not only would they be living a more stable, secure life, but society would also gain an influx of productive members. The lives of countless people would be affected.
The ROOTS center, located in the University District, is an example of a traditional attempt to alleviate the hunger and housing problem. It is run by a group of volunteers, who work to maintain an overnight shelter for young adults 365 days a year, as well as to serve a restaurant-quality meal each Friday night for anyone who shows up. ROOTS itself aims to “deliver critical services to homeless young adults and other low income persons” (ROOTS Info); the mission of Friday Feast is more specific, simply attempting to provide a meal to people of all ages and, according to the volunteer coordinator I work with, operating with a no-questions-asked policy in regard to the diners. Both services are used extensively: the shelter has had to come up with rules for turning down people who cannot be offered space on crowded nights, and around 150~200 people show up each week to eat at Friday Feast for a nearly full house. The Feast attracts a variety of people: from visibly exhausted, subdued folks to smiling, talkative ones, and from those wearing worn clothing to some actually dressed as if they weren’t doing too badly, it’s a diverse group that frequents the soup kitchen. But presumably they all come for the same basic reason—they could use a free meal. Homelessness affects people from every background, and the sheer number of and seeming differences between the diners that I saw illustrate that. The deficiencies in adequate food and shelter seem to be spreading to the young homeless in particular. ROOTS says that the number of youths being turned away from its shelter has increased by 1000% during the last five years, and that more young adults are “spiraling out of the foster care system and onto the streets, fleeing abusive homes and failing to find work opportunities to survive” (ROOTS Info). In today’s harsh economy, teens and young adults are often unable to be fully served by societal safety nets, and with unemployment as high as it is, they usually have the hardest time getting jobs.
As hard as they may try to resolve these problems of hunger and homelessness, ROOTS shelter and Friday Feast face critical limitations in their mission. The most prominent one has to do with the type of assistance that the homeless in these situations most often need—long-term solutions with self-sustainability. This kind of aid is nearly impossible for ROOTS to give under its current structure. The shelter provides a night’s sleep and a couple meals, while Friday Feast offers one dinner and a few hours of warmth for people to stay in. Anonymity is maintained for all, and the Feast runs on a no-questions-asked basis. This sporadic assistance will make little impact in the long run. So long as these shelters and kitchens remain transitory places for people to simply drift in and out of, with unbroken anonymity and no accountability for either those helping or those being helped, they will have no effect on breaking the cycle of basic needs that many of their visitors are stuck in. In this way, the two programs’ greatest strength is also their most glaring fault: the lack of need for commitment and the simplicity that comes along with it keeps a large number of homeless people frequenting the ROOTS shelter and Friday Feast, but that same characteristic renders the programs unable to perform truly impactful service for the people.
Further complicating the issue is the disparity between the scale of the problem and the scope of the project. There are many more needy people in Seattle than ROOTS alone can possibly hope to serve, and as noted before, the organization has seen a tenfold increase in the number of people turned away by lack of room. For groups like ROOTS to provide all the service that we would like them to provide, they need resources—and public awareness. Right now, that’s not something that the homeless always get to have.
Writer Peter Marin, in his 1987 essay Helping and Hating the Homeless, talks about the misperceptions that modern Americans have come to develop about the homeless. He argues that the “margins of society” had turned from a place for the transient, who simply wanted out of the societal order temporarily or permanently, into a place that people were forced and thrown onto. According to Marin, that transition also changed the public’s mindset about the homeless; they became undesirable and alien. While he eventually arrives at the conclusion that some of the inhabitants of the social margin live there because they want to, and that they should be allowed to continue to exist there, he also takes care to note that we have a responsibility to help those who are there against their will. It’s hard to get people involved, though, when their paradigms have been shaped to disregard and ignore the homeless.
What, then, can be done? For ROOTS’ programs to truly deliver the kind of long-term solutions it advocates for in its mission statement, there must be some way to handle the aforementioned commitment issue. I suspect that launching another program alongside the existing two might be the workable solution: one with the primary purpose of developing relationships with some of the homeless and establishing solutions that set them on the track to supporting themselves through cooperation with housing agencies and local businesses. The current programs provide valuable service, and perhaps most importantly, have that aspect of anonymity and non-commitment that appeals to certain clients, and should not be shut down; the new program could work alongside the others, but it should not replace them.
The resource issue then kicks in—too many homeless, not enough aid. As much as the community can fund ROOTS to do their job well, it also owes itself the responsibility of not letting people who wish to stay afloat fall to homelessness in the first place. Providing affordable housing, funding fair and effective education, and strengthening social safety nets are all policies in that vein, and they require efforts well beyond the capabilities of any single individual or group. The only way to make this happen is to increase awareness of the daily deficiencies in the lives of the homeless—the things that they must endure.
During my time at Friday Feast, I had to opportunity to talk to a man from El Salvador. He told me that he had no schooling, either there or here, and that it didn’t bother him. He was an artist, proud of his Mayan heritage and what his life had given for his heart and soul. There are thousands of people out there who resemble this man, resemble Ted Williams: people who, if they can be helped up to a place where they can independently sustain access to food and permanent shelter, will become enriching members of our society. So long as we are willing to see and be aware of the homeless, it is a goal that we can reach.
 Staff, P-I. “Harassing homeless now a crime in Seattle.” 12 December 2007. Seattle P-I. 29 January 2011 <http://www.seattlepi.com/local/343084_homeless12.html>
 [Blog post… name removed]. Personal interview.
 Marin, Peter. “Helping and Hating the Homeless: The Struggle at the Margins of America.” Harper’s Magazine. (1987): Print.