Seattle is a boom or bust town. Boom times: The timber/logging industry of its early days. The jumping off point for people drawn to the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. The Boeing surge during WWII. And, since the 1990s and accelerating over the past four or so years, the technology boom with Microsoft and now Amazon leading the way. The bust times in between, including the Boeing Bust of the early 1970s, spurring the famous billboard near the Sea-Tac airport reading, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights.”
Since its early days Seattle has been a socially progressive place. King County, which includes the City of Seattle, was formed by the Oregon Territorial legislature in 1852. From the beginning, the King County Commissioners were responsible for such things as constructing and maintaining public buildings, collecting taxes, and supporting ‘indigents, paupers, ill, insane, and homeless people living in the county.’ Today, while there is a robust safety net in our community, it is not strong enough. Homelessness in the Seattle area is increasing, with tent cities sprouting up wherever they can, including along the original Skid Road (Yesler Way) in the shadows of Harborview Medical Center as shown in this photo taken late last fall.
As the bumperstickers at the beginning of this post proclaim: Healthcare is a human right; housing is health care. They were produced by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, of which I am a member. The Council recently issued this timely and hopefully provocative-in-a-good way justice statement entitled Standing in Solidarity: In Support of the Movement for Social Justice. It reads:
“The National Health Care for the Homeless Council recognizes that the significant health disparities associated with homelessness are part of a much larger pattern of injustice in the United States. Poverty and structural racism too often are perpetuated and upheld by poor public policies and narrow social opinion, leaving millions of men, women, children, and youth unable to achieve their potential for well-being and success. We stand in solidarity with the growing social movements and supportive jurisdictions that seek to correct underlying social and economic inequities. We understand that our work as health care providers is part of a much larger struggle to attain human and civil rights, to include the rights to housing and health care.
Numerous recent events involving police violence and community responses have reawakened the national consciousness around the failures of our public systems. Rather than focusing on sensationalized moments and ignoring the daily traumatic violence experienced by those living in poverty, we ask that media outlets instead continue to highlight the root causes of these incidents—social disinvestment, racism, and the ongoing, profound inequities in opportunities, as evidenced by the following:
- Health Care: While the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to health care for many, it will still leave 27 million people uninsured and at risk of financial ruin and homelessness following illness or injury. High co-pays and deductibles leave 31 million more underinsured and unable to afford treatment.
- Housing: Following a troubling legacy of racial segregation in housing policy and significant federal disinvestment in public and subsidized housing, hundreds of thousands of Americans sleep in emergency shelters or on the streets. On one January night in 2014, at least 578,424 people slept outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. Additionally, more than one-third of U.S. households spent more than 30% of their income on housing and are at risk of homelessness.
- Income: Average hourly wages have remained stagnant since the mid-1960s. Approximately 45 million people—one in six Americans—live at or below the federal poverty level while 10% of the wealthiest households hold 85% of the nation’s wealth, leaving the lowest 50% of households with less than 1%.
- Incarceration: The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, disproportionately among people of color commonly convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. In 2013, nearly 7 million people were in the adult correctional system (4 million on probation, 1.5 million in prison, 850,000 on parole, and 731,000 in jails). People without homes are routinely criminalized for sleeping or sitting in public spaces, as are people struggling with mental illness and addictions. This leaves millions with criminal records that often preclude employment and housing.
Public policies created current conditions, but the policy-making process can also promote a robust and inclusive society. We call for measures to establish for everyone in our country the rights to health care, housing, and livable incomes. We also call for those in the Health Care for the Homeless community—and others allied with this cause—to continue our work toward public policies that achieve social justice.”