Homelessness Visible

IMG_4667Our latest point-in-time count of people experiencing “absolute” homelessness in King County tallied 12,112 homeless individuals on January 26th, 2018 (see the All Home King County‘s 2018 report “Count Us In”). By the term “absolute” I refer to the fact that they use the strict HUD definition of homelessness, which excludes the considerable number of people (especially teens and young adults) who are couch-surfing, doubled-up with friends or extended family members and who do not have a safe, stable, affordable place to live. In this respect the HUD definition differs from the official definition of homelessness for healthcare services funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see the various definitions compared here by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council).

The 12,112 homeless individuals counted for 2018 represent a 4% increase over the 2017 homeless count (which represented a 19% increase from the 2016 count). Some politicians claim that the slowing percentage increase in people experiencing homelessness can be counted as progress—although as a reality check, the 4% increase in homelessness is much larger than the total population growth for King County. The most recent published statistics show a 2.3% population growth for King County for 2016-17 (source: Washington State Office of Financial Management). As another significant reality check, the homeless count survey methodology changed considerably for 2017 such that comparisons with 2016 numbers should not be made.

Significantly, the 2018 homeless count found that over half (52%) of homeless people were unsheltered the night of the count, with many people living outside in tents and in vehicles. Having participated in the survey this year, I can attest to the difficulty of finding and assessing whether or not parked vehicles are being lived in between the 2-5 a.m. timeframe the day of the count. It is much easier to count the number of people staying overnight at an emergency shelter. And homeless people living in tents tend to find thickly wooded areas in which to live—and not, as in the photograph above, more visibly along well-lit streets and bike paths. But for all of us who live, work, study, and play in Seattle and throughout the rest of King County, we didn’t need the official homeless count to tell us we have a growing problem. We have homelessness, abject poverty and despair, quite visible.

Note: In a series of subsequent posts I will address intriguing, intelligent, and excellent questions which I have received lately about our homelessness crisis. They were too numerous and complex to address in one post.

 

 

Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail

P1020499Community-engaged scholarship is mucky business. It takes a high tolerance for—and even delight in—ambiguity, lack of clear paths, no solid ground, simultaneous decay and incubation, annoyingly loud squawking ducks, tail-thwacking beavers stirring the mud, and skunk cabbage. Oh yes, the putrid smell of skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage reminds me of the people who seriously pluck my nerves, who irritate me, yet somehow must serve a useful purpose (for instance, as food for bears coming out of hibernation in the case of skunk cabbage).

Community-engaged scholarship is not for the faint of heart or the fastidious or the unprepared. I’ve learned and re-learned these lessons many times over my thirty-plus years of such work. There always comes a point of crisis, with the inevitable interpersonal and inter-agency power plays coming to a head. In these times, (which I am in the midst of currently with the particularly complicated Doorway Project) when my default mode is to fight back against the stealthy, submerged weeds of the swampland territory of this work.

But then I remember my Red Cross swimming safety instruction as a teenager. When swimming in swampy rivers and the underwater fingers of submerged plants begin to grasp your limbs, threatening to pull you under—instead of fighting them (thus tightening their hold), you are instructed to relax and float. The threatening underwater plants will then release you to the surface where you can gently scull your way back to the safety of shore. Float, don’t flail.

It is useful to have wetlands and swampy areas near at hand to visit and remember these sorts of lessons for life and for community work. (Not to mention, of course, the myriad positive environmental aspects of wetlands.)  I’m fortunate to have Yesler Creek in my (literal) backyard and Yesler Swamp (where the creek empties into Lake Washington) only a mile from my home. Yesler Swamp has undergone a restoration process (ongoing) spearheaded by a campus-community group (Friends of Yesler Swamp and University of Washington Botanic Gardens) and is now a refuge for wildlife—and for humans who need a respite from the bustle and hassle and skunk smells of academic and city life.

Swamps are terrific metaphors for community-engaged scholarship, especially scholarship that deals with wicked problems such as homelessness. I return time and time again to the wise words of Donald Schon, author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Basic Books, 1984) among many other important works:

….The research university is an institution built around a particular view of knowledge, as the following dilemma helps to make clear:

The dilemma of rigor or relevance.  In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.  The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe.

Nearly all professional practitioners experience a version of the dilemma of rigor or relevance, and they respond to it in one of several ways. Some of them choose the swampy lowland, deliberately immersing themselves in confusing but critically important situations. When they are asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, or muddling through. When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor.  When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepancy between the technical rigor of the “hard” zones of their practice and the apparent sloppiness of the “soft” ones.

People tend to feel the dilemma  of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45. At this point, they ask themselves, “Am I going to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems — ill formed, vague, and messy — that I have discovered to be real around here?”  And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently. (Donald Schon, “Knowing-in-action: The new scholarship requires a new epistemology,” 1995, Change, November/December, 27-34.)

Here is to all of the swamplands and swamp workers of the world. Let’s keep mucking around together and remember: when things get particularly tough—float, don’t flail.

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Listening to Skid Road

IMG_4007Listening to Skid Road: Join us for a lunchtime panel discussion on the intersections of health, homelessness, and racism in King County, as well as explorations of the moral responsibilities of the University of Washington in addressing these issues. Hear from panelists who participated in the oral history collection for the Skid Road project, currently on display in the University of Washington Odegaard Library. Panelists include Krystal Koop, MSW; Nancy Amidei, MSW; Sinan Demirel, PhD; Rebekah Demirel (author of the memoir Nothing’s for Nothing: Transformation through Trauma) and Eric Seitz, RN; with Josephine Ensign (PI of the Skid Road project) as moderator.

Date: Tuesday February 6, 2018
Time: 11:30am-1:30pm
Place: University of Washington Odegaard Library, Room 220
Light lunch and beverages provided
Open to the Public

4culture_colorSpecial thanks to public historian Lorraine McConaghy, PhD for her support and mentorship throughout this project.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture. Additional support for the audio portion of the DS videos comes from Jack Straw Cultural Center. My Skid Road project was also funded, in part, by the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Humanities Washington.

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Global to Local: The Doorway Project

IMG_3706Dream big. Take calculated risks. Be innovative and creative. Work collaboratively. Be open to learn from other countries and other communities and support the global to local connections. Dare to be labeled woo-woo. Remember nurse power!

Those are the lessons I have been learning—or relearning lately as I help launch the Doorway Project, a campus-community interprofessional innovative collaborative project aimed at reducing if not ending youth homelessness in the University District of Seattle. It is a form of public scholarship and includes creative data-gathering and design modalities including participatory community mapping, photo voice, and participatory digital storytelling videos. It’s final product will be a youth-centric human/community designed community cafe modeled after the amazing Merge Cafe in Auckland, New Zealand. It is ambitious and audacious and it just might work.

We have our kick-off and first pop-up community cafe and community participatory design activities this Sunday, December 3rd, noon-4pm at the lovely community center University Heights in the U District of Seattle. Here is an edited down 4-minute version of a longer interview I did today with our local U District public radio station KUOW 94.9 FM. Many thanks to them and especially to Producer Andy Hurst whose mother happens to be a nurse.

On (Homeless) Self Promotion

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Happy 1st birthday to my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net. There is this upcoming sale of the e-book for all you e-bookish fans.  It has been a fascinating and fun year and it has taken me places I never expected to go.

(No) Home for the Holidays

bed13b6f-4b6b-4041-8baf-3581fe5f737aThe holidays are festive, fun, frantic, frolicsome, fleeting—frankly fickle affairs. The sheer number of holiday-themed, family-times-gone-wrong Hollywood movies attests to this fact. And then there is the endless loop of the still popular Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first sung by Bing Crosby in 1943 as WWII raged on. Supposedly, major record company executives at first refused to record the song, due to its final line, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” They felt it was a downer of an ending. But, of course, it tapped into the reality for many people—not just soldiers—who couldn’t go home and were left with only nostalgic dreams of snow and mistletoe.

It continues to tap into the reality for many people. Not just for people displaced from their homelands by wars, such as the current one in Syria. (For an excellent in-depth article on this for a Syrian refugee family in Canada, see the NYT article “Wonder and Worry, As a Syrian Child Transforms” by Catrin Einhorn and Jodi Kantor, 12-17-16. This makes me love my neighbor country to the north.) And not just for people who never had a safe, warm, protective home to begin with. Dr. Nancy Goldov of the Washington State Psychological Association talks about this, pointing out that some people “find the pressure to be merry and happy difficult,” and that a particular trigger this year is the “highly fraught political situation that’s polarized some families.” (see the Seattle Times article, “Alone for the holiday—and loving it” by Christine Clarridge, 12-16-16.)

Home, not just for the holidays but anytime, is also just a dream for so many of our community members who are home-less. I know this at a personal level, yet yesterday it took on a new level of poignancy. Working in sub-freezing, snow-flurry weather, we helped move in residents of Tent City 3 to a corner of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle campus. Community volunteers helped Tent City residents sort tarps and tents and cans of food. Others moved wood pallets into a line and hammered  plywood on top to serve as partially dry and unfrozen “ground” for the tents that residents will sleep in for the next three months. Tent City 3 is part of the organization Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), which is self-governed, democratic, grassroots, and led by homeless and formerly homeless people.

I am proud of the dedicated work of many of our UW students, faculty, and staff who have advocated for UW to host Tent City 3. I am proud of our public university for living up to its stated institutional values, including:

  • “World Citizens We are compassionate and committed to the active pursuit of global engagement and connectedness. We assume leadership roles to make the world a better place through education and research. We embrace our role to foster engaged and responsible citizenship as part of the learning experience of our students, faculty and staff.
  • Being Public As a public university we are deeply committed to serving all our citizens.”

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Home Is…

p1020046What is the meaning of home to you? What is the one essential ingredient of home? These are questions I pose to people in my workshops and talks on homelessness. I’ve adapted “The Meaning of Home” values clarification exercise that I learned from the (sadly, now defunct) Bay Area Homelessness Program, which was a dynamic collaborative of Bay Area universities and homeless-serving agencies. As they put it, the goal of this exercise is “to help participants understand the connection between home and humanity. It builds empathy for homeless people, shows the range of reasons why a person can become homeless, and shows the interconnectedness of human needs.” (Source: my copy of the exercise directions, dated September 1998).

Part of my adaptation of “The Meaning of Home” exercise is to give participants strips of colored paper (the size of a large bookmark), crayons, colored markers and pencils, and I ask them to write or draw (or both) their most essential ingredient—or essence—of home. And, if participants agree, I add their responses to a growing public art project I’ve named The Blue Tarp Tapestry. This is part of my ongoing digital humanities transmedia project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, funded, in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, Jack Straw Productions, and 4Culture. (A special thanks to all of these.)

I highlight some of the participant responses here and today because they are especially pertinent to the season, the climate of our country, and the sort of community that people in Seattle seem to desire: safe, diverse, compassionate. Their responses also highlight the fact that, unfortunately for too many people, home is not a safe and cozy place. The photo above is a weaving I made out of responses to “The Meaning of Home” exercise. The photos in the slideshow below are some of the responses from recent workshops.

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