Homelessness Started Two Years Ago

Richmond, Virginia 1986. Covering up Homelessness

An important news update brought to you by President Trump: Homelessness started two years ago in our country and it is the fault of liberal states, of liberal people in sanctuary cities such as Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and New York. And Seattle. Oh yes, and our president claims that it is the fault of homeless people themselves. “They like living that way.”

“We’ve never had this in our lives,” he said in a FOX news interview with Tucker Carlson last week. When asked by Carlson what we should do about it Trump responded, “Take the (homeless) people and do something.” Presumably by that, he means clear homeless people away, dispose of them out of sight. Perhaps in detention centers along the US-Mexican border. Or behind rows of doors from torn-down affordable urban housing as in the photograph above from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I took that photograph in 1986 on my way to my work as a nurse with homeless people.

Trump pointed to his clearing out of homeless people in Washington, DC when he moved into the White House. He claims he told people that he had leaders of the world coming to see him, the President of the United States, and “they can’t be looking at that” referring to visible poverty and homelessness in our nation’s capital.

That this revisionist history, these lies, would be laughably absurd in a different context, a different time—perhaps sometime in our hopefully brighter future—is one thing. But that wistful and wishful thinking only highlights the current dangers in this rhetoric. People believe what Trump and Carlson say. People act on what Trump and Carlson say. “Take the (homeless) people and do something” leads to vigilantism and physical attacks (and killings) against people who are or who “look homeless.”

Swamp Lessons

What does a swamp possibly have to do with health, homelessness, and community health nursing?

Quite a lot as it turns out. I have spent the past year exploring possible answers to this question, as well as many other “swamp questions” and “swamp lessons.” It has been—and continues to be— a weekly deep-dive radical self-care sort of exercise. At the end of each week, I walk to the closest swamp or swamp-like spot of nature, wherever I am in the world, and I sit, observe, and write reflective entries into my swamp journal.

While I have traveled outside of Seattle fairly frequently and lived part of the past year in the UK, when I am at home I always walk to Yesler Swamp on Union Bay in Lake Washington. The photographs included in this post are from my Yesler Swamp walks over the past few weeks.

My weekly practice of swamp walks has been an important source of grounding for me (yes, pun intended since swamps are, at best, ‘quaking ground’) as I have navigated the interesting murky waters of being a leader of the community-campus Doorway Project. The politics involved with this community health project have been considerable. Subtext. Subterfuge. Unnecessary dramas. Wanting to shout “Bullshit!” in so many meetings I have lost count. Take it all back to the swamp and sit with it and see my way through.

Also, my weekly swamp walks and reflections have helped me wade through the new-to-me experience of dealing with the emotional weightiness of developing empathy with ‘historical figures’ such as “insane paupers,” homeless people I have come to know (at least at some level) through my research and writing of my current book project, Skid Road. Who knew (not me) that homeless people long dead could be just as real and deserving of compassion and empathy as those still living?

They Must Move

“Crusade to be begun against Shantytown. Health Board says its sanitary condition is such that it must be cleaned out.”

Sound familiar? Here in Seattle, perhaps substitute “unsanctioned tent encampments” or “tent cities” or even “tiny house villages” for “Shantytown” and it would be all too familiar.

Yet the “They Must Move” headline is from the front page of the Seattle Daily Times on August 16, 1899. The Shantytown in this article was located along a similar stretch of Seattle waterfront as the Depression Era Shantytown known as Hooverville depicted in the photo montage above. The photo is meant to depict an irate Seattle housewife living on Beacon Hill. She is pointing at the shacks below her and insisting they be cleaned up and burned down (which they eventually were). I have as yet been unable to find the specific source/photo credit for this photo but am told it is from the Seattle Times from the 1930s.

Finger-pointing and scapegoating are juvenile, divisive, and destructive. By anyone in any era. And when they are done by supposedly professional media people it is especially disheartening. Instead of opening up constructive and civic discourse on difficult, wicked problems like homelessness, these actions are counterproductive. I could finger-point here in this blog post, but I will refrain.

Empathy Deficit

Tactile Object 2, 1969, Paul Neagu. The Tate Modern Museum, London

Someone asked me recently at a public forum if empathy has been diminishing among nurses (and nursing students). Excellent question. In my answer, I pointed out that empathy is being sorely tried and spread quite thin in our country currently. That goes for everyone, including nurses and physicians, and students and teachers. And writers.

The question was in response to my reading of excerpts of my essay “Walk in My Shoes” included in my recently published book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Fransisco: The University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2018). In “Walk in My Shoes” I explore empathy, including if it is always a good thing. Empathy is “feeling with” as opposed to the more distancing “feeling for” of sympathy.

We all tend to be more empathetic to people who are similar to us. Climbing the socioeconomic ladder can diminish our empathy for people less well off than ourselves. It becomes easier to blame the poor and the homeless for their situations. Experiencing our own significant traumas can make us more empathetic to people who have experienced similar traumas—but only if we have had the resources to heal sufficiently.

In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison describes empathy as “a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze here?” p. 6

I like this description because it includes the cognitive dissonance, the discomforting disorientation—and humility—that come with travel and with empathy as travel. It also highlights the healthy curiosity required of successful travel, successful empathy. Empathy takes work to gain and to maintain.

Empathy cannot be taught but it can be modeled and it can be nurtured.

How the Poor (and Homeless) Die

Homeless encampment, Edinburgh cemetery

A powerful and classic (yet too little known) social justice writing by George Orwell is his autobiographical essay “How the Poor Die.” It should be required reading for all nursing and other health science students as it eloquently describes the experience of death and dying for poor and homeless people. Although the essay is based on his experiences, first as a poor patient on a public ward of a Paris hospital in 1929, and then back in England and Scotland (Glasgow) towards the end of WWII, there are echoes of truths in his observations that are relevant today. 

One of the most poignant parts of the essay describes “old numero 57” (patients were numbered, not named) lying—and dying—on a cot in the open ward next to Orwell. He writes, “They are treated like animals. They die alone, their organs already marked for a bottle in the museum, their bodies designated for dissection.” 

Orwell’s essay came back to me yesterday as I went in search of pauper’s grave sites in Edinburgh. From my research, it seems that there are thousands upon thousands of pauper’s graves in many of the town’s oldest remaining church cemeteries—such as St Cuthbert’s just below the Edinburgh Castle. They are buried in communal ( or, rather “mass”?) graves that are, of course, unmarked, and typically located in the now grassy central parts of the cemetery as shown in this photograph I took yesterday. There are older laws banning the grazing of sheep or cattle on these churchyard fields; current laws are posted banning all animals, including dogs (except for certified service animals). 

St Cuthbert churchyard

Edinburgh is infamous for its early to mid nineteenth century grave robbers, body snatchers, or “resurrection men” who dug up recently buried bodies of people and sold them to surgeons of the University of Edinburgh Medical School for their anatomy dissection. And then there were the body snatchers (and complicit surgeons) who took it even further, murdering poor and homeless men and women on the streets and in flophouses. People who died in poor/workhouses and public insane asylums and whose families did not claim (and pay for) their bodies were sold by the Overseers of the Poor to the medical schools for dissection. Is it any wonder that poor and homeless people have a well-founded fear of public hospitals and related institutions? 

Empathy: Walk in My Shoes

IMG_4999Shoes are powerful markers of a person; shoes tend to hold the presence of the person who has worn them. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion addresses this phenomenon. After the death of her husband from a massive heart attack, she finds herself holding on to his shoes. She writes, “I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need his shoes if he was to return. The recognition of the thought by no means eradicated the thought.”*

(…) It was the red sneakers Essie was wearing that drew me to her at the women’s shelter earlier that day. This was the second time in the past several months I had run into Essie at one of our foot care clinics. She wore an orange polyester shirt with a green chiffon scarf tied around her dreadlocks, a pink pleated skirt down to her ankles, and the red sneakers. She told me she only dressed in bright, Caribbean colors: “They keep me happy. I can’t be all down in the dumps when I got these colors on.” Essie had a perpetual and slightly crooked smile, the crookedness perhaps the residue of a stroke.

The women’s shelter is located in a church basement in downtown Seattle near the main shopping district. It is a day shelter, a safe zone for women and children, that serves homeless and marginalized “near homeless” women, especially women dealing with domestic violence. The shelter has multiple case managers, social workers, and volunteer nurses who try to connect women with health, housing, and social services. The shelter workers lend the women a hand, bend an ear to hear their problems, offer a leg up the socioeconomic ladder, a toehold on life. Empathy is their main tool. Empathy is what we try to cultivate in our health science students.

Empathy is “feeling with” as opposed to “feeling for,” which happens at arm’s length sympathy. “Walking in another person’s shoes” is how empathy is most commonly described. But can we ever walk in another person’s shoes? And is it always a good thing to try?

* quote is from Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage International, 2006), p. 37.

Note: The above excerpts are from my essay, “Walk in My Shoes” in my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Fransisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press), pages 11-12.

Students Rock

IMG_4490This is why I continue to love my academic work: smart, creative, compassionate students who see what is needed in our world and find ways to ‘just do it.’ They ask the hard questions, like “well, why not?” and they help keep us honest about what we are supposed to be focused on within higher education—and especially at public institutions in our country. As the University of Washington Vision and Values statement puts it, we educate a diverse student body “to become responsible global citizens and future leaders,” and “we discover timely solutions to the world’s most complex problems and enrich the lives of people throughout our community, the state of Washington, the nation and the world.”

This past academic year I’ve had the pleasure (most days) of directing the Doorway Project, with the aim of creating an innovative community cafe/navigation hub for young people (including, unfortunately, many of our own students) who are homeless and/or experiencing food insecurity in the University District of Seattle. It has not been without its many challenges, but also satisfactions and delightful surprises. It is swamp work, as in real work on real-world problems. (see my previous blog post “Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail” from April 28, 2018 for an explanation of the swamp work reference.)

What gives me hope in terms of the real-world wicked problems like homelessness? I was asked a version of that question recently in a Seattle Growth Podcast with UW professor of business Jeff Schulman. “Our students and young people,” was part of my response.

Here is a hot-off-the-press news article “Student volunteers help expand UW’s outreach to homeless youth” by Kim Eckart (UW News, August 20, 2018). Enjoy a ray of (smoky here) sunshine and hope for the future. And here is the latest new and improved design for the Doorway Cafe (design credits: Hope Freije and Delphine Zhu).

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