Homeless in Seattle
The west coast of the United States has been hit by unprecedented homelessness. The cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are the most affected. Tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have caused rent prices to skyrocket, which is putting pressure on the lower middle class. As the upcoming election is getting closer, President Donald Trump brags about the American economy, which is indeed in rapid development, however, at the same time, the country risks that an entire section of the population will fall through the cracks.
Seattle is the United States’ 20th largest city, but with over 12,000 people without a permanent home, it is also the city with the third highest number of homeless people in the country. A trip from the airport to downtown Seattle testifies to the scale of the problem. The presence of small illegal tent camps have become part of everyday life, and when darkness falls, sleeping bags pop up everywhere in the city’s gateways.
The situation in Seattle is serious, and has been for decades. The grassroots organization SHARE-WHEEL has since 1990 been working on helping vulnerable people. SHARE-WHEEL provides shelters in Seattle, including a well-organized tent camp called Tent City 4. In collaboration with various donors, including a number of churches, the organization has managed to set up legal camps in and around Seattle – albeit for limited periods. It is usually not popular when groups of homeless people move into the neighborhood, but with this model, the camp relocates every three months, which makes it possible to stay on good terms with the neighbors.
Dean Spiker, 65, Seattle.
In 1980, Dean moved from Arizona to Seattle. Here he was educated within finance and worked in Seattle as a stockbroker. When the stock market collapsed in 1987, it was the end of Dean’s career. Later, he held sporadic jobs in banking. Since 2013, Dean has worked part-time due to back problems, which has pressured his finances so much that he had to move into Tent City 4.
‘I live in this camp now, it has become part of my reality. It is hard for me to see a way out again. If you do the simple math, then I simply cannot afford to rent a place with the income I have. The house prices have increased so rapidly, and the wages haven’t really followed. I have never lived in a place where I have had less in common with my neighbors – however, I have never felt a stronger sense of community than I do here. We really take care of each other. People have prejudices that homeless people either have mental illnesses or take hard drugs. That is absolutely not the case here. We are just completely ‘normal’ people.’
Vijah Lih, 37, Seattle.
Vijah has battled severe depressions for large parts of his life. He is adopted from India, and has had an unusually difficult relationship with his adoptive family throughout his entire upbringing – an upbringing plagued by traumas and abuse. Vijah felt he had the choice between taking his own life, or leave his family. He chose the latter. A year has passed since he left, and he has lived in Tent City 4 ever since.
‘Normally, I work 40 hours a week, and I still can’t afford to pay rent. The math is simple. If I work 40 hours a week, then I will earn approximately $1,600. A one-room apartment here in Seattle costs $1,500. The minimum wage is simply not high enough to match the high rental prices. Add to that, that you often need to pay three months’ rent up-front. The lower middle class often do not have that money. And then, what about transportation, food and other expenses? Luckily, I have solid pension savings from before, but I will not get it until I’m 65 years old. So right now, I am faced with the choice of either paying for a roof over my head or for food.
It is usually not popular when groups of homeless people move into the neighborhood, but with this model, the camp relocates every three months, which makes it possible to stay on good terms with the neighbors. The donors provide space for the tents, power and water. Food is delivered on a daily basis, primarily from private donors in the local community. There is a zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs and alcohol, which is strictly observed.
Bernie Backman, 58, Kirkland.
Bernie is a third generation Marine and a veteran. He was badly injured in the line of duty and has since tried to get compensation from the US military, but without success. Bernie has held many different jobs, but has also been unemployed and homeless multiple times in his life. After fighting the system for ten years, Bernie has now had his case finally rejected, which is forcing him to live in Tent City 4.
‘I have so many injuries that I can’t keep a job, so right now my life really doesn’t consist of anything. The only thing I have left is my car, which I live and sleep in. It is parked in the parking lot by the camp. I suffer from post-traumatic stress after my experiences in the army, and my latest diagnosis says I’m also bipolar. Still, I am betting heavily on being able to start working part-time again soon.’
Joseph James, 25, Whidbey Island
Joseph comes from a large family, he has six siblings and a mother who is addicted to drugs. When he became a father himself five years ago, stress caused him to breakdown. He worked as a manager at a bar and drank all the time. He drifted apart from his girlfriend and moved in with his sister. Later, he lived in his car for eight months before deciding to settle down in Tent City 4.
‘I usually work more than 50 hours a week, and I am saving now. I still have my children half of the time, so I’m working towards being able to move on from here soon. We are in touch every week, but I don’t involve them too much in my situation. They are five and three years old, and I don’t intend to mix adult problems into their world. That was one of the big mistakes my mother always made – making the adults’ problems the children’s problems.’
Dimitri Shvetsoff, 49, San Fransisco.
Dimitri originally came to the United States from Brazil and lived the American dream. He had a house, a wife, two cars and a good career. When the financial crisis hit the country in 2008, everything changed. Dimitri lost his high-paying job as a civil engineer in San Francisco. He lost his wife, house and cars, and he never managed to get his career back on track. He decided to move to Seattle and later ended up in Tent City 4, where he has now lived for three years.
‘I have worked unskilled minimum wage jobs for a long time now. It is quite simply not possible for me to find a better job. For the time being, I’m working in a church as a janitor and cleaner.
I’m actually quite happy working there, but I really hope to soon have the money to move out of the camp again. That is everyone’s dream here. It is also what this place has to offer. It gives us the chance to save some money and eventually afford to invest in something. I hope to be able to buy a piece of land and build my own house someday.’
The corona virus has of course also affected the camp. It has been an extra challenge to secure social distance and hygienic conditions. Luckily, there have been no cases of infected people in Tent City 4. Donations from private individuals have even increased during this time of crisis. However, the corona-crisis has had fatal consequences for the residents, where all but one have lost their jobs during the United States’ lockdown period.
Sam Robertson, 72, Palm Springs
Sam is a former marine and was stationed in Vietnam. He has held good jobs for most of his life, at the Hilton hotels among other places, and he is now retired. Five years ago, he decided he wanted to be a volunteer and moved into Tent City 4, where he now functions as a general manager of the camp.
‘Right now, the average age in the camp is around 50. It is people that late in life, for one reason or another, has been hit with financial problems. Many of them are not in contact with their family anymore, so there is no one to help them. When I was young, America was a proud country. A country with strong family values, where you stood up for one another. That has changed extremely. War, politics, drugs. All that has caused our core values to change.’
Back in the early ’80s, former President Ronald Reagan abolished what was called “rent control” in Seattle. This gave homeowners and property-owners unlimited opportunities and set the market free. Since then, house prices have been steadily increasing. Within the last six years, prices have skyrocketed, with an increase of over 60 percent since 2014. In addition, the increasing homelessness also stems from an American economic system based on a ‘winner-takes-it-all’ principle. Compared to many European countries’ economic systems, there is not the same safety net regarding healthcare and welfare in the United States. The Reagan administration also discontinued many options for treatment of mental illnesses, and it closed down most treatment facilities in Seattle back in the 1980s. The result is now showing its ugly face in downtown Seattle, where many mentally ill people are forced to live on the streets.
Theresa Huddleston, 60, Kenmore.
For most of her life, Theresa has worked as a computer network technician. Among other places, she worked for the US Postal Service for more than 12 years. Because money was tight, Theresa lived with her parents in the family home. When Theresa’s mother developed Alzheimer’s, the family was forced to sell the house to afford placing her in a nursing home.
In the United States, it is not possible to get a lease without proof that you have steady employment. Since Theresa had meanwhile lost her job at the US Postal Service, her only option was to stay in a motel until her money ran out.
‘Unfortunately, I don’t have any savings left, most of it was spent on financing my mother’s treatment, and then later also my father’s. I have given up on finding work again, since it is extremely rare that people my age can find a new job. I’m taking one step at the time. I have a bad hip that needs surgery, and I have applied for social security. Actually, I don’t really know how to get out of this camp, but I’m hoping things will change soon.’