Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It's All Under Control

This morning I spent twenty minutes talking to a new board member of the Belltown Business Association who said he was interested in getting to know his neighborhood. The man spent thirteen years as a yo-yo pro turned-youth-motivational-speaker before he bought the temp agency that he now owns. He said he was asked to do his shtick at the White House three times.

I googled him, hoping to learn more of his fascinating past, but found just one mention in a 2005 newsletter from an Australian girls prep school. He exhorted the girls of Kilvington to "do their best and never give up."

Nice guy, in an upbeat Dale Carnegie kind of way. He had no idea of what Real Change was, and didn't really seem all that interested. His stylish summer suit coat contrasted dramatically to my frayed sweatshirt, which is a rag even by my standards.

Anyway, as our meeting drew to a close, he mentioned how, being new to town and having a three and a half minute walk to work, he just loved the diversity of Belltown. I said he should have seen it a decade ago, before most of the mom and pops were forced out by rising rents. I said it would only get worse over the next few years as the tall and skinny condo towers that are on the way are filled with people who look and talk a lot like him.

Actually, I left the "a lot like him" part out. I had no call to be mean. He spent his "gap year" after college working with poor people in LA, so he can't be all bad.

This brings me, sort of, to the main subject of this post, which is Dr. Wes' news that the Single Adults Subcommittee of the CEHKC is discussing the use of carrels for short and long term use. These would be partitioned living spaces that would be a step above rows of mats and a step below a room of one's own.

There's actually good precedent for this sort of thing. Through the forties, before the war created full employment and then an expanded middle class, there used to be a number of options for the army of transient poor who sought work on whatever terms were available.

These ranged from the boarding house, which was for respectable men and women and had shades of in loco parentis, to the flea-bag missions that demanded prayers for shelter. The most popular option was always the cage hotel.

These were cubicles big enough to contain a bed and a locker that had a door that locked. The tops were open but covered with chickenwire, as were the bottom six inches or so. This offered ventilation, but kept thieves out. The cage hotel was cheaper than a rooming house and offered more autonomy and privacy than shelters.

This option was eliminated by building and fire codes, as were many cheap housing options. We've come to this odd place where our concern for the safety and dignity of the poor has made it nearly impossible for the market to house them. Seattle's Department of Planning and Development, however, has been known to occasionally grant permission for this sort of housing.

This seems like a good thing. It's exactly the sort of alternative to shelter that might emerge if we were to actually listen to what homeless people want. I have a sinking feeling, however, that the sort of autonomy that once made cage hotels so popular isn't coming back.

The difference between now and the forties is that no one really needs the poor anymore, so having no money, more and more, means being under someone else's control. Otherwise, anything could happen.


Mark said...

On my first learning of the caged rooms you tell of, I thought it's a good use of available floor space. Then you mention fire code/safety and yes it would not pass the fire code, as people would die from smoke inhalation if a fire occured in the building.

Amy said...

The Compass Center utilizes carrels at the 77 South Washington Building both for emergency shelter and transitional housing in the mens program. They have been built to fire code and are a nice alternative to mats of the floor. They offer privacy and allow us to serve more men then if we tried to build complete rooms for each client (which we would do if space and money allowed).

Pastor Rick said...

Ah yes, Belltown. The poor artist run off by the Nightwatch hordes -- about 1995. She wouldn't have survived gentrification anyway, so I don't feel THAT bad.

My conversations with Belltown merchants were a bit amusing. They were mad that the drunks who's housing was displaced by El Gaucho were now drinking on the sidewalk, disturbing the upscale drunks who could afford El Gaucho prices and sensibilities inside.

Yeah. Nightwatch was the problem.

Rick Reynolds www.seattlenightwatch.org