Seattle is an extraordinary city. A compassionate city. A liberal city. A city committed to ending homelessness. There are numerous organizations that make Seattle somewhat exceptional. SHARE/WHEEL, with their two tent cities that frequently move to different neighborhoods, have made homelessness visible and actively challenged us for more than a decade to grapple with the reality of poverty in this city. Real Change has created a vehicle for people to build relationships outside of their normal class comfort zones, and has challenged people’s stereotypes regarding the very poor while keeping the issues before the public. A broad and deep community of activists, advocates, and service providers have built an unusually comprehensive response to homelessness and poverty. Local government — city, county, and state — has demonstrated a strong commitment to providing the resources to end homelessness, and a Ten Year Plan to accomplish this has support from the faith community, government, human services providers, and from the philanthropic community, and some in the business community as well.
Despite all of this, our local context is dire. A development boom that serves the interests of upper-income people is in full swing, with more than 4,500 new condos coming on line over the next three years at an average price of $750,000. Seattle is losing at least two units of affordable housing each year for every new unit created through the nonprofit and government sectors. Income inequality in Seattle is widening at a rate that far surpasses the national average.
There is no broad and inclusive organizing strategy to address fundamental issues of housing affordability, wage issues and inequality, the civil rights of the poor, and the common good. Moreover, there is no real vehicle for people to combine — homeless, poor, low-income, middle-class and affluent — to define their self-interest and fight back. Homeless advocacy and more general anti-poverty and working class activism rarely meet at any point. Whatever organized constituencies exist to defend the interests of low-income people are insufficient to challenge the “Seattle consensus.” This is our long-standing pattern as a city of saying yes to corporate interests while engaging in ameliorative strategies to blunt the desperation of the poor with shelter, services, and low-income housing. Strategies to “end homelessness” are in some cases controlled by those whose interests are unclear. As a result, the issue of homelessness in Seattle is mostly narrowed to the reduction of visible homelessness. Questions of who is in charge and who benefits are too seldom asked.
While “building the political will to end homelessness” has been an often-repeated phrase in Seattle for a number of years, there is no ongoing opportunity for non-specialists — housed and homeless alike — to engage, strategize, and build for power.
A New Vehicle for Activism
Several decades of homeless activism have revealed two common mistakes that prevent us from building the power we need. The first is the idea that the only legitimate challenge to homelessness can come from homeless people themselves. The other is that homelessness is a complicated technical issue that is better left to the professional advocates. Both paths lead to different forms of isolation and prevent us from reaching out to and including all of those who have a stake in addressing ever-widening inequality and the extremes of poverty that we see as the result.
Real Change’s greatest strength is our ability to engage and build relationships across class. We stand with one foot in the world of our 270 or more homeless and very low-income vendors who sell the newspaper each month, and the other in our broad readership that tends toward middle and upper-income professionals. We all have a stake in working toward root solutions to issues of declining housing affordability and increased inequality. We all have a stake in protecting our civil and human rights, especially for those of us who have the least.
We will build an organizing project that focuses on these issues while developing a base of activists who will work together across class. This will include vendors and other homeless and low-income people and their more affluent allies. Regular bi-weekly meetings, supplemented by a flexible committee structure to move projects ahead as needed and provide additional opportunities for engagement, will offer a space where community can build and find support for new ways of making change.
The organizing project will use a decision-making tool that maximizes transparency and the opportunity for group ownership while minimizing the frustrations that often result from poorly managed process for the sake of process. Secular consensus has a strong history of being effectively used in large cross-class organizations that do not necessarily have any background or expertise in consensus decision-making. This process offers an excellent framework for teasing out and discussing points of difference, bringing people who are at different levels of understanding along together, and efficiently resolving conflicts that stand in the way of action.
This group will work toward developing a campaign structure that addresses housing affordability, wage issues and inequality, and human and civil rights. We are in the initial stages of refining the concept, and are working toward a first meeting in November. We’re interested in your feedback and ideas. Please call or email Tim Harris at 206-441-3247 x202, email@example.com, or Rachael Myers at x201, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you may comment publicly here.