Thursday, May 29, 2008
I Bleed For The Homeless
I am perhaps insane. This thought dawned this morning as I fought my way up a 90 degree incline through waist high thickets of thorns. This was the lower Queen Anne greenbelt. Homeless campsites were being cleared here today. I apparently wanted to be there very, very badly.
My decision to show up was on the spontaneous side. Our organizing project met last night and briefly considered whether we could muster a response within the next twelve hours. We could not. We would put out a press release to try and counter the City spin. That's what we could do. We have other priorities. I agreed to write it. Many affiliations Freeman, Debbie from Jobs with Justice, and David Bloom of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness all emailed me quotes and contact info. I figured I'd do it in the morning.
I stayed up until two writing. This in itself is not unusual. I am a man obsessed. My cracked molar was bothering me. The infection still hasn't resolved. I seem to be heading toward root canal. Joy. I took a couple of Ibuprofen, swished with my special rinse, and went to bed. Things started seriously throbbing and by three I was up to take my second to last Vicodin. I was very awake.
The morning would be tight, I thought. I'll knock out the press release now. I curled up on the couch with my laptop and a quilt and went to work. By a bit after six, I was wrapping up. It had been light for awhile. The Queen Anne press event was at 7:30. I could print the thing out, arrive in time for the circus and hand it to reporters directly. I shaved so as not to frighten people, made coffee, popped my Adderall, and was on the road by 7:15. Within a half hour, I was parked in the Super Supplements lot on Elliott Avenue and heading up a trail.
Three homeless people were sitting on lawn chairs and a blanket, enjoying the industrial lookout over Puget Sound. There was a Latino guy who spoke decent English, a heavy-set late-middle-aged woman, and a rangy toothless old fart in the lawn chair. I asked if they'd seen any one. They had not.
"Hey, I know you," growled the toothless one. "You're that Real Change guy. I seen your picture. I wanna ask you something. Why you gotta be making money off the homeless? Money, money, it's all you want. It's all you care about."
"Dude," I said, "you have no fucking idea what you're talking about. We have staff. They like to get paid. We run on a shoestring."
"No, I see it in the paper. You want donations, donations, donations. You shouldn't have your hand out all the time. Take, take, take. You know what I say to you?" He raised a finger to point at me. "GET A GOD-DAMN JOB!"
This pretty much made my morning. The others were laughing. So was I. "OK then," I said. "I'm going to see if I can find anyone." I headed up a trail toward several small nests of camps. The trail ended and I climbed through brush. When I crested onto the back yards of some really nice houses, I decided to head back down and try heading north and then up. As I passed my employment counselor, I handed him a press release. In an hour or two, his camp would be history. Rarely are press releases so prescient.
I went all the way down and a few blocks over and picked up a trail. It petered out into thick brush covered in thorns. I'd been here before and knew that if I just headed up and north, I'd again encounter well-defined trails and the upper encampments. This was where City officials and the press had to be. By then it was getting toward 8:30. I was late. My inner bulldog took over. I was fighting my way up the steep and muddy incline, sometimes on hands and knees. My hands were bleeding from multiple tiny cuts. My cardigan was covered with thorny plant bits that had gotten caught. I was drenched in sweat and not smelling so good.
"I must really love the fucking homeless," I thought. I found the trail. My stomach felt as though I'd just sprinted two miles. I gasped for breath. I puked my morning coffee and frozen waffle to the side of the trail in about five quick gushes.
"I must really love the fucking homeless," I thought again. This amused me to no end. I saw trucks and men in full haz-mat suits with respirators and goggles. I had arrived.
There was Mayoral press flak David Takami, some guy from the Queen Anne Community Council, a woman I didn't recognize who glared daggers, the Parks facilities manager I met on my last tour through, and Sgt. Paul Gracy from West Precinct. They regarded me as one might an annoying but potentially dangerous rodent. Gracy was the first to ask who I was. "Tim Harris from Real Change," I said. "And you're Sgt. Gracy." He admitted to the fact. I said something about all the equipment and personnel and he said something about how very expensive this clean-up would be. About $150,000 to $200,000 before it was over.
This is roughly the sum that has been devoted to outreach and twenty additional shelter beds. Sort of puts it in perspective.
I walked up the hill and saw Linda Brill from King 5. She'd just interviewed me in my office last week. She went to shake my bloody hand and thought better of it. I told her about puking on the side of the trail and made a joke about needing a breath mint. This turned out to be a conversation stopper. She was out of there. Four television stations had arrived, got their shots, and gone. This sort of penetrating journalism apparently doesn't take very long. I fell in with the photographers with the Seattle Times and the PI. They were complaining about how limited their access was, which was weird, since this was a media event. They brushed through to where the action was and I followed.
We pushed into a trail where a well-sealed cold weather dome tent sat at the end. It was a nicely maintained camp. One of the haz-mat guys sliced it open with a machete. "Haven't these people ever heard of a fucking zipper," I thought? We snapped away. A Parks guy began to bellow that all non-Parks personnel needed to leave the area immediately for our own safety. There were just the three of us and we were only a few feet from him. It seemed rude. We kept shooting as we backed out.
Down the trail, a number a haz-mat guys milled. PI-guy asked one a question and he said, "You know we're not supposed to talk to you." I asked if this was a Department of Corrections work crew and the floodgates blew open.
"No," he spat. We're all Parks employees, we all have other jobs, and we're being rotated into this away from our work. I'm a certified arborist. I should be nurturing plants and identifying species." Then he started talking about how his encounters with homeless people in parks had undermined his sympathy. They were crazy, addicted, drunk, and rude. Other than this, he seemed like a nice guy. He wandered away to sit on a log with another worker. He asked that he speak to him in his native Bulgarian.
P-I guy and I walked down the trail to an encampment that had largely pulled up stakes and gone. A blue tarp lay on the ground with other random items. Some tent poles. A cheap IKEA-looking bookshelf. I made a joke about not expecting to encounter Swedish architecture.
We made our way back up the trail where a half-dozen personnel focused on clearing the tent that had been macheted open. Garbage bags were piling up. On top was a color pencil drawing. I asked the Parks Supervisor if this was garbage and if I could have it. She said yes. The other photographers and I marveled at its artistry, and speculated whether this was a self-portrait. A man with a worn face, surrounded by nature.
No one knew what the resident looked like. He had been uninterested in offers of help from outreach workers. That morning he'd been told at 7 a.m. he had to go. His entire life now laid in garbage bags at our feet. There were three bags that had been deemed personal items. These went to storage. There were around twenty that had been defined as trash. These went into a garbage truck.
Someone had made the choice to carefully lay the artwork face-up on top of the piles of garbage bags. There was an African-American man who seemed unhappier about all of this than the rest, and no one looked much like they were enjoying themselves. He didn't want to be photographed. I suspected him.
"There's your next cover for Real Change," he said.
PI guy gave me a ride to my car. He was cool. My hands stung and my fingers were numbed by what felt like hundreds of microscopic nettles. On the way home, I stopped at a drugstore. Faced with a bewildering array of ointments, I asked a pharmacist for advice. He said nothing would help much. I basically just had to wait it out.
Charles Brown, the reporter from the Times, called to ask what I'd seen. We argued about whether full haz-mat suits with respirators and goggles were necessary. I said this was part of the media show. I found myself close to tears as I described what it was like to watch a human being's entire existence disappear into twenty garbage bags. This was, I said, a person, not some variety of exotic hazardous waste. He didn't use any of this. His story followed the standard format for these things, which is to uncritically accept the City's framing and to prominently reference bottles of urine and hypodermic needles.
He did, however, plug the June 8-9 Tent City we're organizing at City Hall, and for that I am grateful. I have photos. I'm well past 40 hours with no sleep. I'll post them tomorrow.