Do I have a right to exist in America? Do you? Answering should be easy; of course: we do. Because we are here, we are alive, we are human. Do people who do not have decent housing have a right to exist? That answer is not always so easy, especially in a culture that has demonized our homeless folks for my entire adult life, since 1970. When I was a kid we heard about bums, said to be men who were lazy and did not want to work. This has now changed. We see women who are homeless, families with children who are homeless, veterans who are homeless, teenagers who are homeless.
No place to go
I have met many homeless folks in downtown Olympia. I served dinner many times last summer in front of City Hall. We always ran out of food. I met a young woman, 26, who sleeps at Interfaith shelter. She has a “permanent bed” for medical reasons. Great that she has a bed at the shelter, right? But everyone at the shelter has to leave at 7 a.m. and cannot return until 5 p.m. Every night at 5 p.m. homeless folks put their name in a lottery to try to get a bed for one night.
What about Providence Community Care Center on State Avenue? It is packed with people inside and in the courtyard every day that they’re open, especially when it’s raining or cold. Their hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. They do have showers and laundry if you can wait. If you want a meal you have to walk to the Salvation Army. As long as you are able-bodied you can walk the six blocks. If you don’t have a shelter bed you probably have to carry your entire belongings everywhere you go. What about toilet facilities? Hope you can wait.
No specialists, no Medicaid
Need medical care? My estimate is that 95% of our homeless folks need medical care including psychiatric evaluation and care. Where do you go? SeaMar Clinic is where our homeless folks go. SeaMar’s website says they are equivalent to an urgent care clinic for immediate medical needs, like cuts, sprains, infections. Many, if not most, of our homeless folks need care for chronic medical conditions like diabetes, heart problems, anxiety, cancer. They are told they can get a referral to a specialist. But the reality is that no specialists in our area will accept Medicaid and a lot of homeless folks don’t even have Medicaid.
I learned about all these issues when I was trying to help the 26-year-old woman. She needed to see a neurologist, but specialists and apparently all primary care providers in Thurston County will not see new people covered by Medicaid or Medicare. At Providence Healthcare I was told they are not taking Medicaid patients.
CHI Franciscan in Tacoma has a huge network that takes Medicaid and Medicare — but you have to get there. I did get the young woman into a primary care MD there and a neurologist for seizures, ADHD, and other problems. I drove her to her appointments in Tacoma. She was weaned off a seizure medicine that had bad side effects for her and given a different medicine that has helped her. As a homeless person with mental and emotional issues she would never have been able to do this on her own.
Some say the homeless can still go to a hospital Emergency Room. ER at a hospital is not set up to take chronically ill individuals. I have been told by homeless folks that Providence St. Peter Hospital tells them that there is nothing wrong with them and sends them packing. Contrast this with a retired man that I know. He went to the same ER for gastrointestinal issues and was given extensive tests and kept overnight. The difference is that he is retired from the State of Washington and has excellent insurance.
No places to rent
A rising cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing, eviction, huge increases in rent, and refusal to pay a living wage. Folks on social security disability usually receive about $750 a month. What about low-income housing programs? The Federal Section 8 housing program has been closed to new applicants for months or years, depending on the state. State and community programs for low-income housing have long wait times.
With 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck how many more will lose their housing? As more folks wind up homeless it gets worse. A one-bedroom apartment for low-income is $700 and up. We aren’t talking Seattle, it’s here in Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Belfair, Shelton. Even if you have been approved for rental assistance through programs like Sidewalk in Olympia, you often cannot find a landlord who will rent to you.
The homeless I know did not have the privilege of making good choices. They had to choose between bad choices — and worse choices. These are women who had to escape an abuser, people who grew up in one foster home after another, some abusive. Some lost everything because of medical bills, having a bad injury or accident and then being unable to work.
Members of this community
I have seen the faces of homelessness and talked to the people experiencing it. Our homeless neighbors are members of our community. They aren’t coming here in caravans from other states; most of them are local to the Northwest. Most of them are not on hardcore drugs. Their number one need is housing. Our nonprofit organizations are stretched to the limit and beyond. Well-meaning folks do good work to help our neighbors. But we can never solve the problem without leaders in government who have the moral courage to do what is right.
Political leadership necessary
We have to change the direction the USA has been going since the Reagan years. We need a President who will take bold action to help those who are suffering the most.
We also need better leaders on the Olympia City Council; leaders who will commit to doing what is needed. Giving tax breaks, not for condos for the wealthy, as they do now, but for low income, decent housing. Olympia stopped the “sweeps” only because of a judicial ruling.
Before last year I would see homeless folks and feel sorry for them. Now it’s different. Driving by Sylvester Park around 6 p.m. I saw a woman, probably in her 60s sitting on the lawn with her belongings. It hurts my heart to realize she is a person, someone’s daughter. She does not have the safety and security of a home, she does not deserve a homeless life. No one deserves a homeless life.
Mary Watt was born in Olympia in 1952. She lived in Tucson, AZ for thirty years before retiring as a librarian and technical writer. She lives in Lacey with her cat, Miss Sally.