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Homeless in Wyoming
June 4, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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With thoughts on the current homeless crisis in Seattle

I was homeless in Wyoming in 1977. I did not think of myself that way, but according to how the City of Seattle names things, I would be homeless in a similar situation in Seattle now. Using a standard compare and contrast essay, I hope to illuminate some of the issues about homelessness as well as some potential solutions.

Some background is necessary, especially for those who don't remember the 1970s. The Arab Oil Embargo started in October 1973, when I was a junior at Brown University, working about 20 hours a week to try to keep up with my tuition and living costs. The University essentially cut off heat to our dorm that winter, so me and most of us in the dorm lived in our winter coats. The stress working and the course load was too much for me and I decided to take a year off to work to pay my debt to Brown and to have a head start on money for my senior year.

The United States went into a serious recession in the mid-1970s, with the unusual further condition that inflation remained high. This was called stagflation.

I barely managed to get a degree in Political Science and graduated in the spring of 1976. Job offers were nonexistent. I went to live with some friends and help them construct a building. Then I went back to Providence, where my girlfriend was still in school, and looked for work. The best I could find was a minimum wage job at a convenience store. I could have just as well taken Philosophy as my major, I had enough courses in it, so I decided to take the situation philosophically. After all, I wanted to be a writer, not a corporate drone.

But eventually I had a "take this job and shove it moment." Soon afterwards some similarly unemployed friends of mine were convinced there were jobs in one state of the union: Wyoming. The loaded themselves into a beater (old car) and, sure enough, soon reported they had found jobs working on a railroad construction crew.

My own beater was in a sad state of disrepair, so I bought a bus ticket to Gillette, Wyoming. When I arrived they were living in a tent at a camp ground. They said their crew was always short of workers, so I got in the car at the crack of dawn the next morning and went with them to the work site. The foreman asked for my name and social security number, then pointed to where I could pick up a hard hat, and assigned me to a three man crew.

The work was brutal. I won't go into the details, I'll save that for another time. I was a fairly good athlete in high school and college, but the first few days nearly killed me. It seemed like good money though, more than twice minimum wage. My only expenses were my share of the campground fees, gas money, and groceries. We were too tired to spend money on drinking or entertainment.

Now if you live in a tent in Seattle, even if you have a job, you are considered homeless. At the time I was in Gillette there were a lot of guys (and maybe some women, though I don't remember any) sleeping in tents, and working, because there was a housing shortage. Lots of them were working on building new housing. Were we homeless? We did not think so. We were doing what people have done for centuries: supporting ourselves by working, and dealing with living conditions as best we could.

For me it was temporary. It turned out one of the jobs I applied for, requiring a college degree, finally came through.

When I look at homelessness, now, in Seattle, I see complexity. I don't buy the standard progressive or conservative lines mainly because they see homelessness as a category that trumps all other categories. A woman or man who comes to Seattle looking for work, whether they find work or not, is not the same type of person as someone who avoids work but was raised in a home here, or as a drug addict. Someone who should not have lost a home or apartment, had they not managed their wages poorly, is in a different category. Even people with mental and drug problems are pretty diverse.

The homeless problem in Seattle today can be divided up different ways. Each division, or analysis, can tell us (or the government, if it would listen) about solutions specific to the categories created.

There was a homelessness crisis in the mid-70s that lasted until at least the mid-80s, but the root cause was unemployment. To use Providence, Rhode Island for an example, when I worked a minimum wage job I was not homeless. I lived in a group house, in a small room, that I could easily afford (I had no debt and no medical insurance and almost no possessions). Homeless people, those who were used to living in homes but had lost them, mainly lost them through lack of work, not high rents.

In Seattle today there may not be a job for everyone, but the main problem is a housing shortage. Rents are high. It takes several years, often 3 to 5, to complete an apartment building, after a decision is made to build one. The city has inadequate zoning to accommodate apartments, meaning a lot of money is needed up front just to fight over the available land. This followed the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and its aftermath of low rents and low housing prices that lasted until about 3 years ago. Jobs came back first, housing construction only after there was a shortage causing prices and rents to rise to profitable levels.

Not everyone who has work but no housing is a victim of merciless free-market capitalist chaos. The idea that some people with minimum-wage jobs ($15 per hour in progressive Seattle) might not be able to house themselves because they are incompetent with their personal finances (spending too much), is anathema to local progressives. But if one person spends $300 or $400 a month on bar tabs (or expensive consumer goods, or whatever) and ends up evicted, while another person makes the same wage and is able to cover necessary expenses, it seems unfair to tax the one to subsidize the other. Some people learn to be more careful after their first eviction, some are spendthrifts for life, and some find living in the street, and giving up their job, is exactly what they were looking for.

I met Jenny Durkin when she first was running for mayor of Seattle, after she appeared on stage at a forum with the other candidates. What impressed me was that, playing to an audience of known progressive democrats, she defended some tools that were already being used to help the homeless, like closing hazardous camps. That surely lost her quite a bit of support in that crowd. In our brief talk I mentioned that I knew there were many reasons for homelessness, and a one-size-fits all policy would not work. She said she understood it was a difficult problem, but she was committed to doing what she could, and told me how the camp closings were combined with offers of help. I supported her for mayor.

Refusal of housing is one of the main problems in Seattle, and one of the main reasons there are so many homeless people. Again, once you focus on this group of people, you see they are not all alike. But when an illegal homeless camp is broken up in what is referred to as a "sweep" in Seattle, all the homeless are offered shelter. Typically a few accept shelter, and most just find some other place to camp. I see that as the primary division: those who will accept shelter, and those who will not.

Another division is: those who create a nuisance, and those who do not. Homeless advocates often act as if no one else has rights, and as if homeless people have only rights, and no responsibilities. We all have rights, and we all have responsibilities.

Clearly if there were fewer alcoholics, drug addicts, and mentally unbalanced people, the homelessness problem would lessen. But it would not go away. There is homelessness when the economy is bad, and there is homelessness when the economy is good, and there is homelessness when the economy is in-between.

Given a long-term view, the city has two good choices, and should probably do both. The socialist choice is simply to spend a lot more money on housing and caring for the homeless, though that won't prevent all of them from wandering through tourist areas asking for handouts. The other is to rezone large parts of Seattle for city-style, high density housing. That will piss off the NIMBY progressives in the single-family housing areas that are rezoned, but it needs to be done sooner or later. Doing it now means in three to five years there will be a lot more housing available, which will help renters as well as the homeless.

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