Twice in recent months I’ve had neighbors over to dinner in my small rented condo in a Seattle suburb. And the topic that we all talked about non-stop? The impossible cost of housing in this area (a typical home costs $735K; condos average $378K) and the armies of growing homeless people around the Pacific Northwest.
I was in Oregon about two weeks ago and noticed the large amounts of people camping out on the streets overnight, as Portland’s homeless problem is as invasive as Seattle’s. Cities up and down the entire West Coast are in agony over this, as the sheer numbers of people on the street are outstripping local governments' ability to deal with them. The spending in King County (which embraces Seattle) alone is $195 million in dealing with a problem that’s not getting any better and which is documented in this city site.
In a series of Seattle Times stories that are part of the paper's Project Homeless, a two-year concentration on the problem that kicked off earlier this month, I’m finding an odd split personality. You see, the photos show religious content (that is, church groups helping the homeless), but the reporting in the main news stories does not. What's up with that?
Photos by Alan Berner show a man praying at the Catholic-run St. Martin de Porres shelter in south Seattle: a memorial to homeless in St. Martin’s chapel and bunkmates at the Union Gospel Mission’s shelter near Pioneer Square. But I couldn't find mention of what these places do other than be available.
The Associated Press has jumped onto the issue, stating that the entire West Coast is overwhelmed.
That struggle is not Seattle’s alone. A homeless crisis of unprecedented proportions is rocking the West Coast, and its victims are being left behind by the very things that mark the region’s success: soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy that waits for no one. All along the coast, elected officials are scrambling for solutions.
“I’ve got economically zero unemployment in my city, and I’ve got thousands of homeless people that actually are working and just can’t afford housing,” said Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien. “There’s nowhere for these folks to move to. Every time we open up a new place, it fills up.”
The rising numbers of homeless people have pushed abject poverty into the open like never before and have overwhelmed cities and nonprofits. The surge in people living on the streets has put public health at risk, led several cities to declare states of emergency and forced cities and counties to spend millions — in some cases billions — in a search for solutions.
I’ve noted to many of my friends here the differences between blue-state West Coast life and red-state existence in fly-over country. Why is it that the homeless are coming here, where the weather is notoriously cold and rainy, rather than flocking to the Deep South, where the weather is warmer and the living expenses lower? You don’t hear about record numbers of homeless folks in Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, Jackson and other cities in the region. No one’s asking why they’re all coming West even though the cost of housing is much lower in the South.
The Associated Press piece, which was quite comprehensive, had the same odd religion ghost (this weblog's term for a part of the story that should have a faith element but does not) that the Seattle Times did. For instance, they invested some ink in Ellen Tara James-Penney, a lecturer at San Jose State University whose annual $28,000 salary cannot get her a place to stay, which means she’s slept in her Volvo for the past decade.
But in the photos accompanying the piece (and in other press coverage as well), James-Penney is shown wearing a cross at the end of a long necklace. I can’t find any reporter out of several who’ve interviewed her who’ve asked about her faith. But on her web site she touts the House of Grace, a Christian non-profit serving the poor. Thus, the connections are there if you look for them.
James-Penney is also mentioned in this AP piece which notes that the professor gets some of her meals and parking space from a local church, but that’s it.
I’ve written twice before in this blog about media leaving religion out of their homeless coverage. A lot of these homeless are being fed and housed and helped by religious groups, which are conveniently used for photo ops, but little is said about their role in this crisis.
I’m glad various outlets are devoting lots of resources to this problem, as I think the rest of the country hasn’t a clue about how bad it is out here. They should include more on the armies of faith-based folks who are already out there providing services for the homeless. The problem would be unimaginable if all those believers of various creeds were not around.
It'd sure be nice if folks in the media pointed that out.