Sunday, October 25, 2015

Now, You Don't

Not long after I first arrived in the Seattle area, I made my way downtown, and just walked around to see what the place was like. One of the things that stood out for me was the number of homeless people that I encountered. After I thought about it for a bit, it made sense. I've spoken to homeless people who managed to travel significant distances after they became homeless, and if I had the choice between being homeless in Chicagoland and homeless in the Puget Sound area, I'd pick the Puget Sound, all other things being equal. (Of course, given the fact that a good portion of my immediate and extended family live in and around Chicago, they are not equal, but I digress.) The main reason being that the weather is a lot better here if you have no choice but to be out of doors. I've already mentioned our tendency to judge the severity of the seasons by how many people they killed when I lived in northern Illinois. Being homeless is hard enough as it is - the weather conspiring to do them in is a complication that the homeless don't need.

So I understand why the greater Seattle area gives me the impression of greater homelessness than Chicagoland does. And given that, I make no judgements about Seattle for the size of its homeless population. But it strikes me that a lot of people DO make those sorts of judgements, or, at least, places perceive themselves to be judged. And this, perhaps is what pushes places to embrace design aspects intended to make public spaces less hospitable to the homeless and/or to effectively criminalize the things that homeless people do to get by. Laws against public camping or park benches that can't be slept on don't move people from the streets and into housing. Rather, they move the homeless from the streets of inhospitable municipalities to more hospitable ones - giving politicians a platform to claim that they've made the streets safer (for the affluent and politically-engaged, anyway) and citizens the idea that their neighborhoods are cleaner of riffraff. And these, in turn become points that they make to outsiders and newcomers to show themselves as being good citizens.

Freeing people from concern over being judged by the number of homeless people who are visible in the streets is one thing that might prevent initiatives designed to conceal or shift the problem. Granted, withholding judgement doesn't directly do anything to solve the problem of homelessness either, but it doesn't incentivize pretending that it isn't there.

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