Homeless in Seattle

The photo accompanying this week’s blog is an all too common sight in the world’s richest and most powerful country. You’ll never see this hard-scrabble urban bedroom in the pages of Architectural Digest.

Asserting some sort of 21st century squatter’s rights, this guy since last winter has occupied the same overnight space on First Avenue in Seattle. His bedtime is around nine o’clock. The customers spilling out from the Irish pub next door to smoke their cigarettes ignore him. Some nights homeward-bound diners deposit their leftover restaurant food beside the sleeping body.

I’ve come to think of him as “the Christmas guy” because he has green pants and a red blanket. Always the same pants and blanket. Plus coat and boots. In the early morning he is still asleep when I leave my apartment across the street and walk to the office. I would have to be blind not to see him given the bright lights of his women’s apparel storefront. He’s a white guy of average size with a black bushy beard and dreads adorned with a few beads. I wonder who did his hair. How long has it been since shampoo touched it? I would guess his age as around 40. I’ve just told you all I know about him.

It is estimated that on any given night 640,000 people are homeless in the U.S. The city of Seattle’s share of that is about 4,000, with another 6,000 in King County outside Seattle. The homeless are very visible in the downtown area.

A scourge on present-day America, homelessness has a thousand causes. Oft-cited are cuts in mental health funding that began in the Reagan era (25% reportedly suffer from mental illness), the loss of well-paying blue collar jobs that used to lift a family into the middle class and keep them there, a breakdown of family and societal bonds, an epidemic of substance abuse, a broken healthcare system, and, some hold, a decline in work ethic.

Widening inequality and growing levels of poverty certainly figure into the picture, though separating cause from effect is a labyrinthine challenge. That the top one percent in America now owns more than the bottom 90 percent is not a development that strengthens the social fabric, despite what Ayn Rand-loving capitalists like to tell themselves.

However there may be one more factor which I don’t recall anyone mentioning. This notion is borne out of research I am doing for a book on the history of my 19th century ancestors. They were working class people in the U.K. and South Africa who converted to the Mormon religion, immigrated to the U.S. and were among the first generation of Utah pioneers. To reach Utah some of them walked across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

One of my careers took me to fishing industry outposts in Alaska. I have walked into bars in Kodiak where I felt like I had slipped Alice-like into a 19th century “Wild West” town. Some nights arguments at the bar would get out of hand, the disputants would step out into the street, and actually have a gunfight. In the 1980s I found myself thrust back to “Gunsmoke” territory, with Matt, Kitty, and Chester and Doc. The further out you got on the Aleutian chain, the badder the hombres were.

Many of these rough-hewn fishermen spent all the money they made on women, booze and drugs. They were misfits who fit in with 1980s society in Seattle, Denver or Sacramento no better than their 19th century counterparts had done in Boston or St. Louis. But a hundred and fifty years ago America had a relief valve called The West. The edict was less “Go West young man” than “Get the hell out of here and if you come back we’ll throw you in jail.” That relief valve disappeared when all the land got settled.

Robert Kaplan in his new book Earning the Rockies writes about how America’s geography – its vastness and bounty – made it exceptional in world history and burdened it with obligations of global leadership. There was always territory further west where the maladjusted could run off to and wrestle demons and chase dreams. But that chapter of American history is now over. There may still be a few places in Alaska that can absorb outcasts, but Kodiak or Dutch Harbor is a lot further away from Seattle than Dodge City was from St. Louis. And if you go much further out on the Aleutian chain, hello, welcome to Russia.

There is no telling what would have been the fate of an 1850s version of my 2017 “Christmas guy” who is sleeping on Seattle’s First Avenue. One hundred and fifty years ago half a bounteous continent still beckoned with what must have seemed like limitless opportunity. Where does he go today?

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