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Uh, sir,” I said through the bulletproof glass, “you’re going to have to pull up your pants.” I was working as a teller in an economically mixed neighborhood in Seattle where I had relocated after Hurricane Katrina devastated my hometown.

“I can’t,” the man replied. “I shit my pants.”

I conducted the transaction as quickly as I could and sent the man on his way. A few days later, I waited on another down-and-out man at my window. Trying to make pleasant small talk, I said, “It looks like a lovely day out there.”

“Oh, I’m not homeless!” the man protested indignantly. “I have an apartment!”

A year or so before I met my husband, I hooked up with a guy online, and we agreed to cross the Puget Sound on a ferry for our first date. I thought it odd he wore a backpack, but it wasn’t until we returned to Seattle that the man explained he was homeless and was happy he could move in with me.

“Uh...”

Even after hundreds of interactions with homeless folks, most of them innocuous, I’m still both annoyed and nervous at each guilt-inducing encounter. It’s difficult to overcome the biases ingrained during my middle class upbringing.

We didn’t go out a second time.

Over the past twelve years, I’ve encountered homelessness almost on a daily basis in a city home to Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, and Starbucks. Leaving my apartment on Capitol Hill one morning, I found a young man sleeping on my doorstep. I offered him a popular nutrition shake, which he declined, and headed off for work. Was he going to burglarize my place, I wondered, now that he knew I wasn’t home?

Everything was fine when I returned later that day.

Even after hundreds of interactions with homeless folks, most of them innocuous, I’m still both annoyed and nervous at each guilt-inducing encounter. It’s difficult to overcome the biases ingrained during my middle class upbringing. But like many “do-gooders,” I’ve tried to think of ways to help the people I see living on the streets almost everywhere I go.

When I volunteer with Radical Women in south Seattle, we make coffee for those in the neighborhood who can’t afford the coffeeshop on the corner. One day, a regular came in quite irritated. “Why were you closed yesterday?” he demanded. “I couldn’t get my coffee!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “We were off for Indigenous People’s Day.”

The man’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. “There’s a holiday for homeless people?” he whispered.

I didn’t know if I should correct him or not.

I’ve struggled at times with emotional exhaustion and depression, and one morning, just ten minutes after arriving at work downtown, I told my boss I was going home sick. I didn’t want my husband to know just yet I’d skipped work, so I stopped at a renovated train station in the International District right next to the light rail station. It had been converted into the headquarters for Sound Transit.

I sat on one of the polished benches and closed my eyes to meditate.

“Hey!”

I looked up. A South Transit employee stood over me.

“No sleeping in here!” He threatened to kick me out, clearly believing I was a homeless “bum.”

What must it be like, I wondered, to face disgust and fear and hatred every day just for existing?

I soon gave up my position in a busy mortgage department and accepted a less stressful job, but it still took a while before I regained my emotional strength. The new job was in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, and it required three buses to reach. I had to arrive early, just to make sure I arrived on time. One morning, I sat on a bus bench to get out of the rain while waiting till it was time to walk the last block to the video store where I worked.

Although the area was well supplied with trash cans, no one ever seemed to empty them, and the garbage overflowed onto the sidewalk around every single receptacle I passed. I couldn’t help but wonder if the filth was deliberate, an additional attack on the psyche of those least able to bear it.

Gazing listlessly at the people trudging through the neighborhood, I saw a woman in her forties across the street. She looked as down and out as everyone else in the area. I started to worry when I saw her heading my way.

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“It’s going to be okay,” she said. “Things’ll get better.” She gave me a smile and moved on.

After work one day, I caught the 60, the first of the three buses I needed to get home. A middle-aged woman boarded at my stop with a utility cart filled with water bottles and food. She looked a little hard, a common sight along that bus line.

When another passenger started chatting with her, I learned the woman was headed to the homeless camp in the woods across the street from one of our main stops. “I used to be homeless,” she said, “so I want to give back.”

I watched as she pulled her heavy cart toward a trail smothered with blackberry briars.

A few weeks later, the city cleared out the encampment to “restore” the green space by planting native species.

I’m an environmentalist, but I’m also a humanist. This doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. We’re perfectly capable of doing more than one good thing.

I’ve never been brave enough to head alone into a homeless camp, but I found it easy to be reasonably kind when homeless men came into the adult video store where I worked. I let homeless guys use our bathroom even though I knew they weren’t going to spend any money in the store. I always checked after they left, but not one homeless person ever left the bathroom in a shambles. It was our regular, non-homeless customers who occasionally did that.

I accepted nickels and dimes in exchange for dollar bills so some of the men could access our arcade. Homeless people had sexual needs, too. Once, a man barged through the door smelling so awful everyone within thirty feet wrinkled their noses. I walked up to the man calmly. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I said. “But if you can clean up, you’re welcome to come back.”

I directed him to the nearest “hygiene center.”

Another time, a man wrapped in a blanket came into the store. It was cold and rainy outside, so I saw no harm in letting him stay a few minutes to warm up. I was surprised when he grabbed an empty DVD case and ran out.

I wasn’t going to chase the man down, but when I left work later, I saw the guy sitting on the sidewalk in front of an abandoned store, huddled under his blanket.

“Hey, there,” I said, pausing a moment. “When you finish with that DVD case, do you mind dropping it off back at the store? We have a mail drop by the front door.”

He didn’t acknowledge that he’d heard me, and no DVD case ever showed up. Had I done the right thing? Could I have done something more? It isn’t theft or bad odors or the possibility of violence that cause people to dislike homeless folks. It is the constant reminder that we are failing our fellow man. It’s the main reason we want “them” somewhere else. If we don’t see them, we don’t have to see ourselves.

Aboard the bus on another trip home, I overheard two homeless men talking. One had just found a shelter he liked. The other insisted he preferred the freedom of sleeping on the streets. “And who wants a job?” he added. “Going to a soup kitchen is less demeaning than wasting my life at a job I hate, working for a boss I hate.”

Yet another time, I overheard two women on the bus. The woman who was currently housed offered tips to the homeless woman. The homeless woman in turn offered tips to the other woman in case she ended up homeless again in the future.

I think of all my privilege—white, male, reasonably intelligent, educated, able-bodied, with English as my primary language, with a good work history, no substance abuse issues, with no criminal record—and how close I’ve come to homelessness.

Before taking the job at the video store, I interviewed with an organization down on Pioneer Square that provided services for both the homeless and those with unreliable housing. As part of the evaluation process, I worked several days at the front counter. We accepted mail for those who needed an address in order to receive their checks. We offered limited banking services. We offered showers and laundry services for free, which is how I knew where to direct the man at the store who’d needed to bathe more frequently.

It was so easy to make life bearable for people. Why was a private organization providing these services rather than the government? Why were the most vulnerable forced to rely on the random kindness of strangers?

Not everyone can be housed, for a variety of reasons, but many can be. If certain tenants in “homeless housing” are slobs, we can pay workers to clean up after them. If certain tenants can’t be trusted around a private kitchen or bathroom, they can live in housing similar to dorms, with a common kitchen and bathroom.

If there aren’t enough people properly trained to work in these specific environments, we can train them, alleviating two problems at the same time—homelessness and willing workers with few job skills. With government-paid counseling or psychiatric care, with publicly provided rehab, a larger percentage of homeless people will be able to cope, adapt, improve, or at least stabilize. We can’t solve every single problem, but we can certainly do a better job than the one we’re doing now.
We can figure this out.

I’ve heard some people claim it would be cheaper to help the homeless rather than leave them on the streets to face all kinds of hardships and create problems for everyone else in the community. One way or the other, though, desperate and destitute people are going to be a “financial burden” on society. If we don’t pay for housing and all that entails, then we’ll be paying for police, courts, jails, hospitals, relocation, camp clean up, repairs to both intentional and unintentional property damage, and more. Indefinitely.

People are going to have to live somewhere...unless we plan a “final solution.” Given the current level of hatred being generated by politics today, that’s not a throwaway line.

We need to accept not only the financial burden but also the moral imperative and social contract to improve the lives of those struggling with homelessness and whatever brought them to that point.

In a country as rich as ours, and really, even in countries a lot poorer, there is no reason every single person can’t be treated with respect and dignity, embracing the knowledge that they belong with the rest of us, that they don’t have to pass a test to qualify for human decency, and that, most importantly of all, they matter.