“Let’s keep listening to the people who have not only been there but are still there.”
I worked many hours this week, and I had already planned on taking Friday afternoon off when I learned that the next meeting of One Table would be held in Seattle this afternoon.
A coalition of King County, Seattle, other municipal governments in King County, service providers, philanthropists, and community members, One Table congratulates itself for its bold vision of actually addressing the root causes of homelessness. Today’s meeting focused on the identified root causes that had taken eight months to generate. Many people mentioned the word “accountability.” The room of 80 or so people broke into small groups of 6-9 people and were given about 30 minutes to introduce themselves and answer two questions:
- What priority strategy/strategies are you most committed to working on as we move into scalable implementation?
- What do you need from the One Table community in order to move forward in this work?
Not surprisingly, very little in terms of concrete steps or commitments were determined in this amount of time. The report out kept returning to the same basic facts: there’s a lack of housing, there’s a lack of money to build it and to sustainably pay service providers, and that the people who are at risk of homelessness, currently experiencing it, or have survived it are not being heard.
No one talked about why there was the lack of money. The word “accountability” was never applied in the context of private business, but was instead thrown around to the point of becoming word salad. At one point the mayor of Auburn said that she expected to hold everyone in the process accountable – funders, service providers, even those receiving the services. (She then lauded Debbie Christian, director of the Auburn Food Bank, for her work in obligating people visiting the food bank to offer unpaid labor in cleaning the facility and neighborhood, and then the food bank posting their stories on social media. I can’t help but feel that the subtext is that people wouldn’t need to go to the food bank if they just took the moment to pick up their own garbage.) Otherwise, there was much talk of the need for accountability – mostly from people other than whomever was speaking at the moment – without ever defining what accountability would look like. What it would cost.
We went through the exercise of breaking into small groups. I listened to health insurance providers pitch ideas for housing facilities that integrated with services. I listened to someone else at the table counter with “We’re not going to end homelessness through cost-savings for managed care services.” I listened to Sally Bagshaw talk about how she liked the idea of modular housing. I listened to King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson talk about repurposing vacant land – some of it public property, some of it not – to create “urban villages” near light rail stations in South Seattle. He spoke about the need to build community.
King Count Assessor Wilson did not speak about what could be done to strengthen and root the communities already there, historically made up of people of color and immigrants who could not live elsewhere in the city due to redlining. He did not speak of the displacement those communities are experiencing due to private developers capitalizing on the new proximity of the light rail. He didn’t talk about keeping people housed in the communities where they have connections, where their children go to school. He didn’t talk about working with communities to build these urban villages. Instead he showed the room a promotional video of modular housing by a private developer that looked like an Ikea commercial.
At the end, someone asked me what I got out of attending this meeting, and I was hard pressed to answer. The decisions of consequence – who gets paid to do what, who pays to make it happen – were clearly not being made in this room or this format. The solutions proposed were disconnected from the situation on the ground. The phrase “racial equity” was lobbed frequently but never made concrete into what could be done about it. Instead, the speakers offered gimmicks – modular housing! talking about root causes! making teens “more employable for high wage jobs”! incentivizing private employers to be “proactive” in hiring – without ever answering the questions of…
- Who pays
- Why are some jobs paying much more than others
- How are governmental systems perpetuating institutional racism (for example, youth incarceration)
- The responsibility of the private sector in causing the current circumstances, and in solving them in ways other than the deployment of a new slick product
What I got out of this meeting was the performance of busy-ness, the lip service to inclusion.
(One of the most honest parts of the meeting was the final slide of the county assessor’s presentation. It was the typical shot of Seattle, with the Space Needle skewed disproportionately large and Mt Rainier in the background. This shot is from Kerry Park in Queen Anne, one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle – a solid metaphor for the distorted perspective in the room.)
The meeting wrapped up with elected officials saying a few words about accountability, governance, how revolutionary it was to be talking about root causes. Only one woman said anything meaningful. She was the one person of color to speak. I did not catch her name but had the impression that she had experienced homelessness, that she was a veteran.
She asked the audience to imagine the worst moment of their lives. She told us that those who had experienced homelessness were being asked to relive that moment by participating in this forum. She spoke of the exhaustion of being in a room full of well-meaning people who spoke of those who had experienced homelessness as “they” and “them” – inconceivably othered. And she ended with the quote above: “Let’s keep listening to the people who have not only been there but are still there.”
She got applause, of course, because sometimes just hearing an impassioned call to bold, behavior-changing action feels like something has actually been done. We all wanted to be a part of that moment, because then we could chalk up at least one accomplishment for the day: we listened to a black woman tell it like it is. That’s enough, right?
If anything changes, it won’t be because of what happened today.