A count in January found that over 4,500 people in the Seattle area sleep on the street every night. More than 35,000 students in Washington state were homeless at some point during the last academic year. In 2016, so far 25 homeless people already passed away. These numbers I found online are powerful, giving me an idea of a city in a homeless crisis, whose mayor declared a state of emergency last year. But by turning real lives into cold statistics for outsiders like me to look at, these numbers are also dangerous. I have been careful to not be scared, satisfied or stopped by these numbers, but to walk out of the office and expose myself into the reality of others.
During the Poverty Simulation last Wednesday, I got to take on the character of a 25-year-old homeless man for “a month” (an hour in real time). With a full-time job, an unemployed homeless girlfriend, a one-year old child, countless loans and bills to pay, “I” needed to find my way out of the homeless shelter and secure a permanent housing. “I” did not get paid much from my time and energy consuming job; “I” did not have a valid bank account; “I” spent ages in line waiting for vouchers and referral services; “I” did not have time and money to feed myself for “three weeks”…
In the virtual setting, I was already anxious, stressed out, trying to keep everything organized and distinguish different priorities in a limited amount of time. Saying that I now know what being homeless feels like would be ridiculous, but that hour of simulation does give me a different perspective on the homeless community that cannot be easily perceived in news and reports: about how they ended up where they are now, their daily struggle to improve their lives, the complications of getting help. But even in the simulation, I was one of he luckier ones. “I” had stable wages, while most homeless people in Seattle struggle finding even part-time work. “I” was healthy and had the company of a family, while so many of the chronically homeless suffer from mental illnesses, drug addictions and domestic violence. “I” was given a house by social services in the end, but the brutal reality is that countless homeless citizens need to wait for years to receive housing assistance, and even more are discriminated against, rejected and ignored when they are looking for help.
In the past few weeks, I have also had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Buchman from Solid Ground and Bryce Yadon from Futurewise. They provided another important point of view as community organizations that closely work with the homeless populations, local neighborhoods, political campaigns and policy makers. Conversations with social workers like them allowed me to see how the city is doing what it can to confront the exacerbating homeless crisis, and what challenges still exist for Seattle to better utilize emergency funding.
I guess this is why my work at the Bus has been so rewarding and eye-opening even though what I have done cannot be measured with hours or presented physically yet. It has given me the chance to get in touch with the community I am trying to serve, and allowed me navigate different resources available to grasp a holistic view of the issue I am trying to learn about. Every day I leave the Bus with a little bit more knowledge about social justice in Seattle, and I believe that is a significant step towards a truly effective and meaningful community engagement experience.
By: Sherry Huang