Meeting the 'Other Side'

An unfortunate side-effect of lightening rod issues is a failure to hear the “other side.” In Seattle, the term “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) is thrown around – a lot – when people are having disagreements. Generally, I aim to avoid the term, because I see more nuance to a lot of issues impacting our communities. Sure, there are places where it is appropriate (particularly when people literally say things like, “put those people somewhere else,” and often specifically cite Southeast Seattle), but on the whole, my experience is that most people are not quite the NIMBY they are accused of being.

So we talk past each other, and over each other, and avoid the opportunity to speak with each other. What ends up happening, of course, is nothing gets done. When we are talking about homelessness, doing nothing means more people die. That is unacceptable.

I confess I am not always the best at hearing what is perceived as the “other side.” For me, once I hear people being spoken about as if they were objects or trash worth throwing away, I have difficulty listening to much more.

Me, Kemra Norsworthy of Ballard, and Sara Lerner from KIRO News Radio

Me, Kemra Norsworthy of Ballard, and Sara Lerner from KIRO News Radio

Being interested in solutions, however, requires all voices that are willing to working together. As I noted previously, I am given hope that some who initially were (very) hostile toward encampments have moved beyond complaining to collaborating and learning. I believe there are more like Eric Stoll.

In fact, I know that is the case. Earlier today, I returned to Ballard to talk about solutions with Sara Lerner of KIRO News Radio, and joined Kemra Norsworthy in a conversation about her experiences, my experiences, and to learn from each other. The initial take: Ms. Norsworthy wants the city to do more to help people experiencing homelessness, suffering from addiction, or otherwise in need of help.

At the same time, she wants her teenage son to feel safe when walks home from the Metro stop. Just like I want my teenage daughter to feel safe when she walks home from her bus stop.

Photo Credit: Todd

Photo Credit: Todd

Immediately I was reminded of my friend Todd. Todd is a good guy, and wants the same thing – the city to do something concrete and meaningful to address the homelessness crisis. He recognizes the human component of what we are talking about. However, he also doesn’t want to step on used syringes, which he is seeing more and more of in his neighborhood. Due to the volume levels of the “conversation” our city is having on this issue, however, he expresses a frustration that if he says anything about used needles or trash on his street, he will automatically be labeled a NIMBY.

It’s hearing these stories first-hand that remind me of the importance to acknowledge that there is a real concern about safety and health associated with our current crisis. It is easy to scoff at the notion that someone is afraid of someone experiencing extreme poverty because of their own privilege – and that happens – but for many, they don’t fear poverty. Instead, they fear actual verbal threats they have heard, or coming across a needle.

But beyond that, they also recognize that shuffling people around is not working. If anything, it is causing even more harm to the people most in need. These folks really are on our side; are not in the game of dehumanizing people, and want us to not throw money at problems, but throw money into solutions.

During our conversation, I (shockingly) talked a lot about Housing First models with Ms. Norsworthy. She raised a concern about just hiding the problem, and not providing services. She was unaware that Housing First doesn’t just put people into a building and forget about them, but instead provides a safe place to sleep, and also provides access to case management which, ultimately, has a goal of connecting people with the treatment and other services they need. With this new information, it made sense to her.

This was further evidenced by our conversation about the Seattle Times’ piece in today’s paper about RV campers that don’t want to go to the safe lots. She agreed that the restrictions – the barriers – that are being in place are overly-restrictive. Some made sense – no propane use in the RV, for instance (but she noted that the lots should have generators or grid hookups for people to hook their RVs into to get electricity) – but the rule that you can’t smoke in your own RV seemed ludicrous to her.

This education opportunity is part of why the panel with Hanna Brooks Olsen, Mercedes Elizalde, and myself exists. We are able to, in a non-hostile way, talk about the causes, solutions, and barriers placed when attempting to provide help to those most in need. People come up to me afterward and note that they were unaware of the barriers, or that Housing First with wraparound services is an option. Education is part of the solution. 

Ultimately, Ms. Norsworthy and I both come from different perspectives. But we both, it turns out, want (more or less) the same thing. Part of that same thing includes working together and providing better information in a non-hostile format (see above). Moving away from the reactionary, acknowledging concerns, and charting a course to doing something good. From temporary band-aids – Safe Lots and encampments – to more long-term solutions, inclusive of Housing First with wraparound services.

Additionally, an acknowledgement that we must be more aggressive in addressing the affordability crisis – which includes building more housing, addressing excessive move-in costs, and enforcing anti-source-of-income-discrimination laws – are part of the overall puzzle.

Hanna Brooks Olsen, Mercedes Elizalde, and me, presenting before the 36th District Democrats (photo credit: Josh Castle)

Hanna Brooks Olsen, Mercedes Elizalde, and me, presenting before the 36th District Democrats (photo credit: Josh Castle)

I left our conversation filled with hope. Following a panel last night alongside Mercedes Elizalde and Hanna Brooks Olsen with an audience interested in long-term solutions and how they can be more effective advocating for the same, I believe we are going to move in a direction that provides safe shelter for our community members experiencing homelessness. Doing nothing is not going to help our community members experiencing homelessness. Just shuffling people around will not address the public health concerns.

With the work that Sally Bagshaw is leading on, and having more conversations like these, I know we are up to the task, and look forward to continuing to be part of the solution. Not as an extremist, and without being shrill and divisive, but as someone ready for meaningful action.