A tale of two cities

July 6, 2009

Two Americas exist side by side--one where a tiny minority of the rich enjoys immense wealth, and another where the vast majority barely scrapes by, and sometimes not even that. Leela Yellesetty describes the yawning gap between rich and poor in Seattle.

IT IS a typical gray day in Seattle, but the view of the city from Capitol Hill is still impressive. On nicer days, the Olympic Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the city's signature landmark, the Space Needle. To the south, on the edge of the city skyline, luxury condominiums crop up like weeds in various stages of construction.

I'm standing in the parking lot of St. Marks Episcopal Church, talking with Charles "Mac" McGlinghey, who has been kind enough to show me his home.

"Go ahead and poke your head in and look around," he says. I peer inside, but it is too small to enter. Taking up most of the space is a makeshift bed constructed from crates, with a layer of blankets on top to protect Mac and his wife from sleeping on the cold concrete of the church lot. The rest of their things easily fill the small space on the other side of the two-person tent. "That's pretty much everything we own aside from what we have in a small storage space down in Kent," he says.

With his big bushy beard making him look uncannily like Santa Claus, Mac sits calmly atop a crate outside, and points with his cane two tents down. "That's where my son lives," he says.

Two Seattles, one for the rich and for the poor
Two Seattles, one for the rich and for the poor (Jan Critchfield)

Mac's stepson was abused so badly by his biological father that, at age 31, he only has the mental maturity of a 10-year-old. The three of them have lived in Tent City III, a self-governed community of about 100 homeless people, for the past three months.

"We're here because we can't get an apartment," says Mac. "Every time we apply for one, they say you need to make three times the amount of rent in income. Well, that's all well and good if I could work and had a job. But where am I going to find a place for $210 a month? For three people? Considering all three of us collect SSI, and I collect Social Security disability, that's what it comes down to. There's no way you can get a place on that."

Mac has been on the list for Section 8 affordable housing for the past eight months and hopes it comes through soon.

But Nick, another man I meet at the camp, tells me he's been on the list for two years. He's been homeless since a debilitating accident on the job cut off his livelihood as a carpenter three years ago. Soft-spoken and shy about sharing his opinion, Nick says simply, "We need more housing. You can't just get rid of the homeless. You can't have rich people without poor people."

What you can do

The future of the Nickelsville tent city depends on convincing Gov. Gregoire that the homeless shouldn't be evicted from state land. Tell her today your opinion of Nickelsville--call 800-562-6000, fax 360-753-4110 or e-mail [email protected]. You can also sign a petition calling on the governor to let Nickelsville be left in peace.

Residents of Nickelsville are always in need of water, 2-by-4s nails, non-perishable foods and friendly faces. You can find them at West Marginal Way SW & 2nd Avenue SW.

The organization Seattle and Housing Resource Effort (SHARE) is appealing for funds to help maintain its program of giving free city bus tickets to the homeless. You can send a check or money order payable to: SHARE, 1902 2nd Ave., Seattle, WA 98101. You can contact SHARE at 206-448-7889

If you'd like to express your displeasure with Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols for cutting off city funds to SHARE, call 206-684-4000.

Life-changing accidents seem to be a common theme among the stories at Tent City. Mac has a dissociative disorder that has prevented him from holding a job for the past 30 years. He traces its origins to an accident when he was in the Navy, decommissioning a ship after two tours in Vietnam.

"Something fell off the pallet, while I was down in the hole," he says. "It wasn't up too high, but it fell about 10 feet and hit me in the head. I was unconscious for about 15 seconds, and ever since that time, I've had the problem. The Navy never 'fessed up to it. They've acknowledged the fact that something happened, but they don't know what. And it's not their fault. That's typical of the military, though."

I ask Mac how many of the residents here are veterans. "Alright, let's start with the people out here," he says, and points to five people among the 20 or so who are milling about the center of camp. He estimates that at least 20 percent are vets overall.

"We had one gentlemen here for awhile who just got back from Iraq," he says. "You got people like me from Vietnam, and just about everyone else in between. We all have our horror stories to tell. Most of the vets, because of our experience, kind of look out for everyone else and keep the peace. Bottom line, we're tired of fighting. But every day here is a fight."

I came here to investigate the growth of tent cities as a result of the current economic crisis. Stories on this topic have made headlines across the country, for the first time perhaps since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But what strikes me as I'm here is that there's nothing new about these symbols of dire poverty in the world's richest nation. Tent City I was formed back in 1991. Many of the residents of the three tent cities in the Seattle area have been homeless for years. As Ben Ehrenreich pointed out in the Nation magazine:

While recent media accounts portrayed Tent City's incarnations as creatures of the recession--reborn Hoovervilles for the laid off and the foreclosed--shantytowns have been a periodic but permanent feature of American urban life for at least the past two decades...Tent City tells the grueling back story to the current recession--nearly 30 years of cuts in social services to the poor and mentally ill, the decimation of the industrial economy and the cruel underside of the housing boom.

AS MUCH as Seattle's homeless are struggling in these tough economic times, they aren't the only ones with problems--at least according to Seattle entrepreneur Andy Sack, who recently announced he's starting up a support group for another group in need: multimillionaires.

Seattle is now home to the newest chapter of Tiger 21, an exclusive New York-based network of clubs for the exceedingly wealthy. To join Tiger 21, you have to have at least $10 million in assets, not including houses, cars and other properties, and pay a $30,000-a-year membership fee. Nationwide, Tiger 21 has about 170 members with an average net worth between $30 million and $50 million.

Home to executives at Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Amazon, not to mention a host of dot-com millionaires like Sack, Seattle should have no trouble attracting members. In fact, it's surprising the city didn't already have a club where the super-rich could help each other endure their predicament.

What predicament? Tiger 21 Managing Director Lewis Haskell says that finding people to relate to can be difficult for the superrich. "People are either jealous or they can't understand you have problems," Haskell says. "They say, 'I should have such problems,' or 'How hard can it be?'"

As an article about the group in the Seattle-based Xconomy puts it:

Think the super-rich don't have problems? Try fending off friends and relatives who always want to borrow money, or raising spoiled brats who don't take responsibility for their actions. Not to mention the more obvious financial questions of how to manage such hefty portfolios--especially in economic times like these. (Granted, some of this might be viewed as insensitive at a time when local food banks are running out of food.)

Sack, who made his fortune investing in Web startups, writes a blog discussing the trials and tribulations of being rich, and dropping pearls of wisdom for those who aspire to his level of greatness. Among his many astute observations: "In the game of business, success is measured by dollars. It makes sense that people are motivated by selfishness and 'greed' and the general desire to improve one's financial standing. This isn't a bad thing--it's what capitalism is based upon."

Yet in a later post, Sack reflects,

It's not about the money. So much of success in America is driven and measured by money. Money is not and should not be the measure of success--or happiness. One of the best conversations I had this weekend was with someone who has been unemployed for two years, and spent nine months meditating. He quit his 90K per year job to elect for unemployment because he felt the job was killing the life in him. Pretty fascinating guy. He was amongst the happiest--if not the "wealthiest" people I met.

TO INVESTIGATE whether the unemployed are truly the happiest people around, I made a trip down to Qwest Field, a taxpayer-subsidized stadium controlled by another Seattle titan, Paul Allen. It also happens to be the location of Jobbernaut.com's Greater Seattle Job Fair, held every three months.

"You should have been here in February," says Jobbernaut promoter Troy Kleine. "Because of all the layoffs from the holidays, there was a line going all the way around the building. It made the front page of the paper." Kleine said the number who attended in February--7,326--was nearly double that of October. He wasn't sure exactly why the totals were lower this time around, but guessed that some people had simply given up.

"I've been looking for work for about two-and-a-half months, and there's nothing, nothing at all," said job fair attendee Autumn Walker. "If you don't have any education, like a BA, there's no way to get a job. I've been looking everywhere. I've been on Monster.com, Craigslist, NW Jobs. I'm a chef by trade. I cook, but I don't do fast food. I'm not working at McDonalds."

I told her that another person I spoke to said even McDonalds wasn't hiring, and she shook her head. "It's hard looking for a job right about now," she said. "Our economy's shot. I just think everyone has to sit back and wait for Obama to work his magic, because Bush messed up. I know he's not going to be able to make it happen overnight for the whole country--but at least a few more jobs out here for a few more people."

Most people I spoke to were still optimistic about being able to find work eventually, and had faith that Obama would turn the economy around. Being a temporary employee facing unemployment myself in a few months' time, I want to believe it, too.

But the recent statistics are not uplifting. Official unemployment in Washington state (not counting those who are underemployed or have simply given up looking) now stands at 9 percent, up from 4.7 percent last year. A recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there are an average of five job seekers for every available opening nationally. And so far this year, more than a million homes have gone into foreclosure--or about one every 13 seconds.

While the homeless have long existed in Seattle, their ranks are increasing--a trend that will likely accelerate in the months to come. The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness' One Night Count of January 2008 found 8,439 people homeless countywide. Just over 5,800 had shelter through existing programs, but more than 2,600 were without--a 15 percent increase over last year.

Use of food banks and soup kitchens are also on the rise across the region. Seattle's Cherry Street Food Bank recently saw 2,651 people walk through their doors in a single day--an all-time record.

Back at Tent City, Adam Jama is one of the newest residents. He was laid off from his job as an airport shuttle bus driver back in September, but only recently learned that he could have applied for unemployment benefits.

An immigrant, he also found out that in order to get another job, he must pay $340 to renew his work permit. Like most of the newly homeless, Adam first stayed with family and friends until he began to wear out his welcome. He heard about Tent City III from a man on the bus a couple weeks ago. "It's better than staying on the streets," he says. "They don't turn people away, if there's space available."

There are only 100 slots available at Tent City III. Once you're in, you can stay as long as you abide by the rules. If people turn up and there is no space, they are allowed to stay one night, but can't come back again for a week. Adam tells me at least five people come through every night.

Of those fortunate enough to find a place to stay, many prefer places like Tent City III because unlike the shelters, the tent cities are democratically run by residents. Couples are allowed to stay together, which is almost always denied in shelters. They also allow for people to leave their things in a safe place, rather than being kicked out with all their belongings each morning.

This is even more important now since one of the few buildings open to the homeless during the day--the public library--recently passed new rules restricting large bags. The tent cities offer a small measure of community and dignity in the face of the daily humiliations of surviving without a home.

Nonetheless, anyone here can tell you that living in a tent is no picnic. And as if life weren't hard enough, the city of Seattle, far from offering assistance, is hell-bent on shutting down the tent cities.

The latest example: A group called Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) provides shelter and other services for the homeless, including two free bus tickets per day. This is a lifeline for Tent City residents, especially those who have jobs or are looking for one.

But the city is cutting off funding for the tickets, so SHARE will run out of money for the program by around the July 4 weekend. The organization is planning a direct action to protest--the homeless will head to the homes of the city's political leaders (first stop: Mayor Greg Nichols) and sleep on the sidewalk outside.

TREATING THOSE who can't afford a place to live as an eyesore at best and a criminal element at worst is a time-honored tradition in Seattle.

In the 1930s, a massive Hooverville spang up south of the city, where Qwest Field sits today, swelling to a population of over 1,200 at its peak. The city burned it to the ground.

When Tent City II was founded back in 1998, the city council invited residents to meet and discuss more permanent options. While the residents were at the meeting, the city bulldozed their encampment.

Through a series of legal appeals, Tent City III finally reached an agreement with the city to camp legally on private land, but the catch is they can only stay at one location a few months at a time. The camp has moved more than 50 times since 2000.

Nickelsville, a more recently formed tent city named after Mayor Nickels because of his cruel homeless sweeps, took a more aggressive approach by initially setting up on city property. Residents were forcibly evicted by the police after four days. Twenty-two people were arrested when they refused to move.

After a few other temporary locations, Nickelsville recently made what residents and supporters hope will be its last move, to a parcel adjacent to the city land it occupied last September. Residents and organizers said that because they are on state land, Gov. Christine Gregoire can trump the mayor and let them stay. "I will be arrested if I have to," Nickelsville resident Bruce Beaver told King 5 News, "We need places to stay and shelters don't always cut it."

At the University of Washington, a public health class is taking on a campaign to bring Tent City III to campus. At a campus forum on the topic, former tent city resident and homeless advocate Anitra Freeman pointed out that 330 people have died from being out on the streets in Seattle since 2000--50 just in the last year. As Freeman said:

The life expectancy during the Black Death was better than for homeless people today. That is unconscionable to me...People deserve better than tents, but they deserve at least tents--they die without them. Democracy is predicated on the assumption that we are all of equal value. If we are letting people die on our streets, then we have no respect for humanity in this country, and we're in serious trouble.

At the forum, I recognized James Wlos, who I'd met over a year ago tabling at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union hiring hall. Wlos had been picking up hours as a casual at the Port of Seattle, but right now, there's no work, and he's living out of his car. He waved a stack of parking tickets in the air, explaining that you can't park your car anywhere through the night in the city without getting them.

"I can't even afford to be homeless," Wlos says. "All these corporations are taking money from me they don't even need. It doesn't have to be like this. If we work together, we can hire people to grow food, to build solar generators, whatever. Imagine the possibilities. Obama won't do it for us--we have to do it ourselves."

The solutions to the housing crisis should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it. When newly constructed luxury condos are standing empty all around, there's no reason people should have to live in tents, much less in cars or on the streets.

Instead, the people who were neglected in good times are expected to suffer even worse when times get tough. As the crisis deepens, more and more people are at risk of becoming economic casualties.

On the chopping block in this year's budget are funds for virtually every social service in the city, from mental health care to public transportation. Five public schools are slated for closure, and 173 teachers just received pink slips. The only budget item that remains untouched is for a new city jail, at a cost of $200 million.

I guess this is the politicians' idea of a public housing program.

Meanwhile, in the other Seattle, the wealthy cope with the terrible burden of having more money than they know what to do with.

I have some ideas. The Economic Opportunity Institute estimates that a 3 percent surtax on incomes between $200,000 and $999,999 and a 5 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million in Washington state could raise $2.6 billion immediately--more than enough to stop the proposed cuts to public health, the General Assistance-Unemployable program, and basic education, and provide more relief to those who need it most.

Washington state has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country--meaning that the wealthy pay proportionally less of their incomes in taxes. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20 percent of Washingtonians pay 17.5 percent of their income in taxes each year, while the top 1 percent pay just 3.3 percent.

Recent polls indicate a majority of people support making the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes. Yet the Democratic-controlled legislature and governor refuse to countenance the idea.

Many people in Seattle are beginning to conclude that we need to take our city back--from the Nickelsville residents holding their ground, to the students organizing against budget cuts, to teachers' union members protesting layoffs.

The Andy Sacks of the world may think their lives are tough, but here's hoping things get a lot harder for them--when the rest of us stand up to demand our fair share.

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