As a young woman working for the Washington State Welfare Department in the 1950s, Suzanne Hittman was tasked with checking in on the many single men living in hotels along Seattle’s 1st Avenue in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.
“You’d visit and talk to them, ask what their needs were. Did they need medical help?” she says. “I was young enough that I thought you could change it all, make it all better – that pie-in-the-sky feeling.”
Suzanne, one of Solid Ground’s many individual donors, is still trying to make it all better nearly 70 years later – albeit with eyes wide open. Now 90, she’s been a social worker, professional fundraiser, Seattle School Board president, and political activist. She’s still fiercely involved in Seattle politics and public policy. As a top donor to the House Our Neighbors! coalition, she helped lobby and defeat a proposed Seattle charter amendment that would have been harmful for people living without shelter – in part because it didn’t address the causes of homelessness. (See our blog posts Why ‘Compassion Seattle’ will do more harm than good for our unhoused neighbors and Compassion Seattle was a distraction. Here’s a solution.)
“My mantra now is, ‘Philanthropy can’t do it alone.’ It’s going to take some upheaval. We need to change public policy.” ~Suzanne Hittman, philanthropist and political activist
Suzanne is also a generous philanthropist who has given to countless Seattle institutions – from Plymouth Housing and The Seattle Public Library to Seattle Rep and Cascade Public Media – but she says she’s also come to recognize the limits of philanthropy.
One reason she supports Solid Ground is it pairs direct services with advocacy aimed at changing public policy and dismantling the barriers that keep people in poverty.
“My mantra now is, ‘Philanthropy can’t do it alone,’” she says. “It’s going to take some upheaval. We need to change public policy.” Suzanne has lived through plenty of upheaval already.
She grew up with her parents and grandparents on their farm in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, near where Solid Ground continues to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the community at the ¾-acre Marra Farm Giving Garden at Marra-Desimone Park.
Suzanne’s grandfather was Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone, an immigrant farmer turned businessman, who came to own Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market for several years. Her uncle Richard Desimone took over the market after Joe’s death in 1946 and ran it until the 1970s, when the city bought it and preserved it as a historic landmark.
Suzanne, meanwhile, charted her own course. After studying psychology at Stanford University, her welfare work entailed signing people up for New Deal-era safety net programs born out of the Great Depression. She later moved to Harborview Hospital to help with patient intake.
Suzanne left the workforce to raise her children and ended up being elected president of the Seattle School Board at a time when it was working to desegregate Seattle’s schools. After her children were grown, she got involved in fundraising, first at Children’s Home Society and later at United Way of King County. She served on the boards of a growing number of organizations into her 80s, when she decided it was time to make room for a new generation of leadership.
Over the years, Suzanne says she’s mostly just responded to requests made of her as she became more and more involved in Seattle nonprofits. But looking back, she can see she was motivated by a desire to dismantle the inequality she witnessed throughout her lifetime. She views today’s debates over homelessness through the lens of someone who can remember the “Hooverville” shacks that went up by the hundreds along the Seattle waterfront during the Great Depression.
She understands racism and segregation as someone who saw how redlining and city policy decisions shaped today’s Seattle neighborhoods. And she recalls with sorrow the year the Japanese families who worked the Desimone farm were forced into relocation camps as anti-Japanese sentiments swept the U.S. following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It’s terrible the way we treated people,” she says.
These days, Suzanne thinks a lot about homelessness, transportation, wealth inequality, and mental health services, particularly for young people. “I’d like to see the time when we could really work on things and put private money to improve public policy,” she says. “We need to get better health care, we need to get better mental health care, and it needs to be paid for by everyone.”
She says she supports Solid Ground because it takes a comprehensive approach to solving poverty by meeting people’s basic needs and nurturing their success through housing, food, and transportation. “You can’t get too focused,” she says, “The world doesn’t operate quite that way.”
And Suzanne says she admires Solid Ground for going beyond its services to take bold stands and advocate for policies that dismantle the systemic barriers that keep people in poverty. She now pushes other agencies to take similar stands. “I believe all the social services agencies need to stand up in unison and say, ‘Hey, this can’t be,’” she says. “This can’t be.”
Victoria Coleman says
After reading, I must say, thank you for all that you started and all the things you have done. I want you to know there is minimal and in my opinion there isn’t any seriously real help out there. I’ve tried making contact to anyone including the secretary of state and I either do not hear back from or they do not respond at all not even an auto reply. I understand there is the pandemic going on but I have been having a great difficulty with the DSHS/SSI and HEN housing. I have been homeless ever since my mother died february14,2001. I’m 47 now. I read and I search and I write over and over almost every day looking for anything that will help me. The highest level of schooling I’ve got is a 6th grade level education I should of been held back in 7th really, and I have never worked in my whole life and I’m 47 now. I’ve tried looking for work but no one answers back because of my education level, it don’t matter anymore because I live in a car sometimes the woods when police are forcing us to leave or we will get arrested. I want so bad to be a writer and work from home because of my mental issues but it seems like these job offers are scams. Even when you look at the job apps they have out designed to help people look for work like zip recruiter will have you enter your preferences but it will retrieve barely anything that is relevant to the jobs you want to apply for. I’m just really amazed at I actually found solid ground.org and that it is a real organization designed to really help people with situations like mine. I didn’t know I needed to have a consultation with an attorney all I wanted was an advocate and now I’ve been speaking with both. Thank you. Happy holidays