In King County, the annual One Night Count occurs in the lonely hours of 2-5am. As I walked the streets of Renton on January 29, I reflected upon war and upon peace. Not on the military engagements for possession of real property and control of peoples, but on the cultural and economic wars that define opportunity and place in our society. In the relatively short existence of the United States, we have had too much war and oppression, and not enough peace and prosperity.
In those dark and cold hours, I thought about the 1960s War to End Poverty — a noble war led by the Community Action movement. It is the one war that we must continue to fight.
In the 1970s, President Nixon launched the War on Drugs with harsh penalties, aggressive law enforcement and mandatory sentencing. In the 1980s, President Reagan vilified persons receiving welfare and embraced zero tolerance for drug and drug-related offenses; in doing so he launched the United States on its current trajectory of mass incarceration and disproportionate punishment of persons of color and those living on low incomes.
In the mid-1990s, President Clinton launched a second round of welfare ‘reform’ that felt like an undeclared war on public benefits for persons of color and persons living on low incomes. In the first few years of the 21st Century, President Bush launched a War on Terror that was not confined to a military battlefield. Sadly, the War on Terror has evolved into an insidious battle against those who practice Islam. It has spawned a time of dangerous hate speech and fear-based rhetoric rooted in an anti-immigrant and refugee xenophobia that threatens to shatter our ideals of inclusion and compassion.
In the last three years, our local housing and homeless crisis has devolved into double-digit growth of the numbers of unsheltered residents. There is a proliferation of persons living in tents. There is an urgent need to create safe vehicle parking zones. Appropriately, we are responding to what our elected leaders have classified as a Homeless State of Emergency. Yet even as we work on implementing the long-term solutions identified by the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and the nearer-term opportunity of a 2016 Seattle Housing Levy, we find ourselves struggling to create policies to prevent criminalization of homelessness.
The tens of thousands residents who are living without shelter, in emergency shelters or in transitional housing are the casualties of our failure to win the battle to end poverty. As we finished our One Night Count, I thought about the peace of achieving a community where — if homelessness occurs — it is Rare, Brief and One-Time.