Nearly once a week a “discussion” erupts on my local NextDoor site in regards to homelessness (or, more accurately homeless people) in Seattle. My neighborhood is a mix of upper-income, middle-aged white folks in single family homes and younger, mostly white folks in townhomes that are rapidly gentrifying the area, with some families who’ve been here for generations thrown in. Mostly, those folks who have lived in this area for a long time are people of color, as this is the neighborhood where, historically, Black people were redlined to. (Yes, I am one of the gentrifiers, and that is something I grapple with quite a bit).
It happens like this: someone posts an angry or disgusted rant about homelessness or tent-camping in public parks getting “out of control,” the same five or six people chime in with questions about where these folks ought to be living instead, given the lack of housing and shelters in the city, and fifteen or twenty others clap back with comments about crime or garbage or needles and encourage the “libtards” to open their own homes to “these people.” It devolves from there, and it only ends because people get tired of having the same back-and-forth. At some point, another person will post something similar about a different area of town or an encounter they had with an unhoused person and it starts all over again.
In other cases, I have read stories of people really struggling with basic needs on social media, written by friends and acquaintances in an effort to highlight the challenges so many families are having, and read comments by folks who accuse them of fabricating these stories just to create division. Other commenters pile on, asking if the original poster did anything to help or were they just co-opting the story to make themselves look good.
Why do we do that? Why do we deflect and make these experiences about things they aren’t about? Instead of talking about the overwhelming numbers of people who are unhoused, we argue about “hygiene” or “cleanliness” or property values of homeowners living nearby. Instead of sitting with the knowledge that there are so many among us who can’t afford food or medication or are one disaster away from being unhoused themselves, we fight with each other about the veracity of these stories or yell at folks for not doing something Right Now.
Discomfort. I think that’s what it comes down to – who is able to sit with discomfort and who isn’t. It is incredibly painful to witness another human being suffering or struggling, and when it shows up in our own neighborhood, we can’t simply turn off the television or walk away. If you live across the street from a place where people have erected tents and are living without running water or enough food, it’s hard to shut it out. It takes courage to be a witness to suffering and to really acknowledge that the folks who are struggling are human beings who deserve care and comfort.
The city of Seattle created something they call “Find it, Fix it” for citizens to report issues that the city needs to address. It was designed to address infrastructure problems like potholes or stop signs that fell over or are obstructed by trees, but increasingly, it is being used by citizens who don’t like homeless people living in their neighborhoods. A few days ago, another resident of my neighborhood posted on NextDoor, imploring folks to flood the Find it, Fix it voice mail with concerns about a tent encampment in our area that just keeps growing. When I pointed out that tent camps are populated by people, not “it,” I was predictably met with the same arguments – the garbage, the needles (minus any evidence that there actually is any drug activity happening), the loud arguments coming from that area at night. One commenter wrote about loud arguments he heard coming from the tents at night, saying they frightened him because he was sure violence was imminent. But, I asked, if you were sitting out on your back deck relaxing and you heard your (housed) neighbors having a loud argument, would you feel unsafe? If not, is that because they are housed? Are you only frightened by people having public arguments who don’t have the privilege of being in a home they rent or own?
It is uncomfortable to admit that there are people who don’t have enough. It is more uncomfortable to witness it. The whole NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) paradigm isn’t about solving the problems our cities face, it is about making sure we don’t have to see it. The assertions about property values and cleanliness are thinly veiled attempts to say that some people are more deserving of comfort and care than others are. When we blame unhoused people for being unhoused, we are more able to see them as people not worthy of the same comforts we have. When we begin to believe that they are somehow fundamentally different from us, we are more likely to be afraid of them and imagine them to be unpredictable or somehow dangerous. When we blame poor people for being poor, we are divorcing ourselves from any responsibility to them as humans, as members of a community. We are assuming that their actions, their choices, have rendered them outside of the collective we belong to, and diminishing the reality that their basic needs are not being met and they are suffering.
But when we choose to witness the suffering of another as an equal human being, as a member of our community, we have to be able to sit with all the fear and sadness that brings up. My friend Nicci said the other day, “being a witness to suffering is much different than suffering with suffering.” Until we have practice acknowledging that someone is struggling and holding compassion for that without deflecting, we are simply suffering, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we turn that suffering in to anger and resentment toward those people, and sometimes we try to deflect that in to action, to try and “fix” it. Our brains are so good at finding ways to keep us from feeling that it takes practice, and vigilance to learn to be a witness and sit with the discomfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t act, but the more we learn to be compassionate witnesses, the more likely we are to center the individual people in our search for solutions. This isn’t deflection, it’s transformation, it’s metabolizing our empathy and compassion to find ways to act that serve those who are suffering.
It’s the deflection that seeks to push the pain out of our visual range that is harmful, because it denies the humanity of others and our connection to community. We don’t get to be selective about the communities we belong to, no matter how hard we try. The fact is, we are all connected whether we like it or not. That is being shown every single day in a myriad of ways. I see posts from people about their struggles with family members who hold completely different political views than their own, anecdotes about others who were surprised to find that someone they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with was able to help them in some way, people who have to rely on others for assistance. We are all part of a community, like it or not.
I truly believe that most of the people who get indignant about homelessness and poverty are people who, if they really let themselves acknowledge what they’re feeling, are empathic. I think that the coping mechanism they’ve developed to deal with the (very real) discomfort of witnessing suffering is anger and blame and if they allowed themselves to put that aside and really feel what they feel when they see a person who is unhoused or needs help with basic necessities, they might begin to feel more connected, and more empowered. I think that the instinct to share our views and feelings on social media is an attempt to build community, to ask others to validate our feelings and be witnesses for us, but ironically, it almost always devolves in to an argument about those who are suffering rather than an invitation to really witness what they are living with.