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By: Pete the social worker

If you’ve ever lived or worked in a shelter you know it’s not a pretty place. The city reserves only the lowest grade living conditions for those who have the least. Shelters are regularly crammed beyond capacity, are difficult to keep clean, and result in everyone from residents to workers sharing any illness that’s going around at the time. This is not a condemnation of the unhoused or the workers who live and work there. There is little better unhoused folks and workers could do to in those spaces with the cards they’ve been dealt.  The fault lies with how the city simply doesn’t properly equip these spaces.

These conditions are a ticking time bomb with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of circumstances imposed by our profit-driven healthcare system in America, the best the population can do at this moment is wash their hands and stay inside. This is fine advice for those lucky enough to have a home to stay in. But a shelter where people sleep in bunkbeds in a single room, or in mats on the ground, share restroom facilities and community areas requires only one case of a highly contagious virus for everyone to contract it. This would result in hundreds of people being infected, which would in turn mean hundreds of people that would need to be medically admitted, overloading the medical system in Seattle. A medical system that is already horrendously discriminatory to the unhoused (ask any unhoused person how their last visit to the hospital went).

But let’s say the above hasn’t moved you. Can’t shelters simply lock the door and keep all the infected unhoused folks inside to ride out the pandemic?  There’s still one problem: social workers still have to come to work every day. That means regular traffic between the unhoused and the housed community. Social workers live half of their lives between communities and this means that no amount of handwashing will keep away the reality that whatever happens to our unhoused neighbors affects you.  No matter how much some people would like to pretend that the unhoused are not their neighbors, they are. They are part of our communities, and as regularly happens in communities, things spread.

We face a moral problem common to modern capitalism: a population mostly composed of BIPOC individuals in their 40’s, at the bottom of the class system, with underlying health conditions are headed toward ruin because of conditions imposed upon them by classes above them. The condition in which they face the virus-the result of years of neglect imposed on them by us. We, as a community, wanted the ability to shop on 1st Ave without being reminded of the brutal poverty capitalism can dish out. We also wanted as clean a conscience as possible, so we funded more homeless shelters with one hand while funding sweeps with the other. Now a literal pandemic is making us choose: will we continue funding the displacement machine that is the sweeps, or will we demand a humanitarian response? Are we so committed to our dollar gods that we are willing to sacrifice countless people at their altar?

I fear we may not recover if we choose our dollar gods. To not curb this humanitarian crisis will mean we will have collectively decided that the lives of fellow humxn beings are not worth more than our city’s fiscal budget. That empty hotel rooms were worth more in their emptiness than a life that loved, hated, laughed, cried. With such priorities any illusion of community, of togetherness, will be shattered. If we go down this path, we will be unable to face each other as moral beings, with common interests and goals when the reality of humxn sacrifice paints every interaction. Our collective psyche will be tainted by this open secret.  No more “everyone is welcome”. No more “in my America”.

There’s still a way to mitigate this. We can organize with our neighbors and force the city to do what it has neglected to do for years: house people. In apartments, houses, extra rooms, tiny houses, hotel rooms, etc. Social workers are aware of buildings with available apartments. What keeps unhoused individuals from getting into them is a combination of obscene prices and discriminatory practices. A national emergency, a literal pandemic, must take precedence over capital and discrimination. It’s about time we reclaim our moral consciousness from the allure of the dollar. It’s about time we put us before capitalism.

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