If you’ve ever been to Seattle you’ve no doubt encountered one of the Emerald City’s biggest social challenges. Of course I’m referring to the homeless crisis. Recent data collected in late January estimates the current homeless population in King County to be well over 10,000, up 19% from last year
(this graphic is from last year since the totals from the count on 1/29/16 were not released yet).
Like many major metropolitan areas in the United States, Seattle has tried to address this issue. In 2005 the city and county leaders annannounced a joint plan to eliminate homelessness in the area within 10 years. Unfortunately, the economy tanked and resources decreased while many people lost their jobs, driving up the need. (Check out these websites for much more information. 10 year plan and One Night Count) Anyone who visits Seattle has likely been approached by panhandlers or has at least seen people standing with signs asking for food, money or work. There are many tents visible underneath some of the overpasses and several homeless tent camps in the area. The most famous one is called the Jungle and was in the news last week because there was a shooting there that resulted in multiple homicides. Police believe that it was not a random attack and the investigation is ongoing. Sadly, the shooting took place while the Seattle mayor was making a speech about the homelessness problem facing the city.
My youngest three kids and I were in Seattle at that very time last week, having spent the afternoon at the Seattle Center, which is where the iconic Space Needle is located. We spent most of our time at either the Pacific Science Center or at the outdoor playground next to the EMP museum in the shadow of the Space Needle.
Even though my kids, ages 11, 5 and 2, learned a lot of cool things in the science museum and had fun climbing at the playground, the most important lessons were learned when we stopped for lunch and dinner that afternoon. My kids had requested a lunch date at Pagliacci’s to get their amazing pizza. It’s pretty much become a tradition, if not an expectation, for us to eat there whenever we go to Seattle. It’s also located in an area that many homeless people frequent, hoping to cash in on the kindness of tourists. As we pulled in the parking lot near Pag’s I saw a man holding a sign indicating his need for help. As we walked past him I pulled my kids aside and asked them if they wanted to invite this homeless man to come inside the restaurant and share a pizza with us. They enthusiastically agreed and we turned around to extend our invitation. At first the man didn’t seem to understand our offer. But once he did, he eagerly picked up his small backpack to follow us up the block to the restaurant. I extended my hand to him and introduced myself and my three kids to him. Will (his name) smiled and walked along with us. I noticed people looking at us a little bit more than usual as we entered the restaurant and approached the cashier to order our food. As we sat down at our table Will started to sit at one next to ours. I invited him to sit with us as he was our guest. My ever talkative and outgoing 5 year old daughter took to him right away, trying to tell him about the fun she had playing Minecraft with her brother. She had taken to heart my admonition to treat him as just any other dinner guest. Over the next 30-45 minutes we chatted with Will and learned that he had been born in Norway, grew up in Texas and moved to Seattle to work on fishing boats, which had caused his knee injury that made him lose his job three years ago. He said he has a wife and four kids living in the San Diego area but didn’t really explain why he wasn’t living near them and I didn’t press the issue. He was polite, well mannered and soft spoken. As we parted ways after our meal ended I shook his hand again and wished him well.
Once we had returned to our car I asked my kids if they wanted to do that again on our next visit to Seattle and they all agreed that a repeat was in order. In fact, while we had been eating my 5 year old had tried to tell our new friend that he should come live with us because we have a nice home and “my daddy will make you whatever you want to eat”. I love her compassionate heart and generous spirit.
A few hours later it was time for dinner, and my kids wanted to grab burgers from another Seattle tradition, Dick’s Drive In. It’s located a block from Pagliacci’s and there are usually several people panhandling just outside the doors. In the past I have ordered extra food for them and this time was no exception. Just before I reached the door a man called out to me, asking if he could have my change on my way out. I asked if, instead, he would like anything to eat or drink. So, on my way back out to my car I gave him a hot chocolate and a handshake, during which I found out that his name is Greg. He and his buddy were together there in front of Dick’s, and while my kids and I ate in our van we watched the two men share whatever food they were given with one another.
While our actions will not solve the problem of homelessness in Seattle I would like to think that my children learned that homeless people are people, not just some problem or statistic that needs to be solved or moved somewhere else. Also, I want them to know that being kind to others doesn’t require a great deal of time or money. I think that it was also good for them (and me!) to hear that these people have families and hopes and dreams just like anyone else. I loved that this experience was so positive for them, particularly after they witnessed a scam artist in the parking lot when we were out shopping just a couple of weeks ago. Of the many values I hope to cultivate in my children, kindness and compassion for others are right near the top of my list.