Concealed in Plain Sight: America’s Relationship with Homelessness

By Hayden Campbell

This commentary on homelessness in Seattle was written by a recent graduate student of Urban Planning at the University of Washington. It is based on his thesis: Investigating an Asset-Based Approach to Housing and Homelessness: A Phenomenological Case Study.

A Note on Terminology

Describing homelessness as a condition is problematic and divisive. Homelessness is not a disorder or personality trait; it merely describes an individual’s living condition and therefore is best discussed as an experience. I do not write about “homeless individuals,” I write about “individuals experiencing homelessness,” shifting the emphasis to the person. Circumstance does not define who they are. This verbal shift is significant in changing our perception of homelessness, destigmatizing it over time.                 

On a crisp February morning, I walked from my apartment, in the Roosevelt neighborhood, through the underpass, to the bus stop on Weedin Place Northeast. Steam was rising as the sun swept the dew off the concrete and I locked eyes with a woman who had been sleeping in a solo encampment under I-5. Situated between the concrete pillars and the dense brush, the camp was surrounded by shopping carts, relying on the four lanes of I-5 North to shield it from the rain. The woman sat up in her sleeping bag and lit her cigarette. I smiled and said, “Good morning.” as the smoke met the steam. Her smile uncoiled as she waved back. It was innocuous and mundane, just two neighbors saying good morning, but that moment has stayed with me for years.

The 2019 point-in-time count in Seattle/King County found 11,199 people experiencing homelessness, 47% of which were living unsheltered. An estimated 1,276 of those living unsheltered were living in tents and unsanctioned camps, which is an astonishing 32% increase from 2018. Additionally, homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+. For example, individuals identifying as Black or African American represented 32% of the individuals experiencing homelessness compared to 6% representation in the King County population. The most troubling statistic that 61% of respondents reported that they have experienced homelessness for a year or more, indicating that the current social services and institutional responses are inadequate in the face of this crisis.          

While homelessness describes the living condition of an individual, it’s also moniker that carries the weight of social stigmatization and the assumption that those experiencing homelessness are solely responsible for their plight. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers an individual homeless if their primary nighttime location is in a private or public place traditionally not designated for sleep. This definition subtly acknowledges that being homeless is an unsanctioned act, as it hinges on where and how a person uses space for their own private uses.

Criminalizing homelessness authorizes the state to dictate how citizenship is manifested, which often appears as city funded sweeps of unsanctioned camps. As the public realm begins to carry rules and prohibitions, it begins to act more like a private space requiring membership for access. This behavior is reinforced through social norms, drawing a line between the housed and unhoused. Ironically, people experiencing homelessness are the most visible and frequent users of public space, and in doing so adapt them for private use. Because of this, homeless individuals exist in the interstitial spaces between the public and private realm, between legal and illegal. This leads me to question:

What is the goal of a city if not to serve everyone who calls it home?

Considering homelessness as a condition alone provides a limited understanding of the societal forces at work. By widening the aperture and examining the full social context, homelessness is a community crisis. American individualism has created an atrophied understanding of how to care for and include those in need, which contributes to the lack of social responsibility to care for the homeless community.

Caring for one another is an essential characteristic of the human condition and is foundational to life and progress. Care is the foundation of community, making self-sacrifice a reasonable practice to contribute to the collective wellbeing of one’s community. As humans, we have a moral obligation to care for those in need and work to collectively advance our emotionally-rich connections with one another. 

Together, we have the power to make a difference. While the solution requires all of us doing our part, giving back doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. Work with The BLOCK Project to open your backyard to a neighbor experiencing homelessness. Volunteer at a nonprofit or faith-based organization focused on providing services to those experiencing homelessness, such as Facing Homelessness, Youth Care, Mary’s Place or Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Or, more simply, just start by saying hello.

The desire to feel human and to feel seen is pervasive in all of us, just as I experienced on that cold winter morning. And yet, those experiencing homelessness are pushed to the fringes of society and rendered invisible, despite existing in plain sight. This is the trauma that those individuals suffer the most. They are robbed of recognition, of a basic human experience.

Homelessness can seem like a permanent state of being, a label that distinguishes “us” from “them,” suspending members of our community in a cycle of abuse and trauma. Being homeless in the current context of the built environment means those experiencing homelessness are squeezed between the social services they rely on and the social forces that expel them. Homelessness is a structural circumstance with social ramifications. By humanizing this monolithic crisis, individuals are able to respond on a personal level. The lines between housed and homeless are blurred and we can begin to understand one another as neighbors and as a community.