It was technically a political town hall meeting – constituents and a politician, questions and answers.
But apart from that, it was nothing at all like a political town hall, circa 2013. No one was dragged out, shouting. No one booed. No one gave truculent mini-diatribes or adopted an outraged façade.
The issues? The difficulties of obtaining forms of identification, which contribute to the difficulties of applying for jobs, which contribute to the difficulties of raising oneself out of homelessness. The scattered nature of the various forms of assistance for people without food or shelter. The need for a centralized clothing bank. The differences between people who really want to stop living on the streets and those who don’t, and the often untreated problems of mental illness and addiction that afflict so many homeless people.
“We need a tent city,” one woman told the politician urgently. “We need a safe place to tent up.”
It was, in other words, wholly unusual when Rep. Kevin Parker, a 6th District Republican member of the state House of Representatives, sat down to hear from a crowd of mostly homeless people at the House of Charity on Thursday morning. It was Parker’s third town hall meeting at the shelter, and it was not something he announced publicly or sought attention for doing. Frankly, if he had sent a press release, I would have spurned it as a stunt.
“He’s the only legislator that does this,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter. “The only one.”
Parker gave these 30 to 40 people roughly the same amount of time that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the entire city a couple weeks ago: nearly an hour and a half. Though his party has not been – in my view – the best friend of the downtrodden, especially in supporting cuts to services such as mental health coverage, Parker is sincere and empathetic, not dismissive or even cruel about the poor, as some of his fellow travelers are.
In fact, he recently went “undercover” as a homeless person, attending in disguise a meeting of leaders of the faith-based community that work with the homeless. He said he was taken aback at how much people simply looked past him: “It was very isolating.”
The people at the town hall Thursday, mostly men dressed in layers of sweatshirts and coats and wearing ballcaps, sat around the lunchroom tables with Parker. They talked about a lot of different issues, many of which don’t pertain directly to the authority of a state legislator. One man complained about changes in downtown Spokane that had resulted in less low-income housing, followed by proposals to limit panhandling and sitting or lying on the sidewalks.
“You guys helped make this problem,” he said. “Instead of going to war against the homeless, why don’t you help the homeless?”
Another man proposed using vacant buildings as additional shelter space for homeless people who would work on them in exchange for a bed.
“Not everybody wants to get off the streets,” he said. “But I do.”
Parker asked questions and took notes. He asked the group to walk him through a typical day of getting around town – here for a shelter meal, there for a medical appointment, here to a social program’s offices.
“How many of you have GEDs?” he asked, and noted the hands raised. “How many of you were foster children?”
He asked them how many want jobs, and most raised their hands. He asked them what kinds of jobs they’d like.
“Anything,” one man said, just as another echoed him, “Anything.”
A third said, “Anything – McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy’s …”
“I’d run a homeless shelter,” one woman said.
‘Garbage man!” hollered a young man, and when some laughed, he said, “It’s a paycheck!”
A key theme emerged: the scattered nature of services. Between government programs and churches and nonprofits, people can turn for help to various places. But putting it all together in a way that can help someone move from homelessness to self-sufficiency can be difficult. It’s a long, difficult road that involves much more than most people understand, and is littered with opportunities to fall, again, by the wayside.
Many of the men at the town hall were middle-aged and older, and they complained of shiftless young men – healthy, able-bodied dudes who should be able to work, in their view – using up services that would be better aimed at those with deeper problems.
“Most of us would work if we could,” one man told Parker. “We’re not asking for a free ride.”
Another added, “We need you to put a ladder in the hole.”