Homeless folks on campus — a humanity check

A homeless camp near Laney College campus in Oakland, CA.
A homeless camp near Laney College campus in Oakland, CA. Photo: Wikipedia
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Seattle, known as the Emerald City, is like many large metropolises these days. Wealth inequality balloons, while skyrocketing rents drive working people out of homes and town. Tents are in every nook and cranny, and the people inside them are the object of vitriol.

The “discussion” about the undomiciled has become heated. I saw this play out during a recent morning staff meeting of the maintenance department at the community college where I work. A manager from a building on campus that houses several agencies offering a variety of social services gave a presentation about what was offered to the homeless on campus. A co-worker piped up about some of the problematic clients who are drug users.

Steve Hoffman

Facilities staffers jumped in to describe finding addicts shooting up in bathrooms, having to repair used needle containers ripped from walls, and seeing needles all over the campus. One groundskeeper said he almost ran over one with his lawn mower.

Left on our own. Some staff felt they have been left to confront a large social problem with little help. For instance, despite being already overworked and underpaid, facilities crews have been sent to clean up encampments in wooded campus areas. The supervisor provides all the protective equipment he can find, but no state or city agency gives formal training to make sure that every possible precaution is taken. As a union steward my first response was to make sure management addresses the safety concerns.

At the same time, the frustration I heard coming from my co-workers gave me pause. They described the grittier aspects of homelessness they encounter, and I was concerned they were using a broad brush to paint destitute folks and substance abusers as the problem. I told my co-workers that given the nasty rhetoric around these issues, I worried we could end up demonizing impoverished people.

A cynical media campaign. Homelessness is one civic emergency in Seattle. But we have another — namely, what passes for journalism in some TV news rooms. ABC’s KOMO News ran an hour-long special about people living outside with the provocative title “Seattle is dying.” With no substantiation, the show asserted that the tent encampments and resulting “filth and degradation” were entirely the result of drug dealing and addiction. Apparently, poverty and out of control rents play no role in displacement.

Incredibly, KOMO made these sweeping generalizations without a single interview of anyone in city or county government, or in any agency or non-profit that is trying to assist the poor. The only “research” cited was an anonymous survey of disgruntled police.

The solution offered? Mass arrests and shipping the “problem people” off to a former island-based prison forty miles from Seattle. This demonization dovetails nicely with the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce. These guys have launched an organization called Safe Seattle to ramp up anger and fearmongering over crime and the homeless.

Safe Seattle has another goal — to get rid of the progressive majority on Seattle’s City Council, especially socialist councilmember Kshama Sawant. No doubt these elites fear that the socialist/left-of-center rabble will dare tax their obscene wealth to get the resources needed to make a dent in poverty and dispossession. Their goal is a business-as-usual City Council that will restore order and preside over the market-driven evolution of our city into a playground for the rich, and a killing field for the poor.

We gotta talk. There is a deep unease in the Emerald City over the scale and seemingly intractable nature of homelessness. The intense discourse at our Facilities meetings make me think that our union should work with students, faculty, DSHS staff and others to organize campus-wide forums on the issue.

It’s time that we get past stereotypes. At a college we should be seeking to understand what really drives chronic poverty, and searching for humane, effective solutions. The first step toward greater understanding would be to listen to some of the over a hundred homeless students who study here.

I would suggest locating a safe injection site on campus that offers treatment and shelter. This would be the best way to help drug users, while dealing with the needles in the grass that freak everyone out. I know some on my crew will look at me like I’m crazy.

But hey, we’re just talkin’ here.

Hoffman is a union organizer, shop steward and journalist. Contact him at

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