“We live in one of the most affluent cities in the country, yet in King County …[we have] people without a home … unnoticed, unattended, unmourned. May we not rest in peace until this becomes more and more our problem.”
These words, spoken by Father Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral, continue to resonate with me. St. James honors the unhoused men, women and children who died in Seattle and King County in the past year with a Requiem Mass. Many of those honored died from exposure to the elements, suicide, drug overdoses and violence.
As the cathedral bells rang out on First Hill, multiple readers named the 289 who died. Their names suggest their ethnicity — Asian, Hispanic, Irish, Anglo-American; the median age, 51. But the names that broke my heart were “Baby Boy S” and “Baby Boy F.” Under what circumstances were they born? On the street; in a car?
When I asked a friend who is a psychiatrist how to address this issue of homelessness, he was clear. There need to be two specialized teams: one to combat the mental health issues; one to fight addiction.
Mental Health: If I were experiencing homelessness and struggling with acute mental illness in Seattle, could I get one of the 46 beds at the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s Crisis Solutions Center? DESC must assess a number of factors, including a referral from police, mobile crisis team or mental health professional to move a client into one of the crisis beds.
We have an opportunity to think about changing this scenario. Next April, King County voters will be asked to support a new property tax levy to construct five new regional crisis care centers to provide badly needed mental and behavioral health programs.
Drug Addiction: Thinking of those struggling whom I pass regularly on First Hill, I am aware that some speak in voices; others, scantily clothed, are searching for blankets; and some people hunker down in the doorways. The King County Medical Examiner attributes nearly one third of the homeless deaths in 2022 to fentanyl. It’s no surprise. I regularly see men and women standing at the No. 12 bus stop, exchanging what looks to me as money for fentanyl.
“It’s just everywhere on the streets,” Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz says.
“People are taking them and dying…”
In a recent New York Times guest essay, “How to Talk to Kids about Drugs in the Age of Fentanyl,” Maia Szalavitz contends that people at the greatest risk for addiction often exhibit telltale behaviors as early as preschool. Noteworthy are those who have suffered early repeated trauma, neglect and loss.
Just steps away from many of us in Seattle, YouthCare has success to show, through offering education, housing, counseling and employment for young people who are unhoused.
“Effective addiction prevention requires social change to intervene early in
childhood trauma, creating communities conducive to sound mental health with safe, nurturing schools, stimulating extracurricular activities and access to comprehensive health care,” Szalavitz notes.
As the bagpipes last week at St. James led the procession, Father Ryan said, “Go in peace.”
But how can I? How can you? How can we?
Together, if we make these problems our problems, we can be a part of what makes Seattle more just, more compassionate and more of a solution for the most vulnerable among us. We can advocate for next April’s tax levy, take out a table at YouthCare’s benefit or volunteer at the St. James Cathedral Kitchen, where 100 guests with no home are fed daily. What steps can we take to ensure fewer bells toll for people who are unhoused and struggling in 2023? Many, it turns out, if we work together.