March 15, 2016
The greenbelt under I-5, known to many as the Jungle, has been receiving widespread attention by the media and city officials after the January shooting that killed two people and injured others who call the Jungle their home. On Friday, March 11th, The Women's Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), held a cleansing ritual at the location this senseless act of gun violence took place. The ritual honored and remembered James Quoc Tran and Jeannie L. Zapata who were murdered on Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 and emphasized the importance of not letting people who die homeless go unidentified.
Most of the people who call the Jungle their home were not present during the cleansing ritual, fearful of the media's presence and negative light the media has portrayed on the Jungle, all of which is a reflection of much larger systemic issues that further dehumanize people experiencing homelessness. However, two women who live in the Jungle, Michelle and Kyra, participated and were vulnerable enough to be present during the ceremony. Their courageous presence left me feeling humbled and grateful.
Kyra expressed that most of the people living outside are just normal people who have hit hard times. Kyra herself lost her job and was no longer able to pay rent, forcing her to seek shelter living in the Jungle. She explained that she was mortified and terrified but the people living in the Jungle took her in with no questions asked and treated her like family.
Society has constantly pushed the homeless into the margins in an attempt to silence them and ignore the real issues at hand. It is believed that about 400 people are living underneath the I-5 greenbelt for various reasons, including drug addiction, mental illness, etc., but the overlying issue is the lack of resources and affordable housing in this rapidly-growing city.
Today, during our staff meeting, my co-worker Kaitlin read us a meditation based on a painting called Stillness and I could not help but think of the two courageous women who shared part of their story with us on Friday. Mary Jo Leddy meditates on Stillness saying,
The two women pause and gather their lives up in the single moment. They do not
look at each other. They close their eyes and look within, behind, and ahead. They
stand still, between all that has been and all that shall be. This is the rarest moment
in the rush that picks a life up and pushes it forward... They gather up their lives,
gather up who they have become and prepare to walk into the unknown. Will they
find a place to land? Will they be given wings?
It is a coincidence that Leddy meditates on two women who are walking into the unknown, just as Michelle and Kyra do everyday. Each new day these women must live the questions: "will they find a place to land? Will they be given wings?" Each day presents new challenges for those experiencing homelessness who hope to one day to find a safe place to land.
As Leddy's meditation continues she describes that, before a moment of stillness, the women "carried the weight of words and regulations, the crush of cruelty and barking orders that hounded them from place to place." It is easy to see the comparison between the two women in the meditation and the experiences life has thrown at Michelle and Kyra. Leddy continues,
Life slipped through their fingers as they tried to hang on, to hold on. They are
weary from moving without ever really arriving. No one has ever asked them to
stay. Home is never, never land. These are women forever on the move. The
powers tell them: Move along, pull up your life and just keep going. Do not stop.
Not here and not now. These two women have kept moving to keep alive... The
women know the pieces of their lives are being gathered up. They are still here.
They are still ready to walk toward the borders that nations have constructed
between the insiders and outsiders.
Michelle and Kyra are still here and although society has pushed them as outsiders I have been given the opportunity to see them as insiders. I was briefly welcomed into their home and am forever grateful to have heard a part of their story. They have further enlightened my passion to work against the injustices of homelessness and to not turn away from the countless people I pass living on the streets. They all have a voice and story that deserves to be heard.
You look out at the view from the Jungle and can see Safeco Field, a stadium that cost $517.6 million to build and home of the Seattle Mariners, a team valued at $1,100 million. This is just a small glimpse of the wealth in this city and yet there are an estimated 4,505 people sleeping outside throughout Seattle/ King County because the cost of living is too high and not enough affordable housing is available to meet the demands. Enough is enough; housing is a human right and all deserve a safe place to sleep.
Photos by Alyssa Nedrow