by Kathya Alexander
Several years ago — who knows how many; it’s been a long time ago now — a bald white man parked his very nice car across the street from my house in the Central District (CD). Our duplex kinda shares a parking lot with a Seattle middle school at a dead-end kinda cul de sac. Unlike most of the CD, my block’s not quite gentrified yet. On my short street, we got two old Black women, a Mexican family, and a white-looking Muslim guy. Sounds Black, so I ain’t sure. Nice neighborhood. Nice people. That Seattle kinda nice, where people speak and smile when they’re out walking their dogs but they ain’t all up in your business. Then I noticed that the car hadn’t moved for a while. Eventually, I realized that Bald White Man was living in his car. Then, sometime later, I figured out he was probably selling drugs, too. ʼCause I know the signs: A lot of people coming and going for short little visits to his car.
After some time, a year or so maybe — who knows; it’s been a long time — one of the people that started visiting the car regularly was a white woman who was stoned out of her mind most of the time. ʼCause I know the signs. But after a while I noticed that Bald White Man had stopped living in the car and that Stoned White Girl had moved in. Oh, and did I mention? I’m Black. I guess race shouldn’t matter. I guess we could be any race of people in this situation. But I’m one of those people who believes that race matters. Always.
Bald White Man’s nice car eventually deteriorated sitting across the street from my house for a couple of years. Side mirror hanging off, flat tires, sunroof won’t close. But Stoned White Girl was still living in it, and then her white boyfriend started living in it with her. I learned her name is Bianca (not her real name) and she is one of those Seattle white women who go out of their way to be friendly to a Black woman. So, whenever she wasn’t stoned out of her mind, she’d go out of her way to talk to me when I went out on my porch to smoke. A lot better than the alternative, I guess. Her name could have been Karen. A Black man started to come visit Bianca and her boyfriend regularly. He’s a cool Brother, always respectful, a little more engaging than regular Seattle nice. I mean, I was Black and he was Black. He couldn’t just ignore me. That wouldn’t be cool. Turns out his name is Ganja (not his real name), but I never saw him smoke weed or nothing. He eventually set up a small tent next to the car and moved across the street too.
Bianca, I found out over time, is a hoarder. She’d been kicked out of her previous apartment for hoarding and so can’t get housing now. The car filled up with junk and soon she brought a large-ish tent and set it up beside the car, which she promptly started filling up with junk, too. Trash was everywhere. I’d ask her when she thought she was going to clean up her area. ʼCause that ain’t being a good neighbor. And she’d always say that she had to sort it all out first, and then she’d start sorting it all out, taking all her stuff out of the tent and the car and laying it out all up and down the street. Did I mention trash was everywhere? Falling out of the tent, falling out of the car. Overflowing in grocery store carts. Rusty bikes that her buddies brought over and left. One day she brought me over a bag full of brand-new, tag-still-on blouses that she had
boosted gotten from somewhere. So Bianca is cool with me. But the trash!
I called everybody. This City Department. That nonprofit organization. This Homeless Advocacy group. I’ve worked in the homelessness industrial complex, so I know what I’m doing. Some of my most fulfilling moments were housing homeless families. But my situation now is during COVID, and all bets are off. The City ain’t touching unhoused people. I was told in so many words that, first of all, ain’t nobody catching COVID to come clean up a little two-tent encampment in the Central District. And second, because there was no good COVID-safe housing options for homeless people right now, advocates had demanded that any place that even looked like somebody might be living in, officials were to keep their hands off of it. No, they wouldn’t tow the car away, even tho, by now, it was just filled up with her junk, and Bianca (and sometimes her boyfriend) was sleeping on piles of junk inside the tent, which was quickly becoming too full for habitation. I told agencies: This wouldn’t happen on Mercer Island! I don’t care what the COVID protocols are. And that I wasn’t even trying to get the people moved ʼcause I understand that there is a homelessness problem in this City, and that if people could do better, they probably would have already. It ain’t about the people. I know the people. By name. It’s the trash! Seattle ought to be shame of itself for letting the garbage overrun parts of our city like this. Seattle, you can do better.
Eventually, my son paid $400 to have a Black-owned nonprofit I’m associated with have their guys come and pick the trash up on a truck. Did I mention that I’m Black? And that I am retired, on Social Security, disabled, and a senior citizen. That was the cheapest option I could find. And it was well worth it. The “City-Approved” disposal guys cost $500 just to come out, and then $75 an hour on top of that. And I would have to provide the protective equipment. When I told Bianca that I was going to have someone come and get her trash, and whatever she wanted to keep she better pick it up now, she said I could take everything that was laying out on the ground. It took two truckloads to move all her stuff off the sidewalk and spilling over outside her tent. Ganja is neat. Every morning he gets up and takes his trash down to the public dumpster in the park next door. He never has that much. I gave him a little money for Christmas and took him a couple of blankets when it snowed this winter. He fixed the headlight on my car. So, truly, this ain’t about the people. I know the people. It’s the trash!
Seattle is one of the most giving, most accepting, most liberal cities in the world. I truly believe that. When I first moved here, a Black woman in the nail salon at the Beauty College told me, “If you can’t make it in Seattle, you stupid!” Seattleites love to give. A city full of white ex-hippies that used to live in tents their own selves. Just for fun. We are, at the very least, tolerant of our homeless neighbors. But don’t nobody want to have bodily fluids (and worse) in their front yard. Don’t nobody want to have to look at rats running all over piles of garbage when they go out on the porch to enjoy a rare day of sunshine. I’m starting to believe the City’s lack of commitment to rid Seattle of homeless-related trash and garbage is political. ʼCause if homeless people are associated with filth and vermin, people will have less empathy for them. The person is then seen to be the problem instead of the lack of adequate systems in place for a city that has raised rents so much that can’t nobody afford to keep no apartment no way. So then you can just hate on the homeless for bringing their garbage to your street.
Anyway, after paying the $400, the problem was back just as bad as ever in just a few months. Bianca can’t help it, bless her heart. So a few days ago, while I’m sitting on my porch, I notice two police cars on the other side of my house.I decide I’m going to talk to them about this trash problem when they come back to their car.
The policeman’s name is Officer Moreno (his real name). He advises me that his camera is on when he comes up on my porch. O Lord. Did I mention I’m Black? Why he got to film me when the cameras is always off when a Black man gets shot? I know the signs. I’m probably putting my life on the line, I figure. But, I’m desperate. Officer Moreno commiserates with me, but tells me the City is really taking a hands-off approach to the homeless, especially now during COVID. He says he’ll find out the name of the Department in charge of this kinda stuff. Could I just give him my name and address? Remember, I’m Black. He also tells me to not pay any more of my own money to clean up this mess cause the City is not going to reimburse me. So, what’s an old Black lady to do?
Three days later, I’m sitting on my porch when a convoy of trucks drive down my street and pull into the school lot next door. I’d had a bad night — a play I’m writing is driving me crazy — otherwise I wouldn’t have even been awake this early to see none of this any way. A Black man pulls up in another truck and starts taking pictures of the trash. Not quite believing what I’m seeing, I ask him, “Y’all getting ready to take all this garbage away?” And he says yes, m’am. Real serious like. I’m like, “Oh my God! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” The whole crew is smiling by now at this old Black woman sitting on her porch in her pajamas praising the Lord. They load everything into their trucks. The garbage. The tent. The clothes that are all wet and moldy from the rain from when the tent collapsed a few weeks ago while Bianca was away. The grocery cart. The bicycles. I don’t know where Bianca is, but as they go towards Ganja’s tent, I tell them he’s probably in there sleeping this time of the morning, so don’t bother him cause he ain’t got no trash no way. They’re gone in 20 minutes, and the problem that has plagued me for the last 5 or 6 years is gone with them. At least for now.
As I said to the policeman and to countless agencies over the years, it ain’t the people, it’s the trash. Low wages, as well as the lack of affordable housing and welfare support, are political issues that make people become homeless. But folks would rather think it’s the people who are at fault for their situation; either their dysfunctional behavior, deviant choices, or lack of a work ethic explains their plight. Then, put trash on top of that, and people are more than ready to point their fingers and say, I told you so.
Why ain’t it the responsibility of the City to take care of homeless-related garbage pickup regularly? Couldn’t there be a tax incentive or something if Waste Management picked up garbage at unpaid locations? I don’t claim to have the answers to the homeless problems in Seattle — besides housing everybody that needs a home. According to the latest figures, there’s about 30 vacant homes for every homeless person in the United States. So maybe it can be done. I don’t know. But in the meantime, Seattle, the least you can do is pick up the damn trash! Take more pride in this beautiful City. You ought to be shame of yourself.
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Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.
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