What’s Wrong With This System? Larry Knows.

The best thing about about visiting Seattle’s Tent City #3 is getting to talk to people like “Larry”. He’s the kind of guy you run across at city bus stops and food banks, sometimes talking passionately to passers-by about whatever strikes his fancy, sometimes just talking to himself.  I hope you will take the time to listen to him in the video below – it turns out there’s a wealth of  knowledge inside his gruff exterior. Listen to what he has to say about bouncing benefits, and being kept in poverty by the system – if only our legislators could hear him!

Larry chose not to talk about how he landed at Tent City, or where he came from, but he was comfortable talking about his life since.  He is a longtime fixture in Seattle’s Tent City #3. Single, childless and unemployed, he qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), medical care, the free phone available to people on food stamps (though as you heard he chooses not to use it), and for a daily bus pass on Seattle’s Metrobus system.

As I mentioned in my introductory post about the tent cities, they exist in Seattle through agreements with the city and the churches that host them, and hosts are only allowed to host for three to six months, so the homeless are always on the move. Larry, and most homeless people I met, would prefer more permanent locations on city or state land, but Washington state, like most states, has ordinances preventing permanent homeless encampments on public property.

What this means for the homeless is a complete tear-down of their city every few months, and relocation to another part of the city, where they have to orient themselves to yet another neighborhood with different bus routes, food sources, social services and so on, adding more chaos to already chaotic lives. When Larry talks about asking the homeless what they need, instead of creating yet another committee to study them, this is one of the issues he means.

The most poignant moment in our talk came when he talked about how the system keeps people from getting ahead – he described how through the perverse logic of the system, getting any job means losing all your benefits – even he could see the impetus that creates, to just stay on welfare.  As he so eloquently says, the welfare system would prefer you stay in your donated apartment and eat your donated food, than make any progress towards self sufficiency.

Since embarking on this journey one of the thoughts that keeps popping in to my head is this: if our stated goal is lifting people out of poverty, why is the system actually designed to keep people IN poverty? Why do we cut off benefits the minute recipients make a dime over the poverty line, or whatever the means test is for that benefit? Why don’t we incentivize progress towards self-sufficiency instead?

Everyone I have talked to so far wants to work, and wants to be supporting themselves. Yet everyone is also aware that the minute they make any money they’ll lose their benefits, so they can’t save up for a deposit on an apartment, or to buy a car (which they can’t own anyway), even though those two things would get them on the path to self sufficiency. Even our friend friend knows how ridiculous the system is; and the sad thing is, he’s stuck in it.