A Reflection on KOMO's Seattle is Dying

Last month when KOMO 4 aired Seattle is Dying, it became a story that quickly spread across the city. References proliferated online, in my email, and in conversations before I even had a chance to see it. The title, the tone of the narration, and the music gives one a sense of fear and foreboding. Within the first minute of the video, the journalist establishes his premise: Seattle is “a beautiful jewel that has been violated…[by]…lost souls who wander our streets, untethered to home or family, or reality, chasing a drug which in turn chases them.” Dying is suggesting that Seattle doesn’t have a homelessness problem, we have a drug problem.

The danger with the message in Dying is that it blames the issue on our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness (using drugs or not), those who have the least amount of power to change our broken system. It perpetuates disdain and fear for our neighbors who are forced to sleep outside that only makes their lives more unbearable and more unsafe. It is clear that the message in Dying struck a nerve; the people in this city and surrounding areas are desperate for homelessness to be solved. But blaming the people suffering the most isn’t a solution.

First and foremost, Seattle has a housing crisis. Seattle’s homelessness crisis is mirrored in other cities that have experienced the same kind of exponential growth. Real Change nailed it in their response to Dying: “Four years ago, Seattle ranked sixth in the nation on the GINI Index, a measure of income inequality. But in 2017, we went to the top of the list, in a dead heat with San Francisco for most unequal city in America. Seattle is not “dying.” Seattle is splitting. …The prosperity at the top makes the anguish in the streets all the more galling.”[1]

Seattle has experienced a 12% average fair market rent (FMR) increase every year since 2014. According to a McKinsey study commissioned by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce “…homelessness has risen in line with the fair-market rent (FMR).”[2] There is simply not enough housing for people who can’t keep up with Seattle’s high rents and high skilled jobs. Eighty-three percent of people experiencing homelessness who were surveyed by the Point in Time count in 2018 said the last place they were housed before they became homeless was King County.[3] The majority of the people living outside were already here when they became homeless, but to get back into housing they are required to do a housing assessment. The waiting list has been frozen for 4 months so no matter who fills out the housing assessment, they can’t even go on a waiting list.  

We also know from both history and research that jailing people with mental health or substance use disorders does not solve homelessness, especially when there is no actual housing to bridge people to when they get out of jail or prison. We have 40 years of evidence that turning people who use drugs into criminals does not solve addiction. In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs.[4] Incarceration has increased by almost 700% since the war on drugs was declared, while our US population has only increased by 51%.[5] Opioid use and deaths, instead of decreasing after the war on drugs was declared, spiked until it became a crisis.

We need more resources for people who are experiencing homelessness and using drugs. In some states people can get into treatment in a matter of hours. Though Seattle is working towards a “treatment on demand” model, due to staffing shortages attributed to lack of funding it can still take weeks, or even months. Seattle is Dying concluded the answer to homelessness is medication-assisted treatment (MAT). We have had MAT in Seattle for over 46 years thanks to organizations like Evergreen Treatment Services (ETS) . MAT is the use of medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders and prevent opioid overdose.[6] Aurora Commons is one of many organizations connecting people to this treatment. The Commons has been working with Harborview, ETS, and Community Psychiatric Clinic (CPC) to bring MAT access to our unhoused neighbors on site, every week. The challenge with MAT is that when someone is connected to the medication and still sleeping outside in the same community with the same barriers to care, the instability of daily survival makes staying in treatment exponentially more challenging. As with all things, the issue is complicated. 

The good news is we have a seen a model in Seattle that effectively addresses this complex issue. In 2005, Downtown Emergency Services Coalition (DESC) started a low-barrier housing program called 1811 Eastlake. DESC partnered with the Addictive Behaviors Research Center of the University of Washington to evaluate the program.[7] What they discovered was that the annual average cost to the City of Seattle for “homeless chronic alcoholics who are the heaviest users of publicly-funded crisis services” was $86,062 per person, per year.[8][9] After only one year of being housed, the residents’ alcohol use decreased and the average cost to house the participants in the program was $13,440.[10] That is a savings of $72,622 per person. With only 75 people in the program, that adds up to a yearly savings of five million dollars. Read more about the program here. Imagine what this city would look like if we saved money AND housed people.

People who have access to resources, people who can afford to live in the Emerald City are the ones who are best equipped to change the realities of people experiencing homelessness. If the journalist from the KOMO piece had used his voice to call for more housing, for greater prison reform and for more rapid access to treatment and MAT, we would have cheered his efforts. The power to change a city cannot rest on the people who are suffering needlessly without shelter. It lies with us. We have to see this crisis as a community-wide problem and stop putting blame and stirring up hate for people who don’t have power and privilege - that’s how people get killed. It begins with fear and dehumanizing our neighbors and ends with violence. In October, our unhoused friend and neighbor Danny was shot and killed by a housed person who called him a nuisance. This city was not outraged. Perpetuating a hateful response to people who use drugs and are unsheltered is dangerous, changes nothing, and serves no one’s interest.

We have spent a lot of time at Aurora Commons pleading with our community to believe that all lives are precious. That our neighbors include all of the people in our communities who reside there, housed or unhoused. We have created an incredible community of people who are behind this mission. Thank you. Our response to homelessness in our neighborhood is connection, community, and relationships. We provide our unsheltered neighbors a safe space and help them bridge to vital resources to increase their stability, safety, and health.  The result of this investment translates into lives changed, including our own. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Teresa. Community and a corresponding network of care, combined with enough housing options for people to survive in this growing city, is the solution.

And, to our friends and neighbors experiencing homelessness, who may or may not use drugs, who sleep outside: you are not “wretched souls.” You are not a nuisance. You are our neighbors. You matter. You are worthy. You have value. We believe in you and we love you.

There have been many great responses to Dying, here are some links:

[1] https://www.realchangenews.org/2019/03/27/seattle-splitting-not-dying

[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-cities/the-economics-of-homelessness-in-seattle-and-king-county

[3] https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/do-homeless-people-come-to-seattle-for-help/

[4] https://www.vera.org/publications/price-of-prisons-what-incarceration-costs-taxpayers

[5] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jul/10/cory-booker/how-war-drugs-affected-incarceration-rates/

[6] https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/treatment

[7] https://www.desc.org/what-we-do/housing/1811-eastlake/

[8] https://www.desc.org/what-we-do/housing/1811-eastlake/

[9] https://www.desc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DESC_1811_JAMA_info.pdf

[10] https://www.desc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DESC_1811_JAMA_info.pdf

A Tree All Dressed up—The Outrageous Extravagance of Love

A Tree All Dressed up—The Outrageous Extravagance of Love


I always ask around the Commons if we should decorate for the holidays. It’s a shared space—our communal home and those twinkling lights can sometimes feel like a strobe light illuminating our most painful losses. “It is hard” a friend tells me, “It is hard and can make it worse, but it might be worse to not decorate, to ignore the crappy feelings, to pretend its not happening. So yeah, lets put some lights up”. So yeah, the lights go up and the most special of all is that someone brings us a tree, a really special tree—teaching us about the outrageous extravagance of love.

Thankfulness and Pain — a reflection on grief and gratitude, for you, from the Aurora Commons on Thanksgiving Day

Thankfulness and Pain — a reflection on grief and gratitude, for you, from the Aurora Commons on Thanksgiving Day

On this day of thanksgiving we often gather, often around food, around the idea of gratitude. Thanksgiving often prompts the question of “what are you thankful for?” Asked over and over this question often feels trite and we can answer it easily without much thought. Being at the Aurora Commons what I learn is that gratitude isn’t a location as much as it is a journey, and an arduous one at that.

Karen Cirulli Farewell

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A message from Karen Cirulli, Co-founder of Aurora Commons

In a couple of weeks, I will be stepping out of my role as the Director of Community Engagement in order to build and pursue the part of me that is a massage therapist. I have been a massage therapist for 12 years and it is finally time to bring this to the forefront of my vocation. This transition in my life feels right and ripe with possibilities. Although I am taking a significant step back, I will still have a small handful of hours per month with the Commons in a supportive role.

I could not feel more confident in the hands that will take over my position as Director of Community Engagement.  Marge Long is an exceptional woman not only with an immense amount of experience  (she is over-qualified for the job!) but she embodies the philosophies of Aurora Commons. She is wise, humble and loving with a healthy dose of that east coast fieriness. I am truly excited for you to meet her. This is a huge change and it felt appropriate for me to say some words of reflection as I move on:

Dear Aurora Ave and Aurora Commons Community,

Nearly a decade ago I turned to you because you felt vaguely familiar causing my curiosity to be peaked. There was a draw toward you that I couldn't quite explain except I knew you would change me. Then, inevitably, under the stream of constant headlights, I fell in love with you and together we built a home. 

You have shaped me in ways that have challenged ALL that I have known. You have been brutally honest by being yourself while inviting me to be myself. You have accepted me and let me into the sacred corners of your stories, into your motel rooms, your wheeled homes, your tents and under your awnings. You have invited me to your births and I have stood with you weeping at death. You fight hard to live and survive, you are stronger then I will ever be.

You have taught me and will continue to teach me how to hold extremes and let go of absolutes. This community of humans, all of you who enter the Commons, you enter knowing you are a part of something bigger.  You are teaching this city how to BE WITH ONE ANOTHER regardless of status.  THAT is this miracle, THAT is the magic that continues to draw me back to you.  Although I am taking a very significant step back, you will remain my teacher and my heart. You will thrive, you will continue to challenge me and cause us all to wrestle with our own humanity while defying stereotypes and stigma.  These words include everyone who participates in this community in any way - I hope you know how powerful you are. You are shaking your fist in the face of dehumanization. By participating you are changing the tide of disempowerment, you are revolutionaries.

 


Marge Long, Incoming Director of Community Engagement

Marge Long, Incoming Director of Community Engagement

I humbly accept the position of Director of Community Engagement at Aurora Commons with great anticipation and gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of this work and team. I refuse to accept the notion of stepping into shoes I could not, should not, nor would attempt to fill. I come into this sacred space bringing all of my humanity, with my few smoothed out edges and mostly my jagged edges in the hopes I will connect to other’s humanity.  I have walked in the shoes many of our neighbors are in. I have been in recovery from drug abuse for over twenty-six years; I have been homeless and sold my body to feed my addictions. My hope is in the truth that we are all human, we are all in need of being loved, seen, and known for who we are and not what we do and that every human being is equally valuable. I believe these truths are what will enable me to step into this position with an attitude of acceptance, equality, and love. I am extremely grateful for the work Karen Cirulli has started and look forward to her continued guidance as I lean into all this next season holds. I have felt invited into this space with a warm an invigorating hug from all the leadership and staff and I am overjoyed to be a part of the goodness and the messiness that comes from being human together. 

Chris Cerrato, "The Pain of Being a Man"

Chris Cerrato

When I was asked to share my story, a lot of things flashed through my mind. "Wow, my community at the Commons thinks of me even when I’m out of sight?" Also, "they value my thoughts and feelings enough to ask me to share?" 

Now let me tell you why I would be a tad taken aback by their request. I definitely haven’t always lived in what you would call the light, but I was always supported by people whom I am truly proud to call my friends at the Commons who never seemed to give up on me, no matter how dark my life had become, and even as I had begun to give up on myself. I had resigned myself to the fringes of society. I was a thief and in the throes of a deadly active addiction which has claimed many people that I care deeply for. However, no matter how dark things became I would show up at the Commons and I would be treated with respect, my opinions would be valued, and most importantly to me, I felt this overwhelming love.

Well, long story short, my life- (for lack of a more fitting word), caught up with me and I was sent to prison which didn’t help with the main problem that I had, which was how I felt about myself. So, I did my time, and when I was released, found my way back to drugs immediately, and so I spent some short stints in jail for probation violations: 30 days, 15 days, and so on, and the one thing that I feel I had during this time was that I was still accepted by my family at the commons and encouraged to keep fighting.

After one violation my Probation Officer Lillian, asked if I would like to try something different. She was talking about treatment. I was ready, really ready. A few weeks later, on a Monday, I received a bed date for Wednesday morning and I was told that this would most likely be my last opportunity as I’ve never really given Lillian an indication that I had any intention of getting clean before. I talked to Lisa about this on Tuesday at the Commons, her Karen and Jackie were so proud of me for taking this step and I felt myself that though I often thought about getting clean I had never moved it from my brain to my heart - I was even a little proud of myself even though I was still actively using. Well, here comes the scary part: I stayed up all night on Tuesday because I was afraid that if I slept, I would miss my Wednesday morning check-in for treatment. But, I guess I was so tired that I fell asleep early Wednesday morning, missing my transport to treatment and it was then that I really fell apart. I did not know my next move but I did know that the Commons was open, it was about 10 o'clock when I came in and made a cup of coffee.

I believe I always did a very good job of hiding the pain that I was in emotionally but when Lisa saw my face she read me like an open book, she knew something was wrong, and we began to discuss the situation. Lisa's suggestion was to get in touch with Lily and tell her what had happened, my suggestion was to not. But, I decided to make the call and got the voicemail. I was so overwhelmed- I decided to go outside to breath, have a smoke, think. Unbeknownst to me while I was outside Lily called back and somehow Lisa was able to get across to Lily but I was really ready and willing to try something different, ready for treatment and to give me another chance. While her and Lily were talking on the phone the police had seen me, knowing of my Probation Violation- they had pulled up to the Commons and I was taken into custody. Lisa ran out just as I was pulling away...

Thinking I was going to return to prison, I began to mentally prepare myself for the long road ahead. After a few weeks in prison, I got a visit from Lily explaining that I would in fact be afforded another chance. And also that the main reason for this opportunity was because of the support I received from the people I love and respect of Aurora Commons. Presently, I am five months clean, working as a painter and managing a clean and sober living facility and I owe a lot of this to the Commons- I would really like to convey this. There is a quote from author Hunter S Thompson and it goes, "he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man" and I thought that very profound when I read it, but I think the flipside to that is "a good man gets rid of the pain of being a beast” that’s a lot more fitting of how I want to live my life and how our friends at the Commons do. Thank you.

Chris Cerrato

Chris shared his story at the Aurora Commons benefit, Aurora Means Dawn in October 2017. He is starting a business painting houses inside, outside, and commercial. We're so excited for him. "Commercial and residential painting, no job too small! Interior, exterior, staining, detailed, color matching, woodwork & more. Fair Pricing, Call Chris: 253-733-9781. "

 

 

Bodies of Being -- A Day at Aurora Commons Watching Football

On a Sunny Sunday at the Commons last fall we set up the tv to watch the Seahawks football game. We lost but this matters only in the way all things matter — if one believes that sort of thing, myself? I scrutinize moments analyzing them for their worthiness. Moments calling for only our gratitude for their simplicity and joy I tout as lazy and look for something to dissect, to work out, to clean. But these moments pass like the breeze and surely they won’t come back.

In the moments asking for enjoyment I look for a clock to punch in — there must be a job needing worked, something somewhere needing to be mended. I escape the presence of being into a hell I create for myself. At the Commons there is always work to be done, dishes to be washed and like a heavily used home there is always laundry or sweeping to do, while the work of encircling our lives around one another often goes untouched. Sometimes I sweep up spilled crackers in order to avoid having to sit in the uncertainty, pain, anguish of another human being. Sometimes I turn away from the mess of broken hearts in order to put in a load of laundry. We are needy beings with never enough time to be met, I know this. Someone within arms reach is most assuredly hungry and must be fed. Yes, and yet humanity begs for moments of being, of pleasure, of delight, of being listened to. I often miss the real work at hand of belonging to one another and drown out my own loneliness and incapacity in chores and work and the busyness of attending to needs.

The Commons jolts me out of my chores and holds me fiercely in the face of the other. There is surely someone within arm's reach who needs the feel of pleasure, of the well-timed joke, of the squeeze to the shoulder full of affection. There is always work to be done, yes, but there is yet even more pressing the lonely human needing to be seen. I learn this poignantly on a summer evening as we sit together watching a football game. Jeremiah, a Commons volunteer, sits across the table passing conversation back and forth as easily as waves dance with the shore. People sink into couches and soft chairs as we drink coke and eat pizza and laugh at car commercials, yelling at the screen — pleasure simple as breath, as bread, as a need met. We all fall into delight and friendship and dare I even say love, despite the score on the screen not falling in our favor.

These bodies of being teach me. Andy who sleeps in a park tells me, “People forget that being able to sit on a couch and watch football makes you feel like you are a human, and I want to feel that again”. So we sit on soft places as the coke we drink bubbles up with something akin to hope and we find pleasure is not only for the privileged, the rich, but for the body of us all, even if it is just for a Sunday afternoon.