Street Stories

Weblog of Seattle minister to the homeless Rick Reynolds, Operation Nightwatch

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Location: Seattle, Washington, United States

Caring for human beings seems like the best use of my time, homeless or not.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Yesler Terrace memory.

I've been reading "Profanity Hill" -- about the relocation of the low-income residents of Yesler Hill, before the construction of Yesler Terrace. This Seattle Housing Authority project was the first integrated public housing project in the country in 1941, and now is going to be redeveloped. Resources for poor people are being reduced. The replacement - mixed used commercial and higher end residential, with "affordable" housing mixed in - will mean a net loss of truly affordable units.

Profanity Hill was named because of all the cussing of the lawyers and clerks who had to make the hike up the hill to get to the old courthouse.

The book was written by Irene Burns Miller, the social worker who was charged with relocating the 1,000+ residents who were living there before the new Yesler Terrace housing could be built. At the time, residents were sure that rich people were going to take over. Now, 70 years later, it seems their fears were justified.

In the early 1980s I was volunteering at Operation Nightwatch. In those days, a single volunteer might find shelter for 30 or 40 homeless people from our office in the Seven Seas Hotel, above the Lusty Lady on First Avenue and University. (Somehow, that building has avoided the wrecking ball. It sits like an orphan, surrounded by towers.)

This particular night I was able to find shelter for everyone who came into Nightwatch, except the last two people - a couple. I couldn't find any shelter that could handle a couple, and the hotel voucher system was reserved for people with young children. (Nothing has changed in 30 years, by the way; except maybe Tent City would accept them now.) So, what could I do at one AM?

I had a mentally ill friend who lived in Yesler Terrace. I decided to call.

"David, would you be willing to host a couple in your living room for one night?" I must have been crazy myself to suggest such an arrangement. David was just fine with it - he was schizophrenic, but well regulated. It was the couple I wasn't so sure about.

I drove the couple up the hill from Pioneer Square, parked, went into David's unit. "What am I doing?" I thought. I told the couple about his problems, that he was pretty much okay, and this was only for one night.

They probably slept better than I did. I was relieved the next day, when I called David, to find out they had no problems, everyone was alive. I had dodged a bullet. Again.