Everett is one of these cities, and in many ways, it is being hit harder than many of the surrounding areas. According to a recent report, Snohomish Country where Everett resides has had around twice the number of overdose deaths than Washington state as a whole. This increase in drug use has also affected the other two issues that lead to increased homelessness: mental health and poverty. The last point-in-time count also showed that most of people on the street in Everett (76%) are had their last permanent residence in Snohomish County (and half said it was in Everett), contrary to the myth that people travel to Everett because we are not doing anything about drugs.
So how do we respond to this? From city leaders and business owners, to neighborhoods and individuals, we all have to chose how we respond to this crisis that is affecting our community. Some have taken a more shameful and dehumanizing path. One local business owner in particular has taken it upon himself to broadcast this increase in homelessness and addiction by calling Everett “Tweakerville” and putting up a camera so originally named “tweaker cam” that live streams a part of Everett where people on the street often hang out. In conversations around this person’s decision to shame our neighbors experiencing addiction, I have noticed numerous people say that even if they disagree with this business owner’s methods, at least he got people talking and hopefully that will lead to figuring out solutions. Like somehow people living and dying on our streets was not enough, but a sign and a camera might finally get us talking and figuring stuff out. This makes me sad, because I believe that we as an Everett community do really care about people. We have just forgotten how in the ugly conversation that often surrounds this discussion of poverty and addiction.
But I am also sad because in a way, those people are right. I know that I have had more conversations about homelessness and addiction with people since that sign and camera went up. And I work with folks on the street each week. In some ugly way it has gotten people talking. But as we all know, that is not enough.
I am writing this today from my personal blog, not the Our Common Ground blog. Because even though I run a small organization committed to welcoming folks on the street, I am also a citizen of Everett. I love this place. My wife and I recently purchased a house in Everett, because that is how much we would love to put down some roots here. So I wanted to write this today not at the director of Our Common Ground, but as a neighbor, a citizen, someone who believes that Everett can be a place where all people can find a home and thrive.
We have a choice to make. I have a choice to make. About how we are going to respond to the opioid epidemic. And depending on what choice you make, there are three general paths we can do down.
On the first path, we can be angry and just want to see drugs and those that use them off our street and away from our community. We can put up signs that shame people experiencing addiction and make sure those on the street know they are not welcome, both directly and indirectly. We can push our government and law enforcement to further criminalize drug users in the hope that we can beat the addiction out of them. And even if we are not on the front lines of making these things happen, we can vote and live in a way that lets people on the street know they are not welcome in our city. We can pass laws that make the simple act of sitting down illegal, or try to ban people asking for help. I know this might be a bit of a strong example, but what this path really comes down to is this: We don’t care how it happens or what happens to those using drugs, we just want it all gone.
The second path we can choose is to just ignore the crisis and insulate ourselves from the pain and trauma and crime in our community. We can build bigger walls around our homes, both literal and metaphorical. We can avoid areas of the city where we might run into people living on the street or asking for money. We can drive more and walk less so we don’t have to see the street level issues happening around us. We might not be as angry as some people about the issues that come with the opioid epidemic. We might even support things like transitional housing and meals for folks living outside. But we don’t want to have to deal with it ourselves, and try our best to ignore the complex issue of addiction in our community. This also might be a bit hyperbolic, but I think it is true. Because I can see some of this path in me. Even though I work with folks on the street and have committed a big chunk of my life to caring about these things, some days I just want to hide in the house and not have to deal with this stuff. Because it is hard.
The third path we can choose is more difficult. It is more winding. It doesn’t have as clear of a trail. But I believe it is the path we must take if we are to be a community in which everyone can live thrive and have a good life. On this path we choose to see the complexity of addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. We chose to avoid binary questions, such as, "Are they choosing to use drugs and be on the street or not,", and see how questions like this do not get at the many different factors that go into someone’s choices in life. On this path we do our best to recognize the trauma and pain that often sits at the core of addiction, and how certain life circumstances can not only hurt our sense of self and bring shame and trauma to our lives, but can also erode our ability to make good choices. This path also does not shy away from the real challenges of a community dealing with addition. To be on this path is to listen to neighbors who are angry at crime and angry at needles being left in alleys and playgrounds. To affirm their feelings of frustration. And to find ways to work together, even if we disagree on certain aspects of how we can best do this. And ultimately, this path requires us to see people living outside and experiencing addiction as human beings, no matter how much they frustrate us and how much we don't understand them.
This path will be hard. And we will lose our way often. But I truly believe that if many people in Everett begin to choose path number three, that our community can be a place where everyone can live, work, play, and flourish.