Seattle's WHEEL and Women in Black:
Organizing to Resist the Lethal Consequences of Homelessness

Desiree Hellegers
Washington State University Vancouver

[1] I arrived in Seattle from the East Coast in 1984 and within a few weeks, I stumbled on my first job—and my first home--in the Pacific Northwest. The shelter where I lived and worked for my first year in Seattle was in an old convent in the shadows of that space age spire, monument "to the era's belief in commerce, technology and progress," that makes its stock appearance in every movie and sitcom ever shot in the city. [1] Built by private developers for the 1962 World's Fair at the cost of four and a half million dollars, the Space Needle would be refurbished for another twenty million in 1999, the year that Mayor Paul Schell would make the mistake of inviting the World Trade Organization to town. [2] The year that the first U.S. astronaut orbited the earth, the first visitors to the Space Needle, accompanied by "female elevator attendants dressed in skin-tight gold 'spacesuits,'" made their way to the top of the structure to dine in the "Eye of the Needle," a restaurant that every fifty eight minutes makes a full revolution above the city. [3]

[2] After a year I moved on to work at the Lutheran Compass Center (LCC), in an old mission on a prime piece of real estate overlooking the Puget Sound, at the edge of Pioneer Square, the city's original downtown. It was 1985 and Ronald Reagan was entering his second term in office and well into the business of implementing a succession of neoliberal "reforms." Neoliberalism, as David Harvey, among others, has noted was pioneered during the New York debt crisis of 1975, and in Chile in the 1970s, where the privatization of public assets, and the elimination of social security, initiated by University of Chicago-educated foreign economic and political advisors. [4] By the mid 1980s in the United States, labor, the safeguards against corporate greed forged in the 1930s New Deal and the social safety net forged in the New Deal and Johnson era Great Society—including most notably perhaps the HUD budget--were progressively under attack. The fallout from these policies, exacerbated also by the effects of deinstitutionalization and urban renewal, was radiating across the country, and the ranks of the working poor, the elderly, and the disabled swelled the shelters and sidewalks of every major city in the country from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.[5]

[3] In 1985, I worked graveyards and swing shifts, and while ferries moved back and forth across the Sound lit like private parties, I listened for hours to the stories of homeless women who'd grown up in Seattle, and the stories of women from cities, farmlands and reservations from all over the United States, women who spoke of surviving experiences that were more domestic terrorism than domestic violence, of hitchhiking across country and riding the rails, working as RNs and CNAs, as carnies and in canneries, as secretaries, store clerks, as beauticians and construction workers, prostitutes, dancers, and writers, and the vast majority as mothers, wives or caretakers of one sort or another. Along with personal stories that were variously poignant and profane, ribald, tragic and hilarious were recommendations about cooking, parenting, and operating heavy machinery; there were observations and insights on making meaning out of the suffering and violence the women witnessed and experienced, about religion, spirituality, and sexuality. The women turned their analytical gazes on the many institutions they encountered in their lives that were variously charged with assisting, treating, domesticating, reforming and rehabilitating "them." And they offered up observations about and critiques of civil society in the United States and of the institutions, discourses and policies that create and sustain homelessness and poverty in the United States.

[4] Working at LCC, I was struck at the time by the disparity between the stories that the women told about their own lives, and the clinical and truncated narratives that so frequently characterize public discourse on homelessness and on "the homeless." Public discourse on homelessness in the United States represents homeless people as the fitting objects of the expert clinical gaze, as "other." Single homeless people, whose family ties may be torn or tangled, who reject normative gender roles or the constraints of the nuclear family, are arguably most apt to be alternately criminalized or pathologized in debates and policy discussions on homelessness. They are represented, implicitly or explicitly, as incapable of analyzing their own situation, as devoid of historical understanding and political agency. As David Wagner has observed, single homeless people are frequently seen as "vulnerable and dependent people worthy perhaps of sympathy but judged to be socially disorganized, disaffiliated and disempowered." [6] The stories told about them reduce their complex life experiences and social roles--as children, parents, spouses, partners, workers, artists and intellectuals, as political and cultural agents--to "case studies," and one-dimensional narratives that lead inexorably to shelters or to the streets. [7]

[5] For the past thirty years in particular, public debates and policy discussions on homelessness have persistently overstated the pervasiveness of mental health issues and substance abuse problems among homeless people, in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. While people with "severe and persistent" mental health issues and substance abuse problems are among the most visible and most studied of the homeless population, and the chronic homeless in particular, collectively they have long constituted less than half of homeless people in the United States. [8] And, as many researchers, along with advocacy groups like the National Coalition for the Homeless have long contended, while mental illness and substance abuse certainly complicate individuals' ability to maintain stable housing, they do not in themselves cause homelessness. Homelessness is caused by lack of housing that is affordable, accessible, and appropriate for all of those who need it. [9] As Anitra Freeman, one of Seattle's most visible activists around the issue of homelessness, puts it in my interview with her, "Personal Problems don't dig the hole in the sidewalk; they just influence who is going to fall into it. It's systemic factors that create the hole." And those who are most likely to fall into the hole—to become homeless—are those who are least able, for a variety of reasons, to compete for scarce affordable housing and resources.

[6] While, as a number of studies have demonstrated, "fair" market rents remain far beyond the reach of millions of Americans, low-income housing stocks, which took a lethal hit during the Reagan Administration, have been steadily declining ever since. [10] Between 1978 and 1983, the HUD Budget was virtually gutted, dropping from 83 to 18 billion dollars; in 2008, at 35.2 billion dollars, the 2008 HUD budget was less than half the amount allocated in 1978. [11] While between 1976 and 1982, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) presided over the development of some 755,000 new public housing units, between 1982 and 2006, HUD built only 256,000 new units. [12] Meanwhile, single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs)—more commonly known as "flophouses"—long the mainstay of the urban poor, disappeared in droves in the 1970s and 1980s, with an estimated one million units lost across the country to "urban renewal, gentrification and the 'revitalization' of downtown areas." [13]

[7] Housing, like health care, is a fundamental human right acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, which includes the provision that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control (Article 25, Section 1). [14]

Yet policy debates on homelessness in the United States consistently fail to capture the gravity of the consequences for those who find themselves without a means of meeting the fundamental human need for housing. And while mental health and substance abuse issues do not cause homelessness, with all its attendant forms of physical and psychological trauma, homelessness can--and does--cause and exacerbate mental health and substance abuse issues. [15]

[8] While notable exceptions exist, and a wealth of critical literature has been generated on the subject, racist and classist assumptions about the individual pathologies of low income and homeless people continue to strongly inform the practices of the social services and shelter providers. As Vincent Lyon-Callo, Jean Calterone Williams--and countless homeless people—have argued, homeless men and women are routinely subject to multiple and intersecting forms of surveillance and policing. [16] Shelters and social services routinely anatomize the behaviors and personal stories of homeless people, subjecting them to "refined diagnostic tools, statistical record keeping" and "categories of pathology." [17] Access to services is, more often than not, contingent on demonstrating compliance with this framework, and noncompliance is invoked as further evidence of deviance and pathology. [18] Invasive and demeaning, these practices reinforce the feelings of guilt, shame and vulnerability that routinely accompany homelessness.

[9] For the past three decades, the emphasis on the individual pathologies of homeless people has provided a dose of rhetorical Prozac to middle and working class people in the United States. This emphasis has soothed our collective anxieties as we've stepped over bodies in doorways and anaesthetized us in the face of early warning signs about the effects of the incremental structural adjustment of civil society in the United States. Over the past thirty years, deregulation, the financialization of the economy, corporate tax cuts and tax cuts to the wealthy, deunionization and the loss of living wage jobs following the passage of NAFTA in 1993, have all contributed to the development of an income gap nearly unprecedented in U.S. history. According to data released in a 2010 report by the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007, "[t]he gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled," with "greater income concentration at the top of the income scale than at any time since 1928." [19] Over the last three decades, moreover, among African Americans in the United States, many of the hard won economic—as well as political--gains of the Civil Rights Movement have been eroded. A 2010 study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University documents a fourfold increase in the wealth gap between blacks and whites between 1984 and 2007, from $20,000 to $95,000. [20]

[10] The past several decades have seen the progressive redirection of federal spending from investment in education, housing, social services and domestic infrastructure to the military. In his 1967 speech at Riverside Church, Martin Luther King spoke of seeing Johnson's poverty program "broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war," and of concluding that "America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube." [21] According to the National Priorities Project, in July 2010, the estimated cost of the combined wars was 2.3 billion for Seattle alone, enough to cover the costs of "low income health care for 414,611 people or enough to provide 295,003 "scholarships for university students for one year." [22] Factoring in interest on military expenditures, the cost of veterans' benefits and other expenses routinely masked by federal estimates of tax expenditures, the War Resisters League estimates that 48 cents of every federal tax dollar is devoted to military expenditures. [23] Despite the organizing efforts of groups like the Western Regional Advocacy Project, discussion of the economic impacts of the interminable and ever-expanding "War on Terror" is relegated to the fringes of public discourse on homelessness and the economic crisis. [24]

[11] Since the 1980s, prisons have increasingly surveyed as one of the largest purveyors of publicly subsidized housing in the United States for low income people, and people of color, with a corresponding massive transfer of wealth to corporate entities that increasingly serve as the cornerstone of the prison industrial complex. The U.S. has seen "a dramatic escalation of the numbers of drug offenders in prisons and jails—a rise from 41,000 persons in 1980 to 500,000 today," an increase of more than 1200%. [25] Non-violent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars, up from less than 10 percent in 1980." [26] The fact, moreover, that costs incurred by "the War on Drugs" and for housing nonviolent offenders in the prison industrial complex far outstrips expenditures for public and subsidized housing goes routinely unmarked in debates on homelessness and in conservative indictments of "big government." As Michelle Alexander has most recently argued, Reagan's War on Drugs, now entering its fourth decade has been a singularly effective response to both the Johnson Era "War on Poverty," and the Civil Rights Movement, which was rapidly evolving, at the time of Martin Luther King's assassination, into a "poor and working-class movement that cut across racial lines." [27]

[12] In 2008, nationwide, the average operational costs per prison bed, not including the capital costs of prison construction, was $28,422. [28] In 2006, in Washington State the average operational cost of a prison bed was estimated at $27,000, with an additional "$11,000 per year per bed to amortize capital costs" of prison construction, for a total of $38,000 a year, [29] enough to cover four years of in-state undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington in 2010 with nearly $7232 remaining, almost enough to cover the estimated costs of a year's room and board at the University. [30]

[13] While for the present, homelessness is the focus of considerable media attention, the primary focus of the mainstream media is on "the new homeless," the embattled middle and working class people facing the prospect of foreclosure, and on families, in particular. Stories about the "the new homeless" foreground their distinction from the "other," older less worthy, more pathological--if not criminal--class of "the homeless." In the face of yet another "crisis" of American capitalism, such distinctions invoke myths about American meritocracy that are becoming more and more unsustainable, and that, as Anthony Marcus has argued, mystify the deep and persistent roots of social Darwinism in the United States. [31]

[14] For all the public sympathy directed toward "the new homeless," in particular, it's a crime to be homeless in the United States. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless report that the economic crisis has brought an increase in statutes that mete out penalties from fines to arrest for activities necessary for survival. They document a 7% increase between 2006 and 2009 in laws prohibiting 'camping' in particular public places, and "11% increase in laws prohibiting loitering in particular public places," and a "6% increase in laws prohibiting begging in particular public places." [32]

[15] Similar measures were enacted in response to rising rates of homelessness during the recessions of the 1980s and 90s. It was in 1993, with unemployment at 11% that Rudy Guiliani was elected mayor and swept homeless people from the streets of New York City with a constellation of new statutes against loitering and camping in public places. [33] The increased mobility of capital in the 1990s, accelerated by the passage of NAFTA in 1994, saw the emergence of what Don Mitchell has termed a "war against homeless people in the name of global competitiveness." [34] In Seattle, as in New York, as Timothy A. Gibson has explored at length, the disorderly bodies of the poor and homeless were represented by developers, city administrators and the media as undermining the comfort and safety of high end shoppers, theater goers and condo dwellers in the city's increasingly upscale downtown core. The presence of homeless people, in effect, undermined the image of Seattle as a "spectacular city," and a magnet for global capital. [35] City governments in Seattle and other major cities in the U.S. progressively responded in the 1990s to the swelling ranks of unemployed, underemployed and underpaid workers--and their performance of "private" behaviors in putatively "public space"--by outlawing behaviors necessary for human survival, effectively outlawing homeless people themselves.

[16] As Kim Hopper has observed, the roots of contemporary welfare policies and practices toward homeless people lie in Elizabethan England, and the belief that "relief must be made so onerous and degrading that even the lot of the most menial laborer would seem preferable...If idleness could be turned to profit, or at least assured subsistence, how then could the ranks of 'free labor' be harnessed to arduous and ill-paid jobs." [36] In sixteenth-century England, when peasants were forced off their land en masse to allow wealthy wooliers to fatten their flocks, poor laws designed to preempt protest and ensure a docile pool of surplus labor, meted out penalties for pan handling and vagrancy that included "branding, enslavement, and execution for repeated offenders." [37] African Americans in the U.S. risked physical branding, torture and death for trying to escape slavery -- an institution that itself legalized systematic rape, sexual trafficking and the torture of both women and men.

[17] To be homeless in the United States is to be branded both psychologically and physically. To be homeless is to confront daily reminders that you don't count for much in the world, that your life is disposable. For some, the recognition comes as a shock; but it's hardly news to those who are most likely to suffer permanent injury when they drop through the frayed social safety net to streets and alleys, the ones who are already wounded, who were beaten, raped or psychologically abused in childhood, in their families of origin, in foster care, in juvenile detention facilities and mental hospitals.

[18] When you're homeless, your bags are one of the things that brand you. Lockers are a precious commodity among homeless people. In the post-911 era when every bag is a suspected terrorist, bus station lockers are a thing of the past, and even if you're one of the lucky ones with a shelter bed to return to at night, the majority of shelters prohibit "residents" from storing their belongings during the day. Being homeless is like being on the longest most grueling shopping--or backpacking-- trip of your life. And to compound the misery, like a number of the women I interviewed, there's a good chance you have already suffered a stroke, have sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, arthritis, hypertension, or you're on the verge of liver or kidney failure.

[19] Homeless people are moving targets and the longer you're on the street, the more visible you become. Spend a single night homeless and you catch on quickly. You recognize the obvious: that a single night on the street can kill you. Stories about murders by "transients" are familiar enough in the mainstream media, but homeless people are far more likely to be prey than predator, and when they are murdered, the stories are more often than not buried in the back pages. In 2004, two teenagers in Milwaukie, Wisconsin beat to death a homeless man named Rex Baum, using rocks, bricks, a pipe, a baseball bat and the barbeque grill from Baum's campsite, smeared their own feces on his face, "cutting him with a knife 'to see if he was alive.'" They wedged the man's head in his barbeque grill before heading off to dinner at MacDonalds. [38] The National Coalition for the Homeless' 2009 report, "Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street USA" is filled with accounts of homeless people assaulted--or killed--for sport. The report documents 880 assaults against homeless people between 1999 and 2008, including 244 murders. [39]

[20] The spike in incidents in recent years seems to be fueled in part by the popularity of "Bumfights," a series of videos that feature footage of chronically homeless men pummeling each other for the price of a bottle, and a popular spin on Crocodile Dundee, of a "Bum Hunter" in safari gear showing a man "'tagging' homeless people by pouncing on them and binding their wrists. [40] Until recently, you could rent copies at Hollywood Video. The director of a homeless shelter in Fort Lauderdale, and publisher of the monthly street newspaper, The Homeless Voice, reported that "Kids are even starting to videotape themselves hurting homeless people." [41] In 1999 a forty seven-year-old homeless man named David Ballenger was stabbed and beaten to death in Seattle by three teenagers, one of whom reportedly told a friend, "Let's just say there's one less bum on the face of the earth." [42]

[21] Women encounter their own set of unique horrors on the street. In a 2001 survey of 974 homeless women, 34 percent of women surveyed reported having experienced major violence—defined as "being kicked, bitten, hit with a fist or object, beaten up, choked, burned, or threatened or harmed with a knife or gun." [43] Half of the women "were assaulted no less than twice that year." [44] In a separate study, 13 percent of the homeless women surveyed reported having been raped in the past year, with more than half having been raped at least twice. [45] Homeless women are studied in the art of urban camouflage; both their physical and psychological survival depends on looking like they have a home to return to. [46] Women who are visibly homeless are subject to continual sexual harassment and sexual assault on the street. Every "offer" of money for sex carries the threat of rape on the street. These kinds of daily threats and indignities are routine in the lives of homeless women, and they exact a heavy psychological toll. Those who are forced to sleep outside and don't have men to protect them (which can easily create its own set of problems) work hard to make themselves invisible at night, which makes one night street counts of "the homeless" of limited value in estimating the numbers of women sleeping outside. Seatttle's one night street count of the homeless in January 2008 identified 1976 people sleeping in cars and motor homes, in doorways and alleys, under bridges and overpasses, in the bushes and in the brush throughout the city, including 141 women and 1158 people whose gender was undetermined. [47]

[22] Women who cope with homelessness by "couch surfing"—who go uncounted in one night street counts and are excluded altogether from federal definitions of homelessness—end up being pressured into sex and relationships; they are battered, sexually assaulted and/or murdered—by men who offer them safe haven from the streets. A 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control, the most comprehensive survey to date on intimate partner violence in the United States, indicates that nearly a quarter of all women in the United States (23.6%) have experienced sexual or physical assault at the hands of husbands, boyfriends, or girlfriends. [48] The study also demonstrates that women—and men—who are abused by intimate partners are at substantially higher risk for "'disability and activity limitations, [including] asthma, stroke, arthritis, and, in women, heart disease." [49] Other studies have demonstrated, moreover, that women—and men—who have experienced sexual and physical abuse are more likely to end up in abusive relationships as adults. [50] Any one of these factors can undermine a person's ability to walk the economic tightrope that is the lot of more and more Americans.

[23] While domestic violence is rooted in control issues and cuts across socioeconomic lines, it can nevertheless be exacerbated by financial stress, and women living below the poverty line suffer from the highest rates of intimate partner violence (35.5%). [51] Yet battered women's shelters are forced to turn away thousands of women every year and prioritize women facing imminent threats of violence and in need of a confidential location. Women from the ranks of the working poor who are able to access space at domestic violence shelters face the same long waits for low income housing that confront other women among the ranks of the working poor, the disabled, and the elderly. Lack of affordable and low income housing, and the ever present threat of homelessness, can easily lead women into a seemingly endless cycle of abusive relationships. And the fact is that any of the tens of thousands of women who are forced to sleep outside on any given night in the U.S. is at risk of being raped or murdered, whether it's by a boyfriend, husband, partner or stranger. Most at risk are women who are mentally ill or otherwise disabled.

[24] Many of the women I interviewed spoke of the way in which their own experiences of homelessness had fundamentally altered their perspective on "civil" society in the United States, calling into question truths they had once held as self-evident about fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I began my research with the goal of conducting all the interviews with women who were current or former residents of Lutheran Compass Center to demonstrate the richness and complexity of lives that might converge in any given shelter in the United States. However, after a decade-long hiatus in work on the book, I made the decision to more actively seek out and include the voices of women who'd been involved in some of the multiple —and intersecting--sites of cultural and political organizing that emerged within the ranks of homeless people in Seattle in the 1990s.

[25] When I began interviewing women in the 1990s, street newspapers were springing up around the country, challenging stereotypes about homeless people and catalyzing political organizing among the unhoused and their supporters. Focusing on the issues of poverty, homelessness, and housing policy, and featuring work by homeless reporters, columnists, poets and short fiction writers, street newspapers now exist in some forty cities throughout the U.S., and in many more cities internationally.

[26] With a circulation of over 18,000 in 2010, Seattle's street newspaper Real Change provides a source of income, purpose and dignity for more than fifty homeless and formerly homeless vendors. [52] For almost two decades, Real Change has provided a critical counterpoint to the city's "aggressively pro-development mainstream media," [53] keeping the struggles for economic justice and affordable housing, the preservation of public space, the civil rights of homeless and low income people in the forefront of public debates around the future of Seattle's urban core. And together with the Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL)—and Women in Black-- Real Change has been instrumental in raising public awareness of violence against homeless people and of the deaths of homeless people on the streets of Seattle.

[27] WHEEL's roots go back at least as far as Thanksgiving of 1990, when an ad hoc group of homeless and formerly homeless supporters erected the city's first tent city in decades, not far from the site of Seattle's original Hooverville. The inhabitants of Seattle's tent city dubbed their group SHARE—short for Seattle Housing and Resource Effort--and over the space of two or three weeks, according to WHEEL's only paid organizer Michele Marchand, their encampment just south of the King Dome (the site now of "Safeco Field") had grown to one hundred and eighty residents. SHARE members refused to disband the tent city until the Seattle City Council agreed to their demand for two new indoor shelters.

[28] In 1993, WHEEL was officially born when an anonymous community member, observing that the leadership of SHARE was predominantly male, donated money for an organizer to work exclusively with women and ensure that homeless women's needs and perspectives were taken into account in organizing campaigns. Under the auspices of WHEEL, with support from SHARE and allies in the social service providers, the women mounted letter-writing campaigns and organized rallies to pressure the Mayor and the City Council to expand the operating hours for shelters and day centers and provide women-only floors in subsidized housing, and as Marchand recalls, "within six months they won every single plank in their platform. Every single one of them." Over the course of the next few years SHARE and WHEEL successfully pressured the City to cede buildings and funds to support several more shelters.

[29] When in 1993, the Seattle City Council, bent on creating a more hospitable climate for shoppers—and investors--in the city's downtown core followed New York and Los Angeles in adopting a series of ordinances targeting various forms of "incivility" among homeless people, including "sitting on the sidewalk,"[54] SHARE/WHEEL and were at the forefront in challenging the laws. When the City moved to more aggressively prosecute individuals in violation of Seattle laws against public camping, SHARE/ WHEEL organized public sleep-outs, with homeless campers and housed supporters risking arrest and jail time to challenge the laws and agitate for more shelters to address the city's homeless crisis. SHARE/WHEEL also undertook an aggressive outreach campaign to area faith communities. In 2008, twelve Seattle churches served as home to self-governing SHARE/WHEEL shelters. While "Tent City One" and "Tent City Two," as they are now known, were relatively short-lived, "Tent City Three" and "Tent City Four," have for several years now rotated among the parking lots and grounds of some fifty area churches, synagogues, and secular organizations. Seattle University has also hosted Tent City Three on campus. Today SHARE/WHEEL is arguably the largest and most cost-effective provider of emergency shelter in the Pacific Northwest. [55]

[31] In addition to working with SHARE to coordinate the tent cities and shelters, WHEEL coordinates the Women's Empowerment Center, a self-managed organizing arts and cultural center. The organization publishes a twice-monthly newsletter, and in 2007, a joint effort with the Seattle-based Whit Press culminated in the publication of Beloved Community: The Sisterhood of Homeless Women in Poetry (Seattle: Whit Press, 2007), which features poems by some of the women I interviewed for the book. WHEEL sponsors an annual women's forum, which recognizes the skills and contributions of homeless women to the city and serves as a platform to launch the group's political campaigns. WHEEL's 2008 campaign focused on the expansion of emergency shelter and on the creation of a "homeless place of remembrance," to commemorate the deaths of Seattle's homeless and raise public awareness of the lethal consequences of homelessness.

[32] In 2000, the murder of David Ballenger and the serial killings of three women camped in Pioneer Square prompted WHEEL to begin organizing under the auspices of the international Women in Black movement to call attention to the deaths of homeless people in one of the most livable cities in the United States. The Women in Black movement began in Israel in 1988 when Jewish women, who were subsequently joined by Palestinian women, began protesting against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Vigils have since sprung up in countries in Africa, India, Colombia, and Mexico, and all over Europe, to protest war and violence, especially violence against women. [56] Women in Black is a decentralized movement, rather than an organization with a "constitution or a manifesto," and as such the focus of the vigils varies somewhat from place to place. [57] The Seattle vigils are the only Women in Black vigils internationally to focus exclusively on the deaths of homeless people. As a whole, the movement is rooted, however, in a "feminist understanding: that male violence against women in domestic life and in the community, in times of peace and in times of war, are interrelated, " and in the understanding that "[v]iolence is used as a means of controlling women." [58]

[33] While many communities across the country have long held annual services to mark the deaths of homeless people in their midst—with the National Coalition for the Homeless designating December 21 as "National Memorial Day for Homeless People"--Seattle's WHEEL/Women in Black has, since 2000, held vigils each time a homeless individual dies outside or by violence. The group has now stood to honor the lives—and call attention to the deaths—of more than 300 people. WHEEL/Women in Black vigils spurred the Health Care for Homeless People in Seattle-King County to begin publishing a "King County Homeless Death Review" in 2003, "which aimed to elucidate the problem of homeless deaths" and chronic and life threatening illness among homeless people. [59]

[34] Participants in the Women in Black vigils regularly congregate before and after at Mary's Place, which until its demolition in 2008, was located in the basement of a Methodist Church directly across the street from the Columbia Tower and just a few short blocks from City Hall. The Church was also the site of a men's shelter operated by the Compass Center. Founded by Jean Kim, a Presbyterian minister, who worked as a social worker at the Compass Center in the 1980s, Mary's Place has long been a partner in WHEEL's organizing efforts. On Saturdays Mary's Place transforms into the Church of the Mary Magdalene, an ecumenical Christian community that embraces lesbian, bi-, and transgendered women as congregants and as ministers, and returns again and again to the parallels between the suffering of Christ and the struggles of homeless people, and of homeless women in particular.

[35] In July 2006, I attended my first Women in Black vigil, which marked the death of a fifty-year-old amputee named Douglas Dawson. On June 23 2006, Dawson had been sleeping outside in his wheelchair on the streets of Spokane when he was deliberately set on fire. He died a few days later at Harborview Hospital in Seattle. Dawson's murder earned more media attention than most who die on the streets; it was the focus of a few articles in the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer. PI columnist Robert L. Jamieson reported, "When emergency dispatchers first sent word to fire crews, they had no idea a human being was even involved. The airwaves initially mentioned a trash fire." Dawson, wrote Jamieson, had been "lit up like a human candle." "'Trash' fire turns out to be a man,'" read the headline. [60]

[36] Mona Joyner, a long time activist with Women in Black, who was homeless at the time, choked back tears of rage when I interviewed her following the vigil. "This man only had one leg and they set him on fire. This is what society has become. If that man had had housing, more than likely he would be alive today ..." Of her involvement in Women in Black, she felt compelled to observe, "Just because I'm a homeless person doesn't mean that I can't be involved or that I don't want to change things or help people. That's just a natural part of me, that protecting and wanting to make their lives easier for them if I can. That comes from love. I mean, you love your neighbor, you know? Why do people hate homeless people? Why?"

[37] A couple of days later I was back home in Portland when I got a call from Michele Marchand. Women in Black was gearing up for another vigil. A forty two- year-old woman named Tonya Smith, known as "Sonshine" to the women of Mary's Place, had been stabbed and left to die in the "hobo jungle" just outside the International District. [61] She'd dragged herself from the blood-spattered cardboard that had been her bed for the night, out of the brush, the blackberries and the brambles, and onto the sidewalk, where she died and where the garbage collectors found her body just before dawn. I'd seen Sonshine a number of times at Mary's Place, but we had never spoken. I knew who she was by the description of the bruise that ran down one of her cheeks from a recent beating. She was a regular at Mary's Place and she'd stopped by the Women's Empowerment Center a day or two before she was murdered. She told the women of WHEEL that all the shelter beds in the city were full and that the thought of spending the night on the street terrified her. And she asked about the progress of the city's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.


[1] The promotional website for the Space Needle reports that when the City of Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board declared the Space Needle an official historic landmark, the Board declared that, "'The Space Needle... represents America's aspirations towards technological prowess. [It] embodies in its form and construction the era's belief in commerce, technology and progress,'" "Discover the Needle: Fun Facts," «».

[2] Jack Broom, "Sprucing up the Space Needle, Age 37—20$ Million Face Lift," Seattle Times, 11 September 1999.

[3] Tyrone Beason, "Space Needle: Forty years after World's Fair, Seattle's symbol still stands tall," Seattle Times, 12 April 2002. A promotional website, "Discover the Needle," recounts without any hint of irony that in 1966, eleven-year-old Bill Gates, future co-founder and long-time CEO of Microsoft, won the chance to dine at the restaurant; it was a prize awarded by his pastor for memorizing and "flawlessly" reciting "chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, better known as the Sermon on the Mount" ("Discover the Needle: Fun Facts").

[4] See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 39-63.

[5] An extensive body of literature exists on the explosion of homelessness during the Reagan administration; see, for example, Martha Burt, The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s (New York: Russell Sage, 1992); Greg Barak, Gimme Shelter: A Social History of Homelessness in Contemporary America (New York: Praeger, 1992); Joel Blau, The Visible Poor, Homelessness in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Kim Hopper and Jill Hamberg, The Making of America's Homeless: From Skid Road to New Poor, 1945-1984. Report prepared for the Institute of Social Welfare Research (New York: Community Service Society, 1984).

[6] David Wagner, Checkerboard Square, Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 3. While Wagner's observation is not specific to homeless women in particular, it is, I believe, a particularly apt description of representations of homeless women.

[7] See, for example, Joel Blau's The Visible Poor, Homelessness in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): esp. 15-17. David Wagner's Checkerboard Square was something of a watershed text in representing homeless people as resistant political subjects, challenging American individualism and "dominant cultural norms of work and family," 3. Talmadge Wright's Out of Place: Homeless Mobilizations, Subcities and Contested Landscapes (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997) focuses on political organizing, communal ties, cultural and artistic production among homeless communities. Mitch Duneier's Sidewalk (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1999) focuses on the intellectual and political interests, entrepreneurial activity and cultural work of homeless and marginally housed magazine and book vendors in New York City.

[8] The 2005 U.S. Conference of Mayors' Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness, 5. The report estimates that the number of individuals suffering from some form of severe and persistent mental illness at 22% and those with significant substance abuse issues at 30%. These figures do not account for the overlap between the two groups, which suggests that individuals with either issue may comprise significantly less than half of homeless people population as a whole.

[9] See Peter Marcuse, "Neutralizing Homelessness," Socialist Review 88, no. 1, (1988): pp. 69-97; Paths to Homelessness, esp. 10-30. Marcuse's assessment of the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues among homeless communities has been challenged in more recent studies.

[10] For an overview of fair market rents nationally and by individual states, and information on the hourly wages that workers would need to earn in order to maintain housing the FMR market, see "Out of Reach 2010," a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, «».

[11] "HUD Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Summary," 1. An overview of the declining HUD budget and its impact on homelessness, see the 2006 report by the Western Regional Advocacy Center. Without Housing.

[12] Without Housing, 1.

[13] James D. Wright and Beth Rubin, "Is Homelessness a Housing Problem," 943.

[14] «»

[15] See, Marcuse, "Neutralizing Homelessness"; D. Stanley Eitzen, Kathryn D. Talley, Doug A Timmer, Paths To Homelessness Extreme Poverty and The Urban Housing Crisis (Boulder: Westview, 1984), esp. 10-30; Peter Rossi, Down and Out in America, The Origins of Homelessness (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989); James. D. Wright and Beth A. Rubin, Is "Homelessness a Housing Problem?" Housing Policy Debate, 3, No. 2 (1999): 987-56; James D. Wright and Julie A. Lam, "Housing and the Low-Income Housing Supply," Social Policy, 17, No. 4 (1987): 48-53; Kim Hopper, "'More than Passing Strange,': Homelessness and Mental Illness in New York City," American Ethnologist 15, No.1 (Feb., 1988): 155-167; David A. Snow, Susan G. Baker, Leon Anderson, Michael Martin, "The Myth of Pervasive Mental Illness Among Homeless People," Social Problems, 33, No. 5 (1986): 407-423; Arline Mathieu, "The Medicalization of Homelessness and the Theater of Repression," Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7, No. 2 (1993):170-184.

[16] Vincent Lyon-Callo, Inequality, Poverty and Neoliberal Governance, Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry (Toronto: Higher Education Press of Toronto Press Inc., 2008); see esp. pp. 57-96 in Jean Calterone Williams, "A Roof Over My Head," Homeless Women and the Shelter Industry (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2003); see also, Kurt Borchard, The Word on the Street, Homeless Men in Las Vegas (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005) 103-132.

[17] Lyon-Callo, Inequality, 111.

[18] Ibid, 86-107.

[19] Arloc Sherman and Chad Stone, "Income Gaps Between Very Rich and Everyone Else More Than Tripled In Last Three Decades, New Data Show," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 25, 2010, «».

[20] Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan, "The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Fourfold," Institute on Assets and Social Policy Research and Policy Brief, May 2010, 1.

[21] Rev. Martin Luther King, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," April 4, 1967, «»

[22] "The Cost of War," The National Priorities Project, «».

[23] The War Resisters League, "Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes," «».

[24] See the Western Regional Advocacy Project's 2006 Report, Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Housing Policy Failures.

[25] Marc Mauer, "The Impact of Mandatory Sentencing Policies in the United States, Prepared for the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs," 2, by the Sentencing Project, October 28, 2009.

[26] John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta, "The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration" Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2010.

[27] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), 35.

[28] One in 31, the Long Reach of American Corrections, Public Safety Performance Project, Pew Center on the States, March 2009, 2.

[29] "Options to Stabilize Prison Populations in Washington: Interim Report," January 2006, Washington State Institute for Public Policy.


[31] Anthony Marcus, Where have all the homeless gone? The making and unmaking of a crisis (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006). See esp. 35-62 and 138-53.

[32] Homes not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, July 2009, 10-11.

[33] See Don Mitchell, The Right to the City, Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: The Guilford Press, 2003) 16-17, and Anthony Marcus, 136-7.

33 Mitchell, The Right to the City, 167.

[35] Timothy A. Gibson, Securing the Spectacular City, The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle (New York: Lexington Books 2004) 86. See also Stacy Warren, "Disneyfication of the Metropolis: Popular Resistance in Seattle," Journal of Urban Affairs 16, 89-107

[36] Kim Hopper, "More than Passing Strange: Homelessness and Mental Illness in New York City, American Ethnologist, Vol. 15, No. 1, Medical Anthropology (Feb., 1988) 155-167, 163.

[37] Frances Fox Pivens and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor, the Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971, Repr. 1993) 15.

[38] "Teen 'sport killings' of homeless on the rise," CNN.Com, 20 February 2007, «».

[39] Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street USA: A Report on Hate Crimes and Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness 2008, National Coalition for the Homeless, August 2009, 10.

[40] "Teen 'sport killings' of homeless on the rise." See also "Hate, Violence and Death on Mainstreet USA in 2005," 35.

[41] "Fla. leads nation in homeless beatings," Associated Press, 9 April 2007.

[42] David Birkland, "One Less Bum on the Face of the Earth," Seattle Times, 18 August 1999. A memorial webpage for David Ballenger can be found at «».

[43] Suzanne L. Wenzel, Barbara D. Leake, and Lillian Gelberg, "Risk Factors for Major Violence Among Homeless Women," Journal of Interpersonal Violence 16 (8) 739-752, 744.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Suzanne L. Wenzel, J.S. Tucker, M.N. Elliott, K. Hambarsoomians, J. Perlman, K. Becker, C. Kollross, and D. Colinelli, "Prevalence and Co-occurrence of Violence, Substance Abuse and Disorder, and HIV Risk Behavior: A Comparison of Sheltered and Low-Income Housed Women in Los Angeles County," Preventive Medicine: An International Journal Devoted to Practice and Theory, 39 (2000) 617-624. For an overview of research on the correlation between homelessness, sexual assault and violence, see Lisa Goodman, Katya Fels, and Catherine Glenn, "No Safe Place: Sexual Assault in the Lives of Homeless Women," available through the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, at

[46] Much has been written on homeless women's strategies for appearing housed. Marjorie Bard treats the issue at length in Shadow Women: Homeless Women's Survival Stories (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1990).

[47] "2008 Annual One Night Count of People who are Homeless in King County, WA," Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness,

[48] Daniel J. Denoon, "Intimate Partner Violence Hurts Health," WebMD Health News, 7 February 2008.

[49] Ibid.

[50] See, for example, L. Bensley, J. Van Eenwyk, and K. Wynkoop Simmons, "Childhood Family Violence History and Women's Risk for Intimate Partner Violence and Poor Health," American Journal of Preventive Medicine 25 (2003): 38-44.

[51] Denoon, "Intimate Partner Violence Hurts Health."

[52] «».

[53] The characterization of Seattle's mainstream media, the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer is Timothy Gibson's (264).

[54] See Gibson, Securing the Spectacular City, especially 171-81.

[55] Adam Hyla, "Vital Service, Vital Talks" For SHARE and city, there's light at the end of the tunnel, Real Change, April 13, 2006.

[56] On the history of the Women in Black Movement, see « Who%20are%20we.htm».

[57] "Who are Women in Black?" Women in Black for Justice. Against War. «».

[58] Ibid.


[60] Robert L. Jamieson, "'Trash' fire turns out to be a man," Post-Intelligencer, 1 July 2006.

[61] See Amy Rolph, "Women in Black hold vigil for slain woman, Tonya Smith, 42, was on path to recovery," Seattle PI 20 July 2006.