Friday, March 24, 2023

The Connection Between Homelessness, Graffiti, and Mental Illness—Observations on the Street

On a cold evening in Seattle within sight of the iconic Space Needle I passed a couple bedding down for the night under the eaves of an entry way. The man cheerfully called out about my cute dog, casually engaging in conversation as if he were calling to me from his front porch. Later that same evening, I passed the couple again. They sat in their sleeping bags with their backs against a brick wall watching a movie on a laptop and eating popcorn. The man waved in recognition. The woman smiled. 

Residential architects wax melodic about the separation between public and private areas. A typical description might introduce you to the foyer from where the drama of a double height living room beckons through an archway. The kitchen might be enclosed or at least partially blocked from view, straddling it’s sometimes private, sometimes public status. The laundry room is always private as are the bathrooms and bedrooms. Exuding another level of intimacy, the primary suite is sometimes further isolated from the other bedrooms. 

For the homeless what is private has become public.

Each evening as I took my pup for his last walk, I observed some of the residents of the streets locating their night’s ‘primary suite.’ I happened to catch sight of a gentleman as he hopped a gate to bed down behind tall bushes in the relative privacy of a school’s play yard. Other night lodgers settled in doorways, their only privacy a stocking cap pulled low over their eyes or the edge of their sleeping bag pulled high over their chins. Evidence of ‘cooking’ came in the form of fast-food wrappers and cans left in their wake. 

On the same trip, I took this photo of the base of an abandoned tower on the waterfront of Bellingham. The smudged over graffiti and writing on the railing made me consider how what once was reserved for the privacy of studios or homes has also taken to the public sphere in the last many years. Like the homeless, the many talented graffiti artists have had to take their work to the public landscapes—to free surfaces of walls, train cars, bridges, and fences. It seems to me that the two phenomena are related, grounded in the increasing inequities of income.

In Bellingham late one afternoon, the ruckus of a young man yelling and singing called my attention to him. As he sang, gyrating with his arms akimbo, he took off his jacket and then his shirt and changed into another garment. Here was yet another illustration of private behavior conducted in public. Worse, it illustrated the tragedy of society’s intentional neglect of those with mental illness. Yes, President Reagan signed legislation that made it more difficult to place people in institutions involuntarily; the law caused mental institutions to close. But it was the failure to then adequately fund less restrictive homes that has created the situation we see today. At one time there was a mandate for schools to place children in “the least restrictive environment.” The terminology sadly fits the state of homelessness. Least restrictive.   


On my last day on the east side of the state, I walked a park with pup before getting into the car for the return trip. It had rained the night before but temperatures had been rising. As I paused to take the above photos of a budding pussy willow and rain drenched cherry blossom, yet another homeless man passed behind me. He was the fourth that I had seen in the park, including two encamped under a bridge fronted by bushes. As lovely as this park was, still it is not adequate housing. 

When will we loosen our purse strings (public and private) and grant everyone the privacy of an abode or artists a work space? When?   

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