‘Blessing Boxes,’ tent encampments, and our messed up priorities

Dear President Trump,

Yesterday on our Saturday dog walk we were in a neighborhood we frequent pretty often and we saw one of those Little Libraries. They sometimes look like the houses they belong to, but are always smallish wooden boxes with shelves that are perched atop a post. Each one has a glass-paned door, and sometimes a light will come on when the door is opened. They are all over Seattle and I saw several in DC when I was there last year so maybe you’ve seen them too. Anyway, sometime in the past month this particular one was recast as a Blessing Box where people can take (and leave) non-perishable items, like canned soups and boxes of rice or pasta.

My first instinct upon seeing it was to say “how wonderful that someone thought of this,” but as I’ve thought about it more, it’s actually feeling sadder and sadder and making me feel even more angry and frustrated than usual. None of these feelings are directed at whoever decided to make the switch from books to canned soup. Not at all – they are responding to real need in a useful and compassionate way. Rather, it’s that we are at a point where enough more of us have slipped far enough down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need that it makes sense to give over shelf space traditionally devoted to books to foodstuff that people can take with no questions asked.

Unfortunately there isn’t a Blessing Box stocked with provisions at the tent encampment lining the public golf course adjacent to the VA. In the last two weeks the number of tents there has swelled from 10 to 15. At this point, most of the available space on the 10’ wide strip of grass/dirt/mud between the chain link fence and the sidewalk has now been claimed, though I won’t be surprised to see another 5 or so more crammed in there before too long. Since the beginning of summer there are also more cars and RVs parked nearby where it’s clear people are living. There are no facilities, no garbage cans, no grocery stores, no discernible services of any kind. It smells bad. It’s trashed. It’s desolate.

Now that we are in the new building, the parking lot that runs along the golf course, and now the tent encampment, is by far the closest one for all of us working in the new space, so I walk by it twice a day, every workday. A few folks who live there are usually hanging out in their camp chairs when I’m leaving work and we exchange greetings and well-wishes, though the latter always leave me feeling shitty – they are kind enough to wish me a good evening, but my return ‘good evening’ wish feels hollow since I know they can’t go to the bathroom or sleep in a safe space and almost certainly won’t have a warm meal.

I feel overwhelmed by their need and overwhelmed by my inability to meet it. I’ve been brainstorming what I might do and enlisted Laura’s help in talking through different options. Honestly, we didn’t come up with much that feels doable or truly helpful; pretty much every idea we came up with, one or the other of us pointed out obvious pitfalls. What about buying a bunch of wool blankets at the Army Surplus store? Maybe tarps would be better? (I couldn’t sleep for a long time last night when it was dumping rain because I was worrying about the people in the tents and how they were coping.) Or what about delivering several bunches of bananas every Tuesday morning (they are nutritious, the peels decompose, and almost anyone can chew them) or getting some huge, refillable water dispensers? All of the above? None of the above? I don’t know.

I’m not foolish enough to think that I can or should somehow fix this situation for all of them or even for one of them, let alone for the hundreds more I see every day living in tents lining both sides of the freeway and on some of the freeway medians.

The need is enormous. I refuse to say the need is endless. It is enormous, but it is not endless, and we don’t need rocket science to address it. We need living wage jobs and affordable housing. We need to stop syphoning up a ridiculously unjust proportion of our collective resources to the 1% (or to even the top 25%). The amount of wealth some people are sitting on is obscene and it’s not because they are smarter or work harder than the rest of us – it’s because the f*cking system is rigged to keep most of the country’s wealth controlled by a small number of families.

I don’t know what I’m going to do to try to help the people living on the edge of Jefferson Golf Course. Yet. I’m going to see if I can screw up the courage to talk with one or two of them about what might be helpful that’s within the realm of my possibility and then go from there.

In the meantime I will keep clogging your inbox. Despite the inherent futility of sending these proverbial messages in bottles to someone I think is absolutely despicable and who will never read them or respond to me, writing to you still helps me clarify how I feel about all the shit that is going down and where I need to put my energy.

May people living outside be safe.
May we all be willing to step up and do what is needed so we all have homes.
May we see the inherent rot in a society that overindulges a select few.
May we not make peace with this inherently unjust system.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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