What are we doing?
More specifically, what are we doing as SYM if not seeking to end homelessness? It’s an important question to reflect on as service providers in the midst of a problem that only seems to be increasing. The city-wide dialogue on whether or not Seattle is “dying” has certainly heightened the cultural sense that the role of service providers like SYM is insignificant or even needless.
Faced with these challenging critiques, I have been doing a great deal of internal processing. How do I reconcile the overwhelming scale of the homelessness crisis with my well-intentioned but undeniably finite work on the ground with SYM? The suggestion that my work and passion is doing nothing was deeply unsettling.
The larger issue of homelessness, one I hope to share more thoughts on later, is far more complicated than a black and white breakdown of policy vs practice. I am deeply committed to advocating for an end to homelessness and the broken systems that perpetuate housing instability, as I know my coworkers all are. However, the sheer scale and complexity of the issue is evidently not within the capacity of any political administration to fix on its own. To rally behind an exclusively structuralist approach would be naïve and demonstrate an ignorance of Seattle’s political history with the issue of homelessness. That doesn’t mean giving up on addressing the root of the problem; it does, though, leave room to consider the needs of the here and now.
Time and time again, my thoughts return to the oft-repeated proverb of the young man and the starfish. If you’re unfamiliar with it, enjoy. It’s a real treat.
“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, and he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference.”
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference to that one.”
Excerpt from “The Star Thrower”
Humanity. In a word, that is what we exist for as SYM. While it is my hope that service providers like SYM can be a part of the social and political movement toward a society that refuses to let anyone be without basic necessities like water, food, clothing, and shelter, I find solace and encouragement in the daily interactions we have with young people. The wide smiles that follow stories of success or harrowing adventure. The random nicknames and comments that thoroughly baffle me in their foolishness. The intriguing conversations that can in an instant jump from spirituality and universal truth to nail polish. At SYM, we share humanity with our brothers and sisters who are at this stage in life struggling with stability. Our purpose isn’t to end homelessness, and for our organization I think that’s okay. Over the years I have been here, it has been my pleasure and honor to connect with so many wonderful souls, and to see them like myself experience the joy of genuine human connection.
As young people enter our drop-in space and acknowledge me as a friend, it’s clear to me that I’m the one being welcomed into their community, not the other way around. I wonder which one of us really is the starfish being tossed back home.