Homeless in the Emerald City

One of the first things I am noticing about Seattle, besides how cool the light rail is, and how the sidewalks are super wet but not slippery, and how confusing the crosswalks are, and how many hipsters are here, is the number of street people—homeless or otherwise—I am seeing. This seems an unlikely place for folks who sleep in doorways to settle; it’s 44 degrees right now, and that’s the high for today. Besides which, it’s raining. And sometimes, Seattle looks like this:

snowy seattle
(Twitter user ‏@DaveGuss/Downtown Seattle/Feb. 9, 2014)

This is my first visit to the Emerald City (that’s what the pilot on Alaska Air called it, but I don’t know why–it’s more gray than green, honestly, at least so far); I’m here for the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, an annual event that brings writers from all over the place into one giant–as one of my DH kids called it–nerd convention.

Yesterday I found a nice, warm little deli that sells goat cheese and olives, and where I could get a slice of cheese pizza and a glass of wine for under $10. I sat at the counter, looking out to the wet and crowded intersection just near Pike’s Public Market. On this rainy Saturday I found the market a bit crowded and steamy for me, though it was worth the shuffle with the crowd just to smell the flowers and frying fish and hot apple cider. The woman sitting one stool away from me was reading the newspaper. She looked up at me and smiled, and we began an easy conversation about the poetry slam she almost attended the night before, but didn’t, and how she writes a lot of poetry. When I told her I was here for a writing conference she asked if she could scoot over to the stool next to me, and our conversation continued over the best cheese pizza I have ever eaten.

Her name is Francis Emily Waldow, but everyone calls her Emily, after her grSeattle nativeandmother, who was a member of the Cowichan tribe of Vancouver Island. Emily is half Cowichan, and half Italian, which gave us even more to talk about, since I am also half Italian, and I could swear she looks an awful lot like my aunts Toscana and Yolanda.

“I think it’s the Italian part of me that kept me from being a full-blown alcoholic,” she told me.

Emily has lived in Seattle all of her life. She was homeless for over a year, living on the street, before she got to the top of the waiting list for a low-income residence called Plymouth Housing–she has lived in the building we could see from our window for ten years now. She told me she has two hot plates and a cat.

“I can use the oven downstairs, if I need to,” she said. “The other day I made a cake for my friend–he’s a heroin addict and a schizophrenic, and I worry about him sometimes. I wanted to do something nice for him. So I made this cake, and I put it on the windowsill to cool. My cat jumped right on top of it, so I had to cut out the middle part and make it a donut cake,” she smiled at me.

Emily describes Seattle as a very “homeless-friendly” city. She told me that people “find niches” to sleep.

“One of my friends is sleeping in the back of a laundromat right now–some little room they let him use. But the city helps out a lot, too. We have Urban Rest Stops where you can get a shower. And when the weather’s really bad, they open up city hall. And of course there’s all the shelters.”

The Urban Rest Stops–where you can wash your clothes, take a shower or a load off–look pretty amazing, and I counted over 20 shelters in Seattle.

I live in Fresno, California. A search for homeless shelters in my town turned up a list of six, two of which I know do not take walk-ins.

“The police look out for us, too,” Emily told me. “If they find homeless people on the street, they call non-emergency and detox comes and takes them in, where they get taken care of.”

I asked Emily what she likes most about living in Seattle.

“It’s the people,” she said. “A lot of natives, like me, and just this feeling like we all belong together. You shoulda seen it when the Seahawks won. Whole streets were blocked off. People hugging and yelling and laughing–all the open containers but no fighting. Just a lot of celebrating together.”

Emily is passionate about her city, and about poetry. She recited quite a few pieces of her own poems to me, from memory. She gave me permission to share one. You can read it below; I have the signed copy in my journal.

Emily Waldow, if you are reading this, thank you for sharing your heart and your city with me. Come to the bookfair on Saturday. Mingle with some other poets, browse the books, and breathe it all in.

And You Thought  by Francis Emily Waldow.

When I start to think,

I rake in the ink.

My feet never leave the ground.

I move without making a sound.

And now, my thoughts are your thoughts.

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