There’s some pretty strange things on my bucket list, and one of them is to visit Seattle and post a photo with the caption ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (cue the eye rolls)… Whilst I managed to achieve this, the phrase has now taken on a different meaning. No longer is it a cute nod to the romantic Meg Ryan film, it has now become a sombre phrase in my mind, enough to make me feel slightly ashamed of being a self absorbed traveller gallivanting around the city posting photos to Instagram (but more on that later).
Seattle feels like a few different American cities combined – Wander the streets near Amazon HQ and you’ll feel like you’re in New York (perhaps a quieter, less busy version). The presence of trendy restaurants with names like The Butcher’s Table and of course Wholefoods can’t help but make you feel like you’re back in the concrete jungle. Head down towards the water and you’ll feel a sense of deja vu ‘have I been here before?’ No, it just looks and feels a lot like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, with its abundance of seafood and neon signed shops. Head further towards the stadiums and you’ll feel like you’re walking around the streets of Chelsea in New York. Floral arrangements adorn the outside window sills and people sit on park benches eating their lunch.
One thing that remains present in each of these little pockets is the homelessness. In fact, it’s present all over America and here in Australia too, but somehow in Seattle the problem feels penetrating. Those often ignored, forgotten, yet ever present faces of the city, looming on the sidewalks, asking for spare change. And no doubt, sleepless. The cold concrete with a couple of sheets of cardboard hardly provides enough warmth or shelter from Seattle’s ever present rain. Thus, back to that sombre undertone of the phrase ‘Sleepless in Seattle’.
Possibly the most startling thing about the cities homeless is their age. 20 something men and women line the streets, nodding off on the side walk as they sit with their signs on the concrete. I ask a local about the epidemic and he shrugs and says “we’re all only one step away.” I push him further and he tells me a story of a friend who got so bound with medical bills that ‘something had to give’. Unfortunately, that something, was his home.
On our first day in the city a friendly looking homeless man smiled as he yelled in our direction “Kill yourselves, make America great again”… To this one can only smile awkwardly and laugh, hoping that said character doesn’t follow our path (thankfully he didn’t). A little later we were startled by a booming voice in our ears exclaiming “have a glorious day”. Naturally, we swiftly turned around expecting a rattle of a can asking for money, yet this friendly stranger merely wanted to bless our day. He smiled and carried on. Bless him. We did have a glorious day.
Feeling slightly unsettled and equally saddened by the plight of the homeless, I make a promise to be friendly, give all my change and don’t be so quick to judge. Not so long ago these homeless people may have even been travellers too, marvelling at this leafy green city. Maybe they were full of wonder and excited about the little pockets of joy found between the streets, all the while making a nod to the movie Sleepless in Seattle. Or perhaps they were the ones that were one step away, with medical bills forcing them onto the streets.
If you too find yourself unsettled by the level of homelessness in this city, there are various ways you can support. Consider making a donation to one of their shelters like Mary’s Place or Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Otherwise, spare some change and don’t be afraid to offer a smile. It’s these guys that are the sleepless ones.
Photo by @herwanderingeyes.