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Seattle PBS author Mary Lou Sanelli Op-ed

Mary Lou Sanelli is a writer, dance teacher and literary speaker. She lives in Belltown.
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In what kind of world does a baby girl live in a homeless camp?

A bike ride past a small child in a blue-tarp homeless encampment stirs thoughts about society’s failures.

Even during our rainy months, as soon as I begin riding my bike, satisfaction flows into me quickly, like a sugar rush, just as when I was 6 years old, feeling the freedom of riding for the first time. But the real point is that I notice so much more at bicycle speed, and I want to notice.

And this morning would feel like too grand a luxury, too great a denial, to not notice the newest jury-rigged tarp strung between branches along the waterfront pathway, so stark and, yet, so full of determination, everything about its makeshift survival is admirable and horrifying at the same time. The layers of plastic persistence are etched into my brain.

I feel uncomfortable to think of it now, nearly as much as I felt then, when my first thought was what will our parks be like in 10 years as our city becomes more and more crowded and even more expensive, every tent standing alone and, yet, together in one continuous chain of poverty and addiction and a failing system of both health care and leadership.

A young man is standing on a sheet of muddy cardboard next to the tarp and for a moment the earth seemed to fall away under my feet. Because what else I see is tender and good and yet countless kinds of wrong in a country rich as ours: He (her father or brother, I don’t know), is holding a baby girl, maybe a year old. Their campsite is pretty tidy, but the one next to them is trash-strewn and reeks of urine and feces, the horrible smells we need to protect ourselves from.

I slowed, stopped, and without thinking said, “Good morning.”

He was a man battling some kind of chemical addiction; all you had to do was look at him to know it. To have no choice but to raise a child in filth and chaos is visible in the eyes. And I had this clear impression that I was seeing someone struggling to cope and losing his struggle at the same time. He looked at me, squinted, and said, sort of absently, “Good enough.”

I tried to continue riding as though nothing had happened, but the tension in my spine grew along with my guilt. I live with that image every moment now. I can’t let it go. A maternal anger has come over me. We don’t have time to work out what’s going wrong with the system, certainly not enough to save that little girl. I rode off wondering if her generation won’t even find homelessness newsworthy anymore because it’s so common.

My friends lean both ways.

One thinks that the homeless should be “rounded up.” That is exactly what she said. As if, like the sunspot she had lasered off her cheek, we can simply swipe them away, the whole problem disappearing if we apply enough heat.

Another started helping in a soup kitchen long before it was cool to do so.

My mother used to say: There but for the grace of God, go I.

I say: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the patience not to smack the head of the man in my building who said, “Mary Lou, Mary Lou,” repeating my name twice so that I, silly liberal, silly woman, would finally comprehend the world as he sees it. “What’s the point of more bike lanes if they encourage more people who can’t afford cars?”

“You are an imbecile,” I said.

It’s the kind of thing I say when I don’t say anything for a few seconds so that I can collect my thoughts.

It’s the kind of thing I say when I am fed up.

It’s the kind of thing I say when I feel desperate about our failings.

I tell you, homeless children are our truest failing.