Seattle homeless problem dates back to arrival of first gringos

Seattle homeless

Arthur A. Denny

Tomorrow is the 164th anniversary of the day the first group of gringos arrived at what would become the great city of Seattle. On November 13, 1851, the so-called Denny Party–10 adults and 12 children led by Arthur A. Denny, a 29-year-old surveyor from Cherry Grove, Ill.–pulled up around noon in a schooner named Exact on Alki Point, across Elliott Bay from the future downtown area.

Now, the 164th anniversary of anything generally occasions little notice. But I find it noteworthy given the current concern in Seattle about what to do about all the homeless folks. That’s because Arthur A. Denny et al. were sort of the original homeless folks of Seattle. Their initial lodgings starting that day consisted of a single unfinished log cabin without a roof–not exactly a home for the climate of Seattle, which gets pretty wet every year by, oh, November 13.

One of the newcomers, William Bell, later wrote that on that first rainy day the five women in the party “sat down on the logs and took a big cry.” It’s not hard to imagine why.

The Denny Party soon dealt with its homelessness problem by completing the log cabin, then, the following spring, moving across Elliott Bay to claim better ground and better lives. Arthur Denny himself eventually died one of the richest persons in the United States.

In the intervening century-plus, Seattle has become one of the wealthiest big cities in the world. That makes the contrast with homelessness all that more sharp–and embarrassing.

Earlier this month, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared unprecedented states of emergency concerning homeless. According to official counts, 10,000 people are homeless in the Seattle area, including more than 3,000 children. By all accounts those numbers are going up. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office figures that through September 66 homeless have died on county streets, most of them in Seattle.

As someone New To Seattle, I occasionally have suggested in this space that Seattle’s liberal residents talk the talk without walking the walk. This has not the case with homelessness. From what I can tell, the concern is genuine and goes back decades. Seattle long has had a policy of tolerating roving tent cities to house the homeless. Today, city and county agencies spend more than $75 million a year on homeless issue. Still, there hasn’t been a lot of progress to show on long-term solutions.

Moreover, I have to respectfully take issue with Murray’s published statement that homelessness in Seattle is a human tragedy “seldom seen in the history of our city.” My reading of that very same history is that homelessness in Seattle has been a regular problem since the days of the Denny Party.

Early on, Seattle homeless was intertwined with relations with Indians, who, of course, owned all the land since time immemorial. Even though the city was named for Chief Seattle, a friendly Indian leader whose followers helped finish the Denny log cabin on Alki Point, within a few years Indians, including Chief Seattle, agreed under duress to relinquish their claims for peanuts and move to unappealing reservations. In the early days Seattle city leaders equated homelessness with Indians, and did everything they could to eliminate permanent Indian housing and limit encampments to flood-prone areas beyond the city limits. By 1880, the Seattle population of 3,553 officially included just 47 Indians.

Then the big rush through Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush starting in 1897 led to homelessness–of gringos returning empty-handed from the north. One way local authorities dealt with this was by arresting them for vagrancy and forcing them to work in chain gangs building roads. In Farthest Reach, her 1941 travel narrative/social commentary of the Pacific Northwest, Nancy Wilson Ross wrote, “Seattle’s shanty town along the railroad tracks is second to none in America for picturesque despair.”

At Alki Point there’s a 110-year-old granite monument where the Denny Party landed calling the spot the “birthplace of Seattle.” Birthplace of Seattle homelessness, too.

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