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Justice as We See It

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
July 24, 2019

Walking to work each morning I pass the same man sitting at a bus stop, beer can in his hand wrapped in a paper bag. The nature of my work is such that I am traveling throughout the community, and each time I leave I pass this same man, where he remains sitting with a rotation of companions. I sometimes worry about this man and his friends, who are visibly frail and vulnerable, caught in the throes of addiction and assumed homelessness. I say assumed, simply because I have never asked this man or his companions if they have a home to go to, or what their circumstances are. I have made many assumptions about this group of people I encounter each day, and am fascinated by them because it seems each day is the same. I am left wondering, is this what they want for their lives? Have we, as a community, failed them in some way? How is this a just situation, if they truly are in need or want of more?

Homelessness in the greater Seattle area has become more visibly prevalent in the past ten years and seems to be increasing daily, with tents sprinkled along sidewalks and campsites bursting at the seams with trash, furniture and personal belongings. The city has been attempting efforts at cleaning up the streets and offering shelter to homeless campers, however not everyone is interested in what the city officials have to offer. The issue of homelessness is complex, its causes are vast and multifaceted and it seems to have become a never ending story. Seattle is not the only city attempting to manage the growing issue of homelessness, and will certainly not be the last to attempt to resolve such a significant social issue. I’ve spent most of my career working for clients who are directly impacted by homelessness, poverty, chronic mental illness and substance use; the road to recovery in all aspects is long and bumpy. There must be a solution out there somewhere. But how do we get there?

According to Wikipedia, justice can be defined as, “Both the attainment of that which is just and the philosophical discussion of that which is just.” So what does that mean in the context of homelessness? What is the source, who is responsible and how can we remedy the situation so that everyone has access to basic needs for a just existence? Of course the initial thought would be more housing, more community resources and more money to invest in systems that are currently in place. If we could achieve these things successfully and timely, then we would have the opportunity to impact so many lives affected by such an uphill battle. But who should be held responsible to fulfill the needs of these issues? The rich and famous? Local business? Tax paying citizens? With each question comes five more, and we must be willing to overturn each stone until we find the correct answers. We must be willing to hold each other accountable while at the same time creating a reasonable process by which each person in our community has equal access to health, housing and suitable community resources.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that we should, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

I firmly believe that if we consider this thought in our daily work and push ourselves to recognize the impact we might have as a collective, for good and for justice, then we might come to see society heal from within. The strongest among us must care for the weak, and we are all called to act courageously against the harms of poverty and inequality. So for now, I might still walk past the man in the bus stop drinking his day away. I might one day stir up the courage to talk with him and get to know his story, because only then would I better understand if his situation could be considered just or not. I must also consider how this man feels about his own situation and not impose my own belief system about what’s just or not simply because my own experience has been so different. Maybe this man truly appreciates the experience of drinking beer with his friends, no matter his surroundings. But maybe not. Maybe this man and his friends are waiting for someone to ask and offer more, but unless we ask the questions we may never know. In an age of such wealth and technological advances, there must be a key to solving this issue somewhere in the mix.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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