Take Back the Night 1997

I am a formerly homeless woman, speaking to you about safety on the streets, as a representative of homeless and formerly homeless women who are a lot of things besides victims. WHEEL is a group of women working together to confront the conditions that restrict and endanger us and overcome them. On tonight's march we will pass Crack Alley, the alley where men, and women, were once required to seek entry to the Downtown Emergency Service Shelter. WHEEL led the campaign to get that entryway moved to the front. Among accomplishments this year women have their own meal program, Meals of Fortune; a permanent housing project for homeless women over 45, the Dorothy Day House, is under way; and on November 21, for the third year, we will have a Homeless Women's Forum where over 300 business and civic leaders will come to hear homeless women speak, to hear about real solutions for homelessness from the experts.

But in working with my friends on these things, I have come to realize that we do not have any problems that don't affect our sisters in houses. Homeless women are more vulnerable more often, true. We often don't have a choice about whether to go for a walk at night or stay home. The usual police patterns have the effect of funneling everything that is seen as a problem into the same areas, which often means homeless women trying to stay invisible between drug dealers and angry drunks. When you're living homeless you get tired, drained, your self-esteem fails -- and all of that makes you more of a target.

But just as anyone can have a disaster out of nowhere that leaves you homeless, anyone -- even with a home -- can have an emergency that leaves you out late at night in a bad neighborhood, with a car that won't start or a lost purse. Anyone -- even a Microsoft executive -- can have a time when you are run down, feeling low, not alert.

If there's a danger out there that threatens homeless women, everybody else in Seattle's going to stumble into it sooner or later.

So let us show you where the potholes are. Let us be your experts on street safety. Once again, homeless women are not part of the problem. We are part of the solution.

In London, and in cities around the United States, the police force and private security forces are getting training from social workers on working better with the community they serve -- and homeless people are a part of that training. Homeless people should be an integral part of block watches and other community security arrangements. Seattle has over two thousand free nightwatchfolk on the streets each night and they're trying to chase them out of town?

There is another risk that threatens us all -- the fear of danger that turns us all into our own jailers. I walk around Seattle, and late, most nights -- because I will be damned if my life is going to be controlled by a bunch of punks. And maybe you have a different perception of what Take Back the Night is all about, but that's always been the message I heard in it. (Maybe you phrase it different.)

I also want to remind you that if you let your fear of the shadows on Seattle streets cause you to approve of police sweeping the homeless and shabby people away, you are endangering yourselves. Who else among you is ... scary looking?

To paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemoller's famous statement:

First they came for the addicts,
but I was not an addict,
so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the drunkards,
but I was not a drunkard,
so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the homeless people,
but I was not homeless
so I did not speak out.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Let's find a solution to safety that gives back dignity to everyone on the street.

And if that has to include the damn punks, so be it.

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