Saturday, April 09, 2005

The people that you meet each day 

There's a woman I know; let's call her Jane. Until recently, I knew Jane only in that way that you "know" people whom you see regularly, recognize, and with whom you exchange small talk. She is one of the crew of two or three who clean our building each night. They do a fine job of keeping our office clean and relatively dust-free despite all of the equipment, drawings, etc. around which they're working. She has been working in our building for about a year; she has been unfailingly polite and friendly every time I have encountered her.

One evening recently, I was working late, and was still in the office when Jane came in to clean. I looked up from my work, and we exchanged the usual sort of greetings: "Hi, how's it going?" "OK. You're working late again." "Yeah, I have a deadline coming up." I started to turn back to my computer, but she had more to say to me.

"I just figured out that I'm living in one of the apartments you designed," she told me. "When I was in here a couple of nights ago, I saw a picture of my building on the wall."

"Really? Which project is it?" The housing that we design is primarily affordable workforce housing, and I was not surprised that, in Seattle's tight housing market, an office cleaner might have an income low enough to qualify her to live in one of our clients' developments.

Jane told me the name of the apartment development, and which particular unit within that development was hers. And then she continued: "I've been trying to get into one of LIHI's apartments for several months. Last December, I moved out of my boyfriend's apartment. He'd been knocking me around for a while, and I had to get away, but I couldn't afford the security deposit for a place of my own, and I didn't have anywhere to go.

"I ended up living in my car for three months. I was always trying to find a safe place to park so that I could sleep. Sometimes people woke me up trying to break into my car. Other times the cops woke me up, telling me I had to move, or that it wasn't safe for me to be sleeping there. There are showers in the restrooms on the second floor (of our office building), and I was using them each night after I finished working.

"Finally, LIHI had this studio apartment available, and I could afford it. I don't have much of anything in it yet, but I don't have to worry about going to sleep. And the other people around are really friendly. It's a nice place to live, and I feel safe there."

I knew that this development has a number of transitional units (designated for people who have been homeless), and asked if hers is one of those. It is. "I'm really glad that you're out of your car, and in a safe place," I told Jane. (She nodded vigorously in agreement.) "Thanks for telling me that you're living there. I'll tell my coworkers, too; we're always thrilled to know people who live in the places that we design, and to hear that they're happy there."

Jane is one of the many people who, for one reason or another, have become homeless while holding down a full-time job. Unfortunately, she did not have friends or family nearby who were able to provide her with someplace to stay while she got back on her feet. There may be a Jane (or John) in your office building, the place where you eat lunch, your corner store. Someone like Jane could be one of the people you meet each day.

Funding for the apartment development where Jane now lives, and much of the affordable housing like it, comes in part from a variety of government programs. Yes, this is that bad old "Big Government" at work. However, if the current administration has its way with HUD programs (as discussed in this Washington Post article and this article in Metropolis Magazine), that funding may soon disappear completely. While this would have unfortunate consequences for the work that I do (as no funding for projects means no architectural design of such projects), the consequences for Jane and others like her would be much more severe, and much more unfortunate.

In case the links cease to function, I've included the full text of the articles mentioned above: click here.