The homeless population in Seattle has expanded rapidly in recent years. The problem has gotten so bad, the mayor even issued an emergency declaration in 2015. Among those trying to solve this problem is one Japanese woman who gives her time to volunteer in support of the homeless. Miki Tamura says the only way to solve this problem is to “build person-to-person relations.” She spoke to us about the homeless problem and about how people can learn from stories of how others overcame adversity in their lives.
Interview conducted by Naoko Watanabe, translated by Bruce Rutledge
Prejudice and fear toward the homeless
Currently, I am doing a variety of volunteer work to support the homeless. Through Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission search and rescue program, we take a wagon with blankets and food through the streets and let people take what they need. This is really tough work that goes until about 1 a.m.
I also help set the table for dinner for the same organization and pitch in with the running team that helps get homeless people back into society. At any rate, I’m out there letting my voice be heard and aggressively trying to raise the spirits of people who are downcast.
During my volunteer work, I have run into some dangerous situations. I’ve been harassed by drug addicts. It can be very scary, but if you think about it, there are plenty of murderers and drug addicts among the housed population as well. I do not believe at all the line of thinking that goes “they’re homeless, therefore they’re scary.” I’ve learned self-defense through jiu-jitsu. Now I’m OK even if I’m being followed. Now it’s more like “bring it on!” (She laughs.)
I’ve gotten personally involved with the homeless community. In an effort to get people in West Seattle who live near Camp Second Chance and oppose it to understand the homeless, we created a Camp Second Chance Facebook page where we post photos of the camp’s denizens and introduce some of them. I believe people oppose the camp because they don’t really know the homeless and perceive them as scary.
Building human relations
There’s an African American man in his 50s named Reggie. He spent 30 years in jail and upon release couldn’t find work. He started living in a park and taking drugs. When I first met him, I asked, “Is there anything you need?” and he replied, “Get lost!”
I understand his attitude. People with broken hearts are going to harden and do what they can to protect themselves. I try not to hurt them. Instead, I said, “Got it. I’ll see you next week.” The following week, when I called him, he came out of his tent. The week after that, he ate a sandwich, and eventually, he asked for a pair of gloves and other specific things. Our conversations increased, and over more than a year, we built a relationship. During that time, Reggie changed. He entered a rehabilitation program to get off drugs, and he’s living in an apartment for low-income people and trying to re-enter society.
There are people who say we don’t have enough relief supplies to solve the homeless problem, but in Seattle there are a lot of nonprofits. I think there is enough here to solve the problem. However, the homeless themselves often don’t realize that help is necessary. The way to raise that awareness is to build personal relations. For people who have given up on themselves, first, they need to hear someone calling out their name. If they hear that and are able to feel that they are not alone, they may start thinking they need to change their situation. At that point, they may be ready to accept another’s help and begin to stand on their own.
For people to build relations, they need to meet each other on equal footing. When I’m volunteering, I often get asked, “Where are you from?” I typically reply, “Take a guess. If you’re wrong, you owe me $5.” They’ll say, “China.” “Nope, that’s $5.” “Korea?” “Nope. Now you owe me $10.” That always gets a laugh. It’s not about homeless people having no money, but about people building an equal relationship where they can joke around together.
Near death, I experienced the warmth of others
I began my volunteer activities about six years ago, after getting into an accident. I fell about 7.5 meters while rock climbing and hurt myself badly. I could barely move for about a year. Until then, I was the type of person who ran marathons, went hiking and snowboarding. Because of my upbringing, I kept myself physically busy and averted my eyes from the mental instability that was brewing within me. When I had that accident, depression quickly washed over me. A psychiatrist diagnosed me with depression and an anxiety disorder. Twice, I tried to kill myself.
I was saved from this situation by my friends and the community around me. At the time, someone would come to visit every day. I would shut myself away and tell them to go home, but they would sit with me. I even experienced kindness from strangers. If I went out, someone would call to me and buy me a cup of coffee. They’d share a meal with me after seeing me downcast in the supermarket. I was the type who didn’t trust strangers, but I came to appreciate the kindness of people.
When I was able to move again, I thought that I wanted to return the favor to my community. A tent city for homeless was nearby. It was in turmoil because some local residents were demanding that it be evacuated. One day, there were a whole bunch of leftovers at my office, and I thought I should take them all to the tent city.
At first, I was intimidated. As I quietly walked over there with a cardboard box filled with food, I couldn’t believe the warm reception I received. I began visiting frequently, and I learned a lot. I used to think that homeless people needed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But really, most of them are already working. They have to pay a fine for a traffic violation or some other mistake, or they have a record of theft or domestic violence, and they’ve been put out of their homes.
We are a hair’s breadth from the homeless
When I see a drug addict, I think that’s how I used to be. My drug was staying physically busy and not looking at my problems. People who depend on alcohol or shopping are the same. There’s a saying, “We are all one paycheck away from being homeless.” Being homeless is not some special realm. Tomorrow, any of us could be homeless.
I changed my thinking after helping the homeless. Before, if I bought a house, I’d think, I want a bigger one. If I bought a car, I’d want a better one. But a homeless person is grateful to have a house and have water come out of the faucet. So when I open my eyes in the morning, I think, “I’m alive today” and feel grateful for it. I now have a happiness I couldn’t see before.
I started volunteering because I wanted to help someone, but it turns out I also helped myself. If I have a tough time at work, I go to the camp to be comforted.
Born in Tokyo, she joined an exchange program in high school, which made her determined to return to the US. Today she works as an IT specialist and supports the homeless through her work with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. She’s been a volunteer since the establishment of Camp Second Chance, a homeless camp authorized by the city of Seattle.