Unlearning poverty

What do you understand about poverty? Students in the Honors Program class Abolishing Poverty start class with this question. Over the course of the quarter, guided by Honors Program Director Vicky Lawson, they peel back layer after complex layer to understand what’s really going on with impoverishment and houselessness in Seattle.

Seattle is the 15th largest city in the country, yet we have the 3rd highest unhoused population. Why is that?

In Part 2 of this story, learn about Vicky Lawson’s Abolishing Poverty class and rethink houselessness with some reading, listening and viewing resources. Read the story.

In 2015, the state of homelessness led both the City of Seattle and King County to declare states of emergency, a designation that suggests a short term, high-priority problem. But, the numbers have grown since then. The 2015 One Night Count found 10,047 people experiencing housing instability: counting people living in tents and cars, staying overnight in shelters and/or staying in short-term transitional housing. In January 2020, the one night count found 11,751 people experiencing homelesssness —  a 17% increase since the declaration of emergency. We can’t yet predict how severely houselessness will rise in the wake of a pandemic that has led to historic levels of business closures and job loss. A recent Seattle Times article reported a 50% increase in tents in Seattle alone since the onset of COVID-19.

Six years later, this is clearly not a short-term emergency.

Honors Program director and geography professor Vicky Lawson has been studying root causes of poverty throughout her 30-year career. She is quick to point out that Seattle’s history of houslessness can be traced all the way back to the founding of the city, when the Duwamish people were displaced from their land by new settlers. We’ve continued to see unhoused populations through the city’s evolution from an industrial timber town to a tech hub.

Lawson co-founded the Relational Poverty Network with Sarah Elwood in 2014 to merge academic and activist findings to better understand the power and privilege dynamics that lead to impoverishment. She brings her research into the classroom, helping students examine the many-faceted issues that resulted in Seattle’s present day.

“[In my Abolishing Poverty class], I take students through a project of unlearning what they think they know about people who are experiencing homelessness,” says Lawson. “We look at all the money being spent. We look at all the policies. We look at all the actors. And we find that there’s a long story to tell about not only the fact of houselessness, but the root causes of it.” 

What does it look like to unlearn poverty?

Photo of Courtney Hooks

Junior Courtney Hooks signed up for Vicky Lawson’s Abolishing Poverty class to understand the reasons for housing instability. Based on her family’s experiences, she had a sense of the relationship between race, criminal justice and housing instability. We interviewed Courtney to hear how this class gave her better insight into the experiences of close friends and family.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UAA: What ideas did you have about houslessness before taking the class?

Courtney Hooks: I associated houselessness more with drug use because that is what I saw lead some family members to housing instability. That idea was also perpetuated through the members of my family who had stable housing. I grew up correlating money with buying drugs when it came to houselessness. I knew it wasn’t the full picture, but I did think it was a bigger piece of the pie than it actually really is. This class showed me how small drug use is and how that has been used to stereotype a whole group. It’s just the most visible, and it’s important to look beyond that visibility.

Incarceration happens to everyday people

UAA: You mentioned your family has experienced housing instability. Can you talk more about that?

Courtney: My family members experience housing instability. I feel a lot of it’s due to generational trauma built up and when trying to fight through classist and racist barriers that hold them back, they use drugs as a coping mechanisms, which leads to arrest. And then that arrest leads to them to have to live with family with no criminal record. So, at least for us, that’s with my grandmas. On both sides, my grandmas are caretakers of the family. Some of my family members have found themselves living with my grandmas to stay housed. But they’re adults. They don’t want to depend on their mom. So they try to become independent. But again, it’s really hard to get that independence when you have a record.

We touched on this in class. If you have the space, it’s important to share these stories to de-stigmatize the whole area around incarceration and houselessness. In addition, it’s important to show people that it’s not some far away thing, it happens to everyday people. I’ve met countless students at the UW where they’re like, “my family’s in prison too.” And this feels like we have solidarity together now, because we understand what it’s like. And, that shows me that this happens to a lot of people.

People who don’t have people who are incarcerated might demonize people who they think deserve to be incarcerated. They don’t recognize how these are people’s family members; that this is something that hits very close to people’s lives. And that could be your neighbor or the student you go to class with. So, that’s why I think it’s really important to highlight these stories. So people realize how proximate it is to our lives.

Even short stints of incarceration cause massive destabilizing consequences. For an individual charged with a misdemeanor, the average length of stay in jail before the pandemic and today is consistently under 10 days, most served pretrial. Yet a few days in jail can trigger eviction, job loss, cessation of social benefits, suspension of needed medical treatments, and can leave children without a caregiver. In some of the most disturbing cases, jail stays lead to premature death.  
"The plague of incarceration"The Seattle Times, April 23, 2021

Impoverishment is entangled with "isms"

UAA: Did the class help you understand your family’s experience and the experiences of others in similar situations?

Courtney: We talked about how every form of inequality is all interwoven within each other. So when you want to fix one section, you have to fix the next. Or if you want to abolish one, you have to abolish the other. So, when we talked about abolishing things like the prison industrial complex, we talked about how that would also abolish harmful practices within housing and benefit people and create more stable housing.

We talked about a lot of the ways in which everything’s intersectional and all discrimination can be very heavily traced back to ideas of white possession and property and ideas of colonialism, white supremacy, rich versus poor, individualism in the U.S. Capitalism was a big topic. Those kinds of “isms” are a big driving force of the inequality we see today. And Vicky emphasized how the inequality we see today is dispersed throughout life. It’s interwoven and pervasive. You can’t just fix one without fixing the others.

UAA: Vicky is a geographer, and as a Law, Societies and Justice major, did that perspective help you understand the city’s history with unhoused people?

Courtney: Vicky definitely brought a geographer’s mindset to the class. And I really appreciated that because displacement was a heavy topic in our class. And she was able to map years and years of displacement of Indigenous people, to the discrimination of Black and Brown bodies, to the discrimination of poverty. And that really highlighted how interwoven everything is.

She also helped me understand my own family’s experiences. With my major, I’ve been interested in how the law affects people’s lives, however, I did not know that there were racially restrictive covenants that were legalized. Covenants are an example of the ways Black people have been denied generational wealth accumulation. I couldn’t help but wonder if this has impacted my family. In essence, I assumed it did, because one side of my family is Black. One side of my family is white. And I’ve grown up seeing the difference in privilege between each. While the white side of my family has stayed within owned housing and the same area for decades, the Black side of my family moves around.

My dad and I have recently had conversations about how a criminal record is something we see impact his ability to rent. Due to a criminal record, and arguably unequal sentencing practices for Black men, he is easily denied housing by many landlords. Because more people of color are criminalized through things like increased police surveillance, the war on drugs, and misdemeanors targeting people of color, this creates a record that unequally affects people of color’s ability to get housing.

This class definitely illuminated something my family and I knew existed, but couldn’t name. Being able to name that there were covenants or connections between incarceration and housing — the mechanisms and the specific ways — in which discrimination occurred, was really powerful because you can identify the methods people use and hopefully digress from them.

By being able to name things that you know, but you can’t specify, you’re able to identify it as a problem, which is the first step of abolition.

Who is served? Who is ignored?

UAA: How do you plan to apply what you learned from class in the future?

Photo of Courtney HooksCourtney: This class made me very critical of the institutions I participate in or support. When I look at things now, I look at how they’re set up; who they’re set up to serve and who’s ignored by them. Previously, I wanted to get unequal sentencing down. That is still my big goal. My family has been in the criminal justice system, and it feels like their sentences are always extremely harsh compared to their white counterparts. And so when I was growing up, I thought, this needs to stop. How can I do this? I can become a public defender and work to get that sentence down, or I can be a prosecutor and prosecute a lot less.

But then when we’re taking this class and throughout a couple of my classes, I’m learning how these systems don’t even allow for that type of flexibility. There are different opinions on this. I’ve talked to many prosecutors and they do feel like there is flexibility. So — this is just a personal opinion — it feels hard to work within a system that is set up to fail people of color, that leaves them with very little power opportunities. So, my future definitely lies more in community-based work and less in institutional work. Let’s create an alternative route of what justice looks like to us.

Rethinking houselessness in Seattle

Thank you for your work on, contributions to, and support of this story

Student and community contributors

Conor // Wes Browning, Real Change // Courtney Hooks // Anitra Freeman, Real Change // Christine Lew // Fredrik Char Mansfield // Carmen Pereña Cortés // Danny Roberts // Jennifer Tee, Facing Homelessness // Jacob Schear, Real Change // Ania Tureczek

Honors Program and campus collaborators

Dana Brooks, UW Photography // Carey Christie, Honors Program // Sarah Elwood, UW Geography Department, Relational Poverty Network // Nancy Joseph, College of Arts & Sciences // Vicky Lawson, Honors Program, UW Geography Department, Relational Poverty Network

UAA Dean’s Office team

Kirsten Atik, producer, editor, creative direction // Jenelle Birnbaum, writer, editor, content strategy // Bryan Nakata, video editor

Originally published May, 2021

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Supporting the Honors Program means supporting curious, broad-thinking, talented undergraduates in their quest to understand and contribute solutions to the complex challenges that affect and afflict our world.