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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View

CHETANYASeattle, my hometown in the American state of Washington, has at least two major things in common with Freetown: a healthy amount of rain, and a large population of homeless people. Seattle and its surrounding County have such a problem with homelessness that it’s officially been ruled a “crisis.” Though many live in shelters or makeshift housing of some kind, it’s also quite common in Seattle to see homeless people in the streets, sleeping under doorways, begging, selling newspapers or playing music for money (and unfortunately, also the occasional alcohol or drug addict).
In a column yesterday in Awoko, writer Beny Sam decried the over crowdedness of many parts of Freetown, the houses springing up in risky locations such as under bridges, the risks of disease in places like Kroo Bay and Bomeh. Sam blames Freetown’s overpopulation for the problem, but also NGOs and civil society organizations who oppose evicting people from their homes, and instead aim to help people where they are. “What these Bodies forgot was that the locations are not ideal and will never be,” he writes. Sam instead praises the “khaki boys” from the days of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) who evicted people living in “dangerous” places.
If you live in Seattle and follow local news, Sam’s sentiment sounds very familiar.
In May this year, the Seattle mayor announced that the city would be clearing out an area under a highway known as the Jungle, which had become a popular settlement area for homeless people. The justification for uprooting these people from where they were living? Like Sam, the mayor suggested the area was fundamentally unfit for human habitation. Therefore, the humans living there would have to leave whether they wanted to or not.
Conditions in the Jungle could be grim, but there’s no denying that it was a place to live for many who had few if any options. For some, it was even a community. And the city’s plan seemed full of problems. The idea was to resettle the people in the Jungle into shelters  but there was a shortage of available beds, and these shelters weren’t necessarily the solutions the Jungle dwellers wanted. Recently the Seattle mayor has softened his position, and while the area will be cleaned out, the city will not force anyone to leave. But the city’s attitude is clear; that it’s a good idea to implement quick and superficial “solutions” without consulting the people who will be most affected.
Reading Sam’s piece on overpopulation and unsanitary living conditions in Freetown, I thought about the episode with the Jungle a few months ago in Seattle. What made most sense to me at the time was that the people living there were only there because they didn’t have a lot of choices. Due to unfortunate life circumstances, they didn’t currently have a home, and they had to live somewhere. It only made sense to move into the Jungle.
The city of Seattle, state of Washington and the US government are slowly working on the real solutions to homelessness, but the problems to be tackled  income inequality, a recovering economy, expensive housing prices, drug addiction and the war on drugs — are gigantic, systemic issues that won’t be solved anytime soon.
It seems to me that Sam is focusing on the wrong problems. Overpopulation is just a symptom of larger problems. I’m no expert on Freetown, but my understanding is that huge issues like poverty (compounded by lack of education and lack of birth control options), an influx of refugees during the civil war into a city planned for far less people, and people hoping for economic opportunities, are some of the factors contributing to overpopulation here.
An article in the Seattle Weekly by reporter Casey Jaywork notes that the Jungle has been cleared out several times in previous decades  but people always came back to live there. Until the real problems causing homelessness are solved, why would they not? Similarly, as long as people in Freetown feel they have to live under bridges, they will.
I’m sympathetic to the solution favored by Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who is a Socialist. Instead of evicting residents from the Jungle, Sawant argued for installing plumbing.
“These are human beings who have to exist somewhere, so they’re going to go to another location, so really we need an actual solution,” she told the television station Q13 FOX in February this year.
Until the real solutions are found to Freetown and Seattle’s problems, the people who live there need services one way or another. Why not make their lives easier in ways that they would want?
By Chetanya Robinson
Wednesday July 20, 2016

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