Give us shelter: A bus driver’s story

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COVID-19 has entered history as an infuriating and avoidable tragedy of institutional incompetence. Under COVID, we lost our jobs and slowed way down, confused by the sudden gift of more time and no traffic. We began avoiding each other, smoking and drinking more, gaining weight, getting pregnant, divorcing, and improving ourselves. An emphasis on virtual life and increased attention to news accelerated pre-existing trends of anxiety and depression.

But what does it look like when the city itself is depressed?

I’ve been driving city buses in Seattle for 15 years and love it. Unlike in many U.S. cities, members of all social classes ride public transit in Seattle. Before COVID, we mixed together with reasonable comfort and safety. That’s no longer true. As businesses have closed and resources have shut down, the city has abandoned its mentally ill and unhoused to their own devices. Our homeless population is large, and for a few months it was just them and us bus drivers on the streets, makeshift roving hotels. As street folks are some of my favorite people and the reason I do my job, I could have lived with that.

But summer 2020’s social unrest weaponized the mood. Crime on Seattle’s buses skyrocketed to historically unknown highs (a near-fourfold increase) and stayed there. These circumstances were made worse by a police force that stopped responding to security incidents on transit for fear of being castigated in the media. How the downtown streets once looked at 2 a.m., and who was on them, is now how the streets look and feel all day. I’m saddened to see the condition of my street friends deteriorate and the safety of everyone else worsen. My female friends give downtown’s newly chaotic avenues and their tent cities a wide berth now. People talk about crime in a way they haven’t since the early ’90s: as a spectre haunting the empty spaces, fouling the air, and making us suspicious of each other.

The pandemic’s most immediate impact on the street level has been a shutting down of resource access for homeless and low-income people, leading to an increase in drug use and violent crime. My homeless friends now tell me about their fears of other homeless people. That’s new. Before, people got their medication and food, and we felt mostly safe. Seattle was “the best place in the world to be homeless.”

Now we’re just another big city.

Had Mayor Jenny Durkan doubled down on nurturing our mentally ill, the rest of us would have benefited, too. No matter how great the crisis, you cannot forget the little people. We are now living with the consequences of ignoring problems on both a national and city-wide level.

I am not disappointed in King County Metro, nor its excellent union, which has provided us operators with ample personal protective equipment access, safety partitions, and generous COVID leave. Rather, I am disappointed in my city of Seattle. It matters how a city treats its underclass. It matters, in the same way you would study how your date treats the waiter on a first dinner out. You want them to care. You want to see kindness. Seattle has forgotten how to be kind.

I had hoped COVID would bring us together. That it would, by the pandemic’s end, remind us of the simple beauty and value of what we’ve missed for a year: handshakes, hugs, and smiles, along with a shared experience about which we could tell each other stories.

I have not given up that hope. Yes, the institutions have failed. But why should we? I do what I can as an individual, which is to go out there every night and give. I give what the city doesn’t give because it is lazy and strained, and I give what many don’t give because they are afraid (and I don’t blame them). I take a deep breath and open those bus doors every night and I give to incoming souls what they’re not getting enough of elsewhere: love and respect. That is what I am able to do.

Maybe this is where we start.