An Unexpected Journey to Homelessness
Tom McIntire, our lead on basic needs issues, shares a personal story and asks what our baseline is for who should receive help
October 17, 2018
Tom McIntire, Program Officer
Tom McIntire's portrait of himself at 12
It was a clear and unusually warm March day. There was shouting and what sounded like metal trash cans tumbling over. I walked out the front door to find my father, shirt still smoldering, dousing himself with a garden hose. Taking the hose from him, I continued to soak him with the cold water. The garage was burning behind me. I didn’t even see it.
I was 12 years old when a fire put my family on an unexpected journey to homelessness. My father had been working on a car when it caught fire in the garage beneath our house, which soon began filling with smoke.
This is when I learned that everything can change in an instant.
My father spent many months in the hospital recovering from serious burns. Our home was about half destroyed, with the rest uninhabitable due to smoke and water damage. Our large family of eight was split up, one sleeping at this neighbor’s, another at a friend’s. I remember sleeping in the bed of my neighbor Frank R., who was off serving in the military. My eldest brother tried moving some of us into his two-bedroom apartment but that didn’t work out when tensions in our family dynamics surfaced. Two of the middle brothers left to join the military during this time, and my sister moved in with a friend. Eventually, I shared a borrowed travel trailer in our driveway with the two brothers who remained, while workers rebuilt our Long Island, New York house over a period of about nine months.
I never thought of our family as being homeless until I began working at Seattle Foundation eight years ago. We were never out on the street. Our neighbors came together to help where they could, and my father’s employer kept him on salary and kept our health insurance active during his long hospitalization and recovery. Things would have been entirely different without the support of our community. They didn’t have to help. They chose to.
As the lead for Seattle Foundation on Basic Needs issues, I think frequently about our societal approach to homelessness. A question I frequently ask others is: what is your baseline? Is it acceptable for any of your neighbors to be hungry or living rough on the streets? In talking about what should be the minimum level of help, we inevitably get to the idea of who should receive assistance. Children, women, families and veterans are among the first to be deemed worthy.
We should ask ourselves how can we choose who eats, who has shelter, who lives and who dies, or is there a better way to ensure that everyone has the basics to live, along with the skills and opportunities needed to thrive? We have at least 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County on any given night. What was different about my family’s situation that kept us housed, clothed and fed during our time of need? My family’s and neighbors’ view of community was the houses nearby, the people they knew, the kids who go to school with their kids. Homeowners helping homeowners. People focusing their charitable energy on people like them.
How do we build a commitment to the well-being of all of our neighbors (not just the people like us) into our government systems, our nonprofit and faith organizations, and the personal interactions we have each day? Compassion is easy for someone you see as vulnerable and in some way like you. A challenge is to build empathy for those who are not like you, who may not conform to your standards or in some way appear to have made bad choices.
Every one of us will need help at some point, but our race, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, physical/mental health condition and national origin will all be factors that influence the availability, quality and effectiveness of solutions.
Philanthropy plays a role in solving these problems but individual donor preferences have brought extraordinarily large donations to benefit specific homeless populations. This generosity is inspiring but focuses in on a symptom—families experiencing homelessness, for example—rather than addressing the root causes of racism and generational poverty built into our current economic system. Achieving racial and economic equity in basic needs would mean no racial or other disparities among those who receive aid, and that their demographics match the overall population.
At Seattle Foundation, we will continue working to create a healthy community that delivers true equity. Beyond improving the safety net, our challenge is to shape a society where everyone has the basics of life—food, shelter, safety—and the education, healthcare, job opportunities and cultural enrichment needed to truly thrive.
One thing we can all do in our own lives is to find ways to practice the neighborly kindness for all in our community and to share the compassion that helped my family weather a difficult time after the fire that changed our lives.
If you are inspired to action on homeless, please consider a contribution to our Basic Needs Fund or get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.