Unlearning Poverty

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.

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