Ever notice how many of Seattle’s story tellers came from elsewhere? Even Murray Morgan, author of Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, hailed from Tacoma. Others came from farther afield: History Link’s Walt Crowley from Michigan; Betty MacDonald (Onions in the Stew) from Colorado and Maria Semple (Where Did You Go, Bernadette?) from California.
Joining the non-native authors (me included) is Virginia-born Josephine Ensign, a University of Washington professor of nursing, who learned to know Seattle from reading Morgan’s Skid Road and even borrowed his title phrase for her 2021 book, Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homeless.
In her book tracing Seattle’s long history of homelessness, Professor Ensign tells us about Seattle’s first encounter with what she terms the “wicked problem.” In December 1854 — early in the town’s history, town dwellers encountered Edward Moore, a half-frozen tent dweller. They carried the poor, insane sailor from Massachusetts along the frozen, muddy beach to the town’s one rooming house. While unwrapping rags covering Moore’s feet, they found severe frostbite. Town founder Doc Maynard amputated most of his toes with an ax. Maynard and his second wife Catherine nursed the city’s poor soul back to physical health.
After recovery, Seattle leaders transferred Moore to Steilacoom to be cared for by a Dr. Matthew Burns, who kept the demented man shackled. In 1855, King County commissioners submitted a report to the Washington territorial legislature requesting reimbursement for caring for “a lunatic pauper named Edward Moore.” The bill was for $1,659 for the 12 months after he was found on the beach.
Since that was more than the territory could pay, the legislators sent the problem back to King County. In 1856, the county commissioners decided Moore, now back in Seattle, should be sold to the lowest bidder for his maintenance. But no one wanted to care for Moore, so later that summer Seattle residents collected donations. They bought Moore new clothes and paid a ship’s captain to transport him back to Boston where he had family. In May, 1859, Seattle’s first homeless person died a suicide.
Ensign uses Moore’s story to introduce her tales of homelessness in Seattle. Written from her perspective of 30 years working with homeless youth and adults, Ensign unearths long overlooked stories of lives, history, and law touching homelessness. Each of her meaty chapters begins with a description of the urban atmosphere of a different era, events that shaped the nation like the Homestead Law of 1862 and the criminalization of poverty.
One chapter revisits the life and times of Kikisoblu, known as Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. She was living in an area known in the 1890s as Shantytown. Residents of Shantytown on the downward slope side of Pike Place Market included urban Indigenous people like Kikisoblu, recent immigrants, migrant workers, and families too poor to afford other housing. Shantytown had no running water and only a few scattered outhouses.
In another chapter, Ensign tells about the three Sisters of the Charity of Providence who moved into the newly built King County Poor Farm and Hospital in Georgetown to care for the growing number of mentally-ill poor patients. The author spins yarns about Dr. Alexander de Soto, a Robin-Hood-like character, who operated the Wayside Mission Hospital in a former opium-smuggling sidewheeler moored to the waterfront. The floating mission cared for chronic inebriates, prostitutes, drug addicts and anyone else who needed free medical care, a meal and spiritual salvation.
Woven into Ensign’s many narratives are tales about the struggles of single moms like the intrepid Hazel Wolf who worked for years to keep her head above water. The book chronicles the rise of Hooverville during the Great Depression and the scourge of tuberculosis, the “white plague” which for years was the leading cause of death in Seattle
While digging through the layers of life histories, Ensign encountered blatant instances of racism, sexism, xenophobia, colonialism, and religious discrimination. She shines a light on attempts to separate the “worthy” from the “unworthy” poor.
Ensign’s book will long serve as the go-to standard for understanding Seattle homelessness. It owes much to the author’s own encounter with homelessness, a story revealed in her earlier book, Catching Homelessness. This latest volume is a credit to her diligent research and to the many interviews she conducted with those who’ve labored in the trenches, standouts like Dr. Ben Danielsen, social activist Nancy Amidei, Real Change Editor Tim Harris, and dozens of social workers like Sinan Demirel, Joe Martin, and Jim Theofelis. Ensign also acknowledges the helpful hands of librarians at the University of Washington, the Washington Health Sciences Library and Seattle Public Library.
She concludes: “Wicked problems like homelessness are best approached by being willing to enter the swamp, to value the role of stories.” Her book defines the problem while not offering solutions – she says that’s for her next book. In the meantime she poses the central moral question: Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?