Sri Lanka offers dark lessons in addressing homelessness

A homeless man sleeps in Pioneer Square. A count last January tallied 2736 people sleeping outside in King County without shelter. (Photo by <a href="">C4Chaos </a> via Flickr)

The grisly murders of beggars in Colombo’s city center are a frightening contrast to efforts to solve Seattle’s downtown homeless problem.

Is Seattle ashamed of our homeless?

Where will this kind of shame take us? In my home country, Sri Lanka, it led to murder.

In 2010, during a moment of zest to “re-model” Colombo, the main city, beggars were suddenly found murdered on city streets. The killings were violent. Within a few weeks ten homeless people or beggars were found crushed with rocks or beaten to death with poles as they slept. The police to date have yet to find the killers.

One was a lottery ticket seller who spent his nights sleeping on Colombo’s pavements. He was found one morning mysteriously murdered — beaten to death — where the rocks used to kill him had been left by his bloodied corpse.

Rumors spread that the killings were organized by powerful forces in the Urban Development Authority, concerned with cleaning up the city center. But nothing was ever proven, nor were such accusations made publicly.

Three years later, the macabre deaths remain a mystery in Sri Lanka. All but forgotten. Sri Lankans are never heard referring to the homeless people who suddenly disappeared or were found murdered on city streets, literally on their doorstep.

But what is a common talking point is that the city is looking cleaner, more hip, modern, spinning into an era of bright neon lights while blocks of brand new city sky scrapers have muscled away the poor, the downtrodden and the homeless. That these humans have been banished — axed to a land of no return, is of no matter to the island nation.

As I’ve found in my short time living here, America, despite its reputation for power and wealth, is not without its page of shame. For many Americans the homeless people are a nuisance or an embarrassment. They are visible all over the country, but especially so in Seattle. Last January’s One Night Count turned up almost 9000 homeless in King County, more than 2500 of which were sleeping outdoors with no shelter.

Seeing the people who dot Seattle’s pavements, begging for assistance, it strikes me that the situation is not so different from Sri Lanka, which is, at least on paper, a much poorer country.

A homeless man in Galle, Sri Lanka. (Photo by <a href="">Brett Davies </a> via Flickr)
A homeless man in Galle, Sri Lanka. (Photo by Brett Davies via Flickr)

In Sri Lanka some of the homeless are disabled, some suffer from mental illnesses. But they all have one overriding factor in common — abject poverty.

In the U.S. it seems to me that the homeless are perceived in a different light. There is a train of thought that these people have “chosen” to be where they are, and that it is by choice they remain homeless.

Many Americans will not give money to the homeless as a matter of principle. They will give them food but not cash, the thinking being that handing out cash will encourage substance abuse and addictions to alcohol and or other vice.

Sri Lankans on the other hand are always tossing coins to beggars. It is more the norm than the exception for Sri Lankans to give cash to the homeless.

Overall, America’s homeless according to official figures exceed 600,000 — a number which has not shown signs of reducing dramatically, despite the plan the Obama administration announced in 2010 to end homelessness in ten years.

Job loss is believed to be the main cause or the most common reason for people becoming homeless in America. Mental illness and substance addiction are other contributory factors.

That said, some tragic incidents aside, Seattle’s homeless aren’t targets for murder. At least not in the organized manner their Sri Lankan counterparts were. Instead, emergency shelters, temporary housing, and medical institutions provide care — while other homeless citizens are routinely housed in America’s jails.

But, the bottom line is this: for America, the homeless population is seen as an unsightly burden, just like it is in Sri Lanka.

The way we deal with marginalized populations says a lot about the character of our country and our city.

Seattle, I am sure will not bash its beggar population to death merely to get them out of sight. But the city is certainly willing to arrest — literally — the problem, which is perceived as a chronic nuisance.

The Center City Initiative, a program championed by Mayor Mike McGinn, has convened round table discussion with stake holders on how to resolve the matter. Among the concessions to frustrated downtown business owners was the decision to issue arrest warrants for certain “problem” downtown homeless people like Jay T. Morris, profiled in a July Seattle Weekly feature.

The CCI program has some commendable elements, and broad support from homeless service providers. But Seattleites battling to balance compassion with commerce need to beware. As displayed in Jay T. Morris’ case, when as arrest warrant was issued, he merely removed himself to another place. That does not get rid of the problem.

In Sri Lanka, someone made a cold-blooded decision to ensure the homeless would not even have option to go anywhere else.

Seattle needs to take note of the dark places this path can lead.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for writing this Frederica, also take a look at the Mahinda Chitana plan 2011-2030 it calls best areas of Sri Lanka, the hill country and the coast, “Sensitive Areas” and people will be moved out. I am sure it will mean Muslims, Estate Tamils and poor Sinhala people. This land will i am sure be given to Rajapaksha family and friends for tourist development. They will use the same tactics they used to chase the homeless and poor out of Colombo.

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