My name is Gil Costello, and I live at one of the Pike Place Market’s senior housing buildings, the Stewart House. I am seventy years old. In 1955, at eight years old, I began my on-and-off life of homelessness. At age eleven, before becoming addicted to drugs, I learned to ride rails around the country, stopping in hobo camps filled with World War II veterans suffering from severe PTSD (which we didn’t know about then). They welcomed me in because I always had a jar of instant coffee.
My homelessness began because my dad, a drunk addicted to gambling, beat me all the time. Once, when I was five, he tried to drown me in a basement industrial tub. At age eight, during a particularly brutal beating, I had my first out-of-body experience. At age fifteen, after living on the streets for some months through a freezing New York winter, I returned home but earned a beating that left me unconscious in a basement for three days. When I woke up, my mother told me I had to leave and never return.
During my time on the streets of New York City, homeless youth prostituted themselves to survive. All of the fifteen children I knew and “networked” with died many years ago of diseases contracted by selling their flesh. The only reason I didn’t die is that prostitution sickened me so much I turned to petty crime instead. It took courage, or stupidity, because if you were caught, you’d end up in one of the harrowing reformatories to be brutalized and sometimes raped.
I became accomplished at “jostling,” that is, selling prostitutes that didn’t exist. I also became an expert at “boosting” (shoplifting). But at age sixteen, I came down with hepatitis, a common effect of prostitution. My skin turned yellow and then brown, and I spent a month in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital. I was supposed to stay another month, but they were going to send me to reformatory after the cure, so I slipped back to the streets.
I became addicted to heroin after that, which required more and more funds. My criminal behavior escalated, and at age twenty I became involved in a network of thugs robbing banks and hijacking trucks. It landed me in the worst prison in America with a thirty-year sentence. I would do ten years, be released, jump parole, and return to petty crimes. There is nothing about the criminal poor and underclass that I haven’t experienced myself or witnessed in others.
The city of Seattle is overrun with homeless people, including runaways and drug addicts. The jails are full. Any theft involving less than $2,000 gets you arrested, but after the police book you, they often let you go. Police ignore these smaller crimes because the city has to save money. Seattle needs jail cells for more advanced criminals. Everyone on the streets knows how the system works. It’s one reason why so many of these people have ended up in the city. Here, the lives they lead come with lower costs than those imposed by other localities.
The street-smart nickname for the city is “Freeattle.” Most of the people in the homeless population in the Seattle/King County area have come from other major American cities with government help. The authorities there have arrested them many times, and at a certain point they decide on another course of action. The miscreants are provided with one-way air or bus tickets to Seattle. These are funds that could be used to help disabled individuals, seniors, and struggling families, not small-time crooks. But to law officers, it seems an economical way of dealing with an otherwise endless cycle.
Don’t assume these recipients are victims. I have met and watched a number of them over the years. They are masters at working the system, always first in line for benefits while the genuinely poor and helpless become invisible to the state, incapable of figuring out a very complex system.
Recently an elderly person came to the Stewart House suffering from advanced lupus. I walked by her apartment and noticed her sitting on the floor with no furniture, no TV or anything, just a sleeping bag. She didn’t know how to set herself up with the authorities, so I helped her. I do the same with persons similarly situated on the streets. They battle the ordinary problems of money and security, but they also compete with addicts and thieves for what the state provides. One scene I witnessed illustrates the competition perfectly. Standing in a food line, I watched some charitable deliveries from nearby Bellevue arrive, the workers unloading clothing and disposable diapers ready for the taking. The more energetic ones, young men without children, grabbed all the diapers within seconds while the genuine mothers scrambled behind them. Diapers can easily be sold, you see, and the money goes right into the scammers’ pockets.
Not long ago, the Seattle Times created a program called Ignite Project Homeless, headed by Scott Greenstone. He had invited persons familiar with homelessness to phone and leave messages summarizing their stories for possible inclusion in a forum. I called and left a detailed account of what is always left out of the discussion of homelessness, that is, the undeserving ones who use the system. I thought a city paper would want to hear about the mass influx of petty criminals and addicts who come to Freeattle for housing and medical benefits exceeding what retired seniors receive in support every month.
And Greenstone’s response? “Hi Gil, Thanks for submitting your story to Ignite Project Homeless. We’re really glad you took the time to open up to us. Unfortunately, we got scores of pitches and we just don’t have time for every great story. Thanks again for calling us, and thanks for understanding.”
Clearly, Greenstone was looking for something else when he solicited people to “tell their story” about living on the streets. He gets his directive from the editors—who reveal their own agenda when printing periodic updates on homelessness, including a report stating that 86 percent of all homeless people in Seattle are locals and that in-migration is a myth. The report pulled data from providers of services to the homeless. The bureaucrats build careers off homelessness, and they have devised techniques to hide ugly and frightening realities.
Two years ago, a Seattle Times reporter, Daniel Beekman, spent four hours with me as I showed him how people arriving from other cities are processed to become “locals.” I explained how soon after landing, they are assigned a local zip code with an address (of a post office, church, or intake center). City officials actually pay people to wait at the Greyhound bus terminal to process fresh arrivals. But the editors chose not to publish this exposé, and I never heard from Beekman again.
I have a mission to the homeless, a personal mission. I focus on teens, many of whom have died of AIDS after selling their flesh to men such as our former mayor Ed Murray, who had to resign after five separate child-abuse allegations were made, including one from a youth (now an adult) he had taken in as a foster child. To settle one claim, the city paid out $150,000 in damages.
I have repeatedly asked the editors and reporters at our local paper whether any of them can recall a single case reported of a child prostitute dying of AIDS, or even the circumstances surrounding how he became infected by the AIDS virus. Even one case! Never a reply.
As I mentioned, I live in Stewart House, one of the best senior housing buildings in town, which is sponsored and supported by HUD and the Pike Place Market. Because it is officially part of the market—billed as one of the most popular places to visit in the world (my residence is above the famous Le Panier bakery)—we get better treatment than most seniors who live on a limited income. I am happy to write that we finally have a great manager, Kim, a remarkable person who is trying to restore it to what it once was: a place for seniors and the disabled to live out their final years in relative comfort.
Before she came, Stewart House was in the hands of a manager who was involved in drug trafficking in and around the complex. He didn’t care about conditions. My apartment had a greasy carpet and an oven that didn’t work. The hot water heater’s insulation had oozed out, creating a fire hazard and making my apartment unbearably hot in the summer. The manager didn’t like having too many elderly folks around, and so he did away with the lounging area and TV room. Seniors who interfered with drug transactions were harassed. He shifted the waiting list so he could house plenty of customers right in the building. After one woman was assaulted, I took the dealer to court to get a restraining order for her, but when the judge asked me for a copy of the surveillance tape of the incident, I found it had already been erased.
Not long ago, I underwent another treatment for hepatitis C. I wasn’t eligible for the drug that cures it and has minimal side effects, because I am a senior on retirement Social Security. When I started my treatment on the inferior drug, I had blinding headaches and broke out in a severe case of shingles, which was agonizing. This went on for three months. My doctor told me that clinics for the poor no longer supply pain relief because the bureaucrats worry about people getting addicted to drugs. I replied, “Why should the elderly be forced to stay in pain because drug addicts seek drugs?” He had no answer.
I have been ruminating on this problem of homelessness for two decades, and I keep returning to a dynamic festering at ground level: January 1964 was the month President Johnson inaugurated the War on Poverty. We are now 22 trillion dollars in, and not much has changed where I live, other than the creation of a vast bureaucracy that has proven utterly unable to address the homeless situation. I can’t escape the thought of what the early fathers of the Catholic Church insisted on: Although pride is the most powerful sin, sloth is much more insidious, at least when it comes to social circumstances. Until our officials face the realities of undeserving homeless people who exploit the system, and realize that they have set up an apparatus of support that encourages more exploitation and vice, the streets of Seattle will only get worse.
Gil Costello is the author of Eternity Man.