In this interview, former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943) describes how one person's comments at a hearing on low-income housing helped him find his "true north" in relation to housing the homeless and people needing shelter. The interview was conducted on March 11, 2014, by Joshua McNichols.
NR: I think the most compelling day in my life around homelessness and shelter was the gentleman who came to a public hearing, where some people were fighting creating a low-income facility for homeless people. But this gentleman, as I say, walked up to the mike and said: "Have you ever tried to apply for a job and you had your children with you? Have you ever tried to look for work and couldn’t look for them because you had to take care of your kids, or your kids didn't have place to stay?" Think about that. Think about how difficult it is to survive in a society if you're living in a car or you can't really go out and work, or move, or take care of your family.
That was profoundly important to me and it shut the crowd up. Everybody who was mad and wanted to, I jokingly say that at that meeting if somebody said we got a rope they would've lynched me there. But after that I felt my true north as it relates to low-income housing and people needing shelter. And I never lost it.
JM: You talk about that moment as a moment of transformation. So, what changed, how did you, the internal change was that it became your true north. What was the outward change?
NR: I think what happened is I heard the voice and the cry in a way that I never had before. That you sometimes can go to many hearings and hear lots of people talk and you don't always hear. You know what they're saying but you don't always hear. That touched me beyond the pale of just someone making testimony. That compelled me to say, "Who is that person? And what's that person like?"
And I think that's really the soul of what public housing, these are people just like me. These aren't people who are so different that they stand apart. They are one step from rising up; they're also one step from falling behind. But they are me, and that's what people have to say. I can see my face in those people and those people ought to see their faces in me. Their children ought to be able to say they can be Norm Rice or mayor or something.
And the opportunity that people get from living in a place has to be real. And it has to be an idea that is. That's why we did this whole thing. There's a learning center, there's a library, there are access and opportunities for people to grow and improve themselves. These places ought to have the same kind of amenities that might happen in any community and if they don't, then you're isolating those individuals from the opportunities that are there. And so I think the disbursement of low-income housing, the integration of it, making sure that it has a flow that fits within the community rather than sitting like some citadel apart, is what you want. Pretty soon you don't know where the housing is.
Now some people you still argue that if you came to Seattle the public housing in Seattle is far superior to Chicago or anyplace else and it was. But it still was ... people knew where it was. But I always kid people, Yesler Terrace sits on probably the best vista in the whole world, you know what I mean. But still it was isolated.
JM: So you mentioned that when this person spoke at this meeting you had this impulse, "Who was this person?" As an aside, did you ever find out who that person was?
NR: No, I did not. One of things about being mayor, you're isolated at a public hearing, so it's hard to find out. And he was homeless, so it's hard to find him. But I can tell you that every time I made a decision I heard him. And so he's a part of my soul.