At the outset, Ensign asks, “How do we reconcile the fact that Seattle is both a progressive, hopeful city and a place in which homelessness is such a large, growing, and deeply entrenched problem?”
The answer, if there is one, is buried in a long, volatile history. From Henry Yesler’s sawmill to Jeff Bezos’ Amazonia, city neighborhoods have long been populated with homeless people. (This corner of the world, Ensign is careful to remind us, was first home to Indigenous peoples, who according to some estimates have lived in Puget Sound for over 12,000 years.) After white settlers arrived, in 1852, she writes, it did not take long before the city’s white and Indigenous residents became aware of “a wandering destitute fixture” named Edward Moore. He was King County’s first official homeless person.
Through historical records — some old, some newly discovered — Ensign learned that Moore, a 32-year-old sailor, lived in a makeshift tent on Seattle’s working seaport, at the corner of Lenora Street and Alaskan Way, just north of Pike Place Market. Moore washed up or was abandoned here by his captain after a shipwreck 164 years ago. When settlers discovered him on a damp December in 1854, his feet, severely frostbitten, were wrapped in rags. The community had no hospital, so they carried him to the town’s only rooming house. There, Ensign writes, “Doc” Maynard, one of Seattle’s founding fathers and the hero of Murray Morgan’s history, “promptly amputated most of Moore’s toes with an ax.” Several years later, Moore, who likely suffered from PTSD and schizophrenia, hung himself.
Ensign sets this story as the dawn of Seattle’s history of homelessness. The timeline unfurls with researched descriptions of more residents struck by severe hardships: domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual assault, rape, suicide, infectious disease and countless other indignities thrust upon poor people by the strictures of class, gender and race.
Some of the homeless people profiled in Ensign’s book persevered through the torment and lived to old age; others had their youth stolen from them by predatory men; still others died far too young, often tragically.
Mercifully, beams of light occasionally pierce the darkness of this disturbing history. One of them is Ensign herself, whose own experience of homelessness and her nearly 40 years as a public health nurse serving marginalized populations make her a capable and compassionate guide. Beyond introducing readers to a cast of remarkable characters, she walks readers through the development of the legal and health care infrastructure tasked with tending to the indigent and mentally ill — a fascinating history that explains, among other things, the beginning of Harborview Medical Center and the much-troubled Western State Hospital.
At times Ensign’s dispassionate tone — likely a scholarly habit — can feel off key, discordant with the wrenching reality of her material. (It occasionally lands with a thud, as when she writes, “If we can view homeless teens as more than victims and vectors and give them opportunities … we will all be better off for that investment.”) But Ensign’s devotion to her subjects is palpable, as are the rigor of her research and the care she has shown in telling the stories of marginalized people long dead or still alive.
Ensign’s Skid Road exposes the entrenched roots of our contemporary crisis. She reveals how physical, visible sites of destitution — and the misery they contain — have long been features of Seattle’s landscape: shantytowns, the sprawling Hooverville, tent encampments, tiny villages, shelters, doorways, abandoned homes, vehicles, rundown RVs. She then humanizes this topography by adding flesh and bone and heart to some of the homeless people who have experienced it.