Monthly Archives: January 2015

Homeless Count Goes Up, Especially at Safeway (1/28/15)

This was not a surprise (link below). Nor was seeing Jason today outside the Safeway. He refused my offer of granola bars because he can’t chew them.

There was a woman lying on the sidewalk outside the main Safeway entrance. She was covered in a blanket with a sign saying she needed surgery. I should have asked her if she was getting necessary services for her condition, not that I know if these are actually available in our for-profit health care system. I should have done something to try to help. Instead, I gave her two granola bars and went to work.

King County Homeless Population Up Sharply in One-Night Count…/king-county-homeless-popul…/

Trying to Get Someone to Want to Change (1/20/15)

This chilly morning, as I was parking my car in the usual spot four blocks from work, I saw Jason walk by. Jason is a young man who I’ve seen regularly since I first started this blog over two months ago. He sleeps underneath an overhang outside an auto body shop in the neighborhood. At 7:50 a.m. he was trudging to his usual spot, sitting on the cold ground outside the Safeway on Brooklyn.

As I’ve said, many mornings I debate whether I should take my usual walking route to my building, which goes by the church where someone sleeps in the doorway, or detour a block and swing by the Safeway. As soon as I saw Jason walk by, I knew I had to go by the Safeway.

This time, I wanted to talk seriously to Jason. He had said he needed to get his ID from his Mom before he could get a job. But he got that ID weeks ago, and he’s still out there. When I found him outside the store, I directly asked him why he was still out here and had he gotten a job. He mumbled something about waiting until the spring, and kept rolling his cigarette. I told him I hated to still seem him out here in the cold. He didn’t respond. I rambled for a minute about my own family, and he continued to stare down without responding (he usually does). This time, although I had a dollar in my pocket, I told him to take care and walked away without giving it to him.

I’m reading a great book called Change Your Mind and Your Life Will Follow ( — I highly recommend it). It has several chapters about how we cannot control others – that everyone is on their own journey, and to try to compel someone to do something is futile and only frustrates us. In fact, doing this is not about them – it’s about us, and how we want to control and meet our needs by trying to change someone else.

This is how it is with Jason. I can’t make him want to do anything. If he (or anyone) asks me for help, then I surely can try my best to do so. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be giving and loving and do what we can. That’s important. But that person has to want it for themselves. We can hope that they will take the steps to improve their situation, but ultimately it is up to them.

I have yet to take a photo of Jason (I sometimes feel that it’s an invasion of privacy). Today I realized I can do that without showing his face. But that face is vivid in my mind. He is in my thoughts. I wish better things for him. Maybe, in time, they will happen.

The City Begins to Take Action (1/15/15)

The issue/story of homelessness continues to expand and get more attention in mainstream media and elsewhere. It’s nice to know Seattle is not sweeping this huge social problem under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist.

The photo below (published huge on the front page of the dead-tree version, which I still get delivered every day because I’m old and stubborn) shows a walkway that leads to the downtown ferry terminal. When I did the big sleeping bag giveaway event a month ago, we visited this spot and saw those camped there. We even talked to one confused young woman there, someone who a volunteer working with me thought might be the victim of human trafficking.

Anyway, this story brought that memory back. A sad one, in a way, but the more exposure this issue gets, the more likely it is that at some point we will decide (as an individual/community/city/region/country) that we need to come up with real solutions. month ago, we visited this spot and saw those camped there. We even talked to one confused young woman there, someone who a volunteer working with me thought might be the victim of human trafficking. Anyway, this story brought that memory back. A sad one, in a way, but the more exposure this issue gets, the more likely it is that at some point we will decide (as an individual/community/city/region/country) that we need to come up with real solutions.

Anyway, this story brought that memory back. A sad one, in a way, but the more exposure this issue gets, the more likely it is that at some point we will decide (as an individual/community/city/region/country) that we need to come up with real solutions.

bridge by ferry

New Year, Same Sight (1/9/15)

New year, same sight on my way to work (outside the former Mars Hill in the U-District). This is not a repeat from the other five times I’ve posted pretty much the same photo.

I haven’t forgotten the homeless or my blog posts, just been incredibly busy with work and life. Will post more soon… this problem hasn’t gone away, and won’t for a long time, I’m afraid. But we keep hoping, praying and working on it.

mars hill 010915

Happy (Almost) New Year (12/31/14)

I write my final homelessness blog post of the year with a heavy heart. I suppose all of us do at least some reflecting as we approach the end of another year. My reflections are centered upon what I’ve seen and heard from the homeless and down on their luck as I’ve walked around the U-District the last couple months, and also on my experiences volunteering a few times at a youth shelter in the neighborhood.

Why a heavy heart? Because, of course, I cannot save anyone from homelessness. I cannot solve this intractable problem. Giving a few dollars here or there, listening to someone’s story, maybe buying them something from the Safeway… yes, these are things I can do. But how can I truly help Jason, who is still outside Safeway in the cold every morning at 8 a.m.? Today he told me that last night while he was sleeping outside of an auto body shop in the neighborhood (they let him sleep underneath an outdoor roof), someone stole his sweatpants, chocolate milk and cottage cheese. I can buy him some cottage cheese (and I did), I could even help him buy some new sweatpants, but I don’t know if I can fix the problem of him sleeping outdoors every night. (He finally got his ID from his mom, so maybe he can land a job in the near future.)

I also saw Shelly and Matthew again this morning. I can buy Matthew an energy drink, but I’m not sure I can help them get housing, or help Shelly win back custody of her son from CPS. I asked her for an update on that situation, and you could tell the subject was painful. Does it help to ask, or does it hurt? I don’t know.

Of course, I knew this painful truth before I started this blogging project, this small mission to try to help in whatever way I can. I knew it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to face it. Which is why, I suppose, that many people shrug and don’t even try to do anything about the suffering. It’s too frustrating. It’s too heartbreaking. It’s somewhat incomprehensible that this kind of pain exists, and we walk by it every day.

Let’s hope and pray for a better world in 2015. Let’s start there. Happy New Year to everyone.

Muhammad (12/22/14)

Below is a photo taken this morning outside the Safeway near my work (or as I like to refer to it, the Happy Hunting Grounds for U-District homeless). I had decided to swing by there on my way to get my overpriced coffee before facing another Monday at the office. I quickly ran into a Hispanic man standing outside the store looking like he was in no particular hurry to go anywhere. I asked him his name, and he said something that I didn’t catch (I often miss names, no matter where and when I meet someone – “Nice to meet you, Mr. President. Was it Barram?”). I complimented him on his jacket and said he must be staying warm. He returned the compliment on my jacket (his was better).

I told him I was giving out coffee cards (I bought a few at a Tully’s two blocks from Safeway a couple weeks ago), and offered him one. He declined. It looked like he had a 16-oz can of something sticking out of his jacket pocket. Now, for all I know, that could have been a Red Bull. Or it could have been a PBR tallboy, one of the beverages of choice for many street people that you meet in Seattle. It told him to take it easy.

I walked about 30 feet down the sidewalk and encountered the young man you see in the photo. I asked him his name, and he told me it was Muhammad. I asked how he was doing, and he said he was good – he had just gotten out after 12 days of detox in Tacoma. I congratulated him, and mentioned I was nearly a year sober myself and had spent some time in treatment in the past. He said he hadn’t had alcohol in two years, but his bugaboo was heroin. I remarked (as I often do about mind-altering substances) that “that s**t will kill you.” He agreed, and said that he was hoping to head either to treatment or to a place where they would hook him up with a job. I asked him if he wanted a coffee card. He took it and was extremely grateful.

I told him to stay warm and walked away.

Sleepless in Seattle Event — An Incredible Experience (12/17/14)

Below are two photos, one taken this morning at the usual spot, in front of the old Mars Hill Church on 47th and 11th NE. The difference here, if you look closer, is that this person not only has a pretty nice-looking sleeping bag, they have another one peeking out from behind them (on the left).

The other photo is of a very friendly man I met while taking part in an amazing homelessness outreach event last Saturday night. Below you’ll find an earlier blog post about this event, which was called Sleepless in Seattle (no, nothing to do with the Tom Hanks movie). Even if you don’t read the rest of my (rather long) post below, please watch this short news story. (Warning – it might break your heart a little. Especially the shot of the dad with two little kids who is living on the streets.)

The Sleepless in Seattle event (you can look it up on Facebook – I even posted a picture to that page) was created to hand out 2,000 sleeping bags (or thereabouts) were given out on the streets of Seattle by hundreds of volunteers in one night. This event came about because a young man, a UW student named Eddie Wang, was walking around the U-District one day observing the homeless people who are everywhere in the neighborhood. That’s when he had this thought: that pretty much everything he was doing in his life, he did for himself. (This anecdote came from a great UW Daily story about his event – I know the feeling, I know that thought.

Instead of shrugging and thinking, “Yeah, but what can I do about it? You can’t help all these homeless people. They’re probably just looking for money for booze or drugs anyway” — he decided to do something to help. And wow, did he do something amazing.

Eddie Wang then put together this gigantic volunteer event. It was one of the most thoroughly organized, meticulously planned, well-run volunteer events I have ever participated in – all masterminded by a guy in his early 20s. As I mentioned last week, I signed up online to volunteer for the event pretty late, and it said it was already full (but I could get on the waiting list). The next day I got an email saying I was in, followed by an email assigning me a team with 3 other volunteers (I think it helped that I cited my experience volunteering with the homeless – it was mentioned in the email).

When I showed up on Capitol Hill on the day of the event (ironically, it was based in a group home that I had delivered the Seattle Times to when I had a paper route in the neighborhood 30 years ago!), people were flooding in. Most were in their 20s (maybe because this event was heavily publicized with a feature in the UW Daily and other media outlets, and plus it was hosted by the group mentioned below). That was great to see – young adults giving up their Saturday afternoon/evening to help out people much less fortunate than they are. Everyone was talking excitedly and in a good mood.

After a kinda hectic but valuable orientation, I met my team. Courtney was the leader – a 21-year-old woman from Walla Walla who lives in this group home as part of an organization called Serve Seattle ( Serve Seattle is a small group (they describe themselves as a “one-year urban missions institute”) that attracts young people ages 18 to 27 who want to do a year of service in our city. Their housing and meals are provided (they pay $5,000 if they are accepted into the program, and I believe are paid a stipend during their year) and they choose an organization or issue to work on. In addition to their day jobs, these youngsters (I’m more than twice their age, shudder) go out every Thursday night to provide food, clothing, and blankets to people on the city streets, an effort they call Search and Rescue.

Sam was the other Serve Seattle person on my team – a young man from Edmonds in his early 20s with a shaved head and plans to one day play college baseball. Both were wonderful kids. Serve Seattle has a religious basis (Christian), which only makes sense – what these people are doing is following and living what Jesus talked about. They are truly doing God’s work, and they are passionate about it. I was humbled by them, and also encouraged for the future, if these kind of people that are going to inherit the problems that my generation and preceding generations are going to leave them.

The third person our team was Lynn, a woman my age who helps run a soup kitchen for the homeless out of a Fremont church. Lynn was fantastic. She drove the SUV we used to transport ourselves and the sleeping bags, and brought about 40 PB&J sandwiches and about 10 boxes of donuts to hand out. As we walked the streets looking for people that might be homeless or need help, she simple remarked, “I LOVE this.” She would talk to all the people we encountered, and encouraged us to do so.

Anyway, we loaded up about 30 sleeping bags, along with some food we’d brought, and hit the road. Our assigned sector (people went all over the city) was a hot spot – downtown Seattle around the waterfront and north side of Pioneer Square. If you’ve ever been down there, you know that this area is overrun with homeless people all year round. We had no trouble giving out our food and bags – we went through all 30 bags and most of the food in the first hour. We found people in pocket parks, on corners, near the viaduct in cheap tents, on a walkway leading to the ferry terminal – it wasn’t hard. We gave each person a sleeping bag (about 90 percent accepted it eagerly) and food to those who wanted it. In addition to giving them these things, we asked their name, how they were doing, what was going on with the. Most were friendly and eager to talk.

I’d say at least half of the people we encountered were African American (who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population). Most were in their 40s or older, although it is sometimes hard to tell with street people – they age a lot faster than the rest of us. This further brought home to me how much discrimination and grinding, perpetual poverty has affected this particular population. It’s one of the great failings of our country (despite the African-American guy in the Oval Office – no, that hasn’t ended racism and unequal treatment, folks).

Everyone we met was pleasant and extremely grateful for what we were doing. (Courtney, who knew the area and the work, warned us to stay out of the alleys — people there are often doing drugs or other illegal activity, thus perhaps threatened by strangers approaching. She said we would be most vulnerable to violence there. We all listened and followed her advice – thanks, Courtney.)

The most concerning interaction we had all evening may have been with a young Asian woman who was huddled under a sleeping bag near the ferry terminal. She couldn’t have been older than her mid-20s, and she seemed a bit confused. She said something about someone dropping her off in Seattle and stranding her there. She also said something about still being on active duty at Fort Dix, Texas, and another story that may have conflicted with this one that I didn’t catch. She said the people around her were pretty unfriendly (something about bad energy).

Courtney asked her if she felt safe where she was, and the woman said, “Sure.” Still, as soon as we left her, Courtney got on her phone and called a national hotline that sends people to reach out to young women on the streets that may be victims of sex trafficking. Courtney does this work for her day job, so she knew the signs and exactly what to do. Again, I was blown away by her, and very grateful to have her along.

We had to go back to Capitol Hill for another 40 or so bags, which went very fast when we swung by a Pioneer Square park and a corner by the old King County jail that must have had 50 men lined up against the building. They swarmed over us, but I felt safe and happy to help (as I did the whole time during the event). The men were very happy to take a smushed sandwich, a donut, or a sleeping bag (often all three).

Realize this: I’m under no illusions that handing out a sandwich and a sleeping bag to a homeless person on the streets of Seattle (many of whom face significant challenges with addition, the criminal justice system, medical issues, long-term unemployment, mental illness, etc.) is going to magically transform their lives. It isn’t a solution.

But it is something that might keep them a bit warmer in the Seattle winter, a little bit better fed (for today). It also might have been a little bright spot in their lives, a little human connection, a little something that shows them that people care, that they aren’t just a faceless non-person living on the margins with little hope of something better. They may not get much in the way of Christmas presents this year, but they got a little something on December 13 that might help them out and make them feel a bit better.

And, of course, I think that the volunteers for Sleepless in Seattle probably got much more out of it. I know I did.

We were done by 6 p.m., and went back for some (donated) Domino’s pizza. To my surprise, I was able to make the second half of my son’s basketball game (not far away – and they won!). All in all, a great experience and one that I will always remember. I hope they do it again, and I highly recommend it if you have the chance to join us!

two sleeping bags              Anything Helps - Sleepless in Seattle event

More Encounters Outside Safeway (12/12/14)

This morning I made the little jog over to Brooklyn Avenue on my way to work; I wanted to swing by the Safeway and see if there was anybody outside just hanging out (in the local parlance). Sure enough, I ran into two people (well, three, if you count the guy who approached me with a special request — see below).

First up was Jason, who was sitting in the little nook in the corner of the front of the store. I’ve seen Jason outside Safeway at least twice before. He’s in his 20s, and seems to be just passing time (with a little cup on the sidewalk soliciting change). I asked him again what was going on with him, and if he was looking for a job or whatever. He said that he was still trying to get ahold of his mom, who has his ID (what you need to get a job). She’s a teacher in the area. (Not sure if he knows where she lives exactly.)

I asked him if they don’t get along or something, but he said it wasn’t that. He just doesn’t have a phone, and whenever he calls she doesn’t answer and he has to leave a message. Since he has no phone, she can’t call him back. I offered to let him use my phone, but it’s the same problem. He seemed kind of resigned about the situation.

While we were talking, another young guy walked up. He was neatly dressed and didn’t appear to be a street person. He apologized profusely for interrupting our “serious conversation,” and said he needed a favor. He said he had to take a physical today, and he smoked some marijuana a few weeks ago. He said he’d give us ten bucks to pee in a cup for him. I declined (I think as a general rule that people need to be honest, and responsible for their actions). Jason said that he smokes pot too, so he couldn’t help either.

I asked him if it was a court thing or a job thing. He said it was just a physical for a class. When I pressed him further (noting that marijuana was legal now in this state), he was vague and declined to elaborate on the situation. He then asked us if we knew anyone who could help him. (I pictured how this conversation would go over with my coworkers.) When we said no, he just stood there looking frustrated.

I turned back to Jason to finish our discussion. I handed him a five-dollar Tully’s card I bought last week. He wasn’t sure where a Tully’s was, so I pointed him two blocks south where one sits prominently on the corner across from my work building. I told him to hang in there, and walked away.

About 30 feet down the street I ran into Richard (pictured). Richard is 62 years old and says he’s a Vietnam vet. I told him that from what I’ve read, Vietnam was some serious s**t. I asked him if the VA had any resources for him, and he replied, “Yeah, they’re helping me. I’m going to get housing next week. I’ll be alright.”

He said he was trying to get 50 cents to get a cigarette. When I walked up he happened to be talking to a young woman next to him, who was smoking. When I pointed out that she probably had cigarettes, Richard said, “Naw, she works here [at Safeway]. She needs her cigarettes.” Fair point. I took my picture, gave him a buck, and headed off to work.


First Night at ROOTS Youth Shelter (12/11/14)

Last night was my first time volunteering at the ROOTS (Rising Out of the Shadows) youth shelter here in Seattle’s University District. This shelter provides a safe place to stay overnight for young adults ages 18 to 25, seven nights a week, 365 days a year. It has been operating for 14 years, and in 2012 served over 500 individuals. According to their website, “Many of our guests have found and moved into permanent housing over the past year, and a significant number have also found jobs.”

My first volunteer shift at ROOTS (8-11 p.m.) was a little slow, as first-time volunteer experiences often are (since you don’t really know what you’re doing). I basically shadowed another volunteer (who had been there all of about three months) as we worked in the shelter bathroom and kitchen.

ROOTS is pretty well run – they’ve got the system down. We show up at 8 and prepare the space — putting out the bedsheets, blankets, pillows, and 45 floor mats, mostly, although there are guests (as ROOTS calls the young people that stay in the shelter) that show up to volunteer for these tasks to earn credits they can exchange for privileges and small bonus items.

The guests start calling in to reserve places or show up at the door and sign up on the list for a spot. If there are more people than spots (45), there is a lottery to determine who gets in (if you were in the lotto the night before you are automatically guaranteed a spot the next night so you can’t be a loser two straight nights). Those that don’t make the cut are given bus tickets and a list of other shelter options.

After the spots are determined, the guests are admitted and signed in one by one. They can then pick a mat, store there stuff in secure lockers, and use the bathroom. As a bathroom volunteer, you must hand out any toiletries they request and log each guest by their name and the time they enter the bathroom. They are given 10 minutes (15 minutes for a shower), and you have to alert them when their time is up. Then you must check the bathroom to make sure they didn’t leave a mess or leave any drug or alcohol indicators behind. If they do, you must follow up with them or alert a supervisor (the drug category). The guests must sign up for shower slots, which are limited by the number of bathrooms and time available.

The kitchen routine is a little easier – basically dishing up food to guests and then cleaning up afterward (there is usually a separate dinner volunteer crew that prepares food and does this, but last night they were a bit shorthanded). There are also volunteer roles to work in the supplies area, the lockers area, the front desk (admitting guest), the outside area (basically hanging out with people waiting to get in), and “milieu,” which means you hang out with the guests playing games, talking, or watching movies . (They have an old VCR and tv, but no R-rated films allowed. Last night it was “Star Wars.”)

Lights out is around 10:30, then we clean up the kitchen (I’m a good dishwasher), have a staff/volunteer meeting, and go home. The overnight staff and volunteers take turns monitoring the shelter throughout the night (2 hour shifts, and sleeping when they are not on duty). The guests starting getting up at 5 a.m. to take showers and leave, and the last guests must leave by 8. The shelter is not open during the day (but other nonprofits, such as Urban Rest Stop, use the space during that time).

The highlight for me last night was a brief chat with a soft-spoken young African-American man who said everyone calls him Oakland. He was wearing Husky gear from head to toe, and so I liked him immediately. J Another volunteer asked if he played football, and he said that he had at Chief Sealth High in West Seattle.

Oakland proudly showed us pictures of his five-month old daughter, who was wearing his headphones. He said she was already sitting up and had been for awhile. She and her mother (I wasn’t clear if the couple were married) are currently staying at the YWCA, but there wasn’t space for all three of them. Oakland said the mother was trying to get housing, and if she was successful he hoped to be able to begin staying with them.

I left ROOTS tired (I went there straight from my job at the UW, which is located two blocks away) but feeling pretty good for a first shot. The supervisor asked in the meeting if I would be coming back next week, and I said “Yes.” In some ways, I felt like I hadn’t done very much to help with the massive homeless problem that Seattle faces. Three hours at one shelter is like a drop in the ocean. On the other hand, I did something, and I connected with some people, and learned some things, including gaining a better perspective on my life and blessings, and on the challenges we face as a community and as human beings.

I walked to my car in the rain, thinking about all this. Mostly, thinking that it was worth it.

Below is a picture of the first page (of 4!) of instructions for the evening shift volunteers at ROOTS. Yeah, it’s very organized. There’s a lot to learn. I guess I better keep coming back until I get it all down pat. J

ROOTS rules