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 – http://dailyuw.com/archive/2014/12/04/news/uw-alumnus-crowdsources-help-homeless#.VJG-wivF98E). 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 (http://serveseattle.org/). 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!