PART TWO: Reaching Out
Read PART ONE here.
by Stephen Miller, Editor
– The Capitol Hill Times –
“I see who wakes up every morning at Cal Anderson and I see who goes back,” says Ron Williams as we’re standing in the park around which Summer on Capitol Hill seems to revolve. This afternoon, the stretch of green is dotted with the usual assortment of sunbathers, lazy hipsters, shirtless ball players and sleeping homeless. Williams, an activist for Seattle’s destitute who is between places himself, wants to talk about the latter group.
He’s laying out his concerns at a mile a minute: more antagonism and increased drug use among members of the city’s homeless community, and an influx, as he puts it, of that community up the Hill from other parts of the Seattle.
“There is an idea among many of the homeless in the city who see Capitol Hill as a safe haven,” he says. It’s a place so cool and affluent that they are likely to pull in dollars standing along Broadway and Pike Street.
The lazy days of Summer come with their own fine print, and just as the Seattle Police Department is beefing up its patrols around the city’s hotspots, Williams is trying to fill out his Seattle Action Network – currently a one-man organization devoted to offering support for life and employment to the homeless. From his point-of-view, Capitol Hill is “turning into a Jr. Belltown.”
The city doesn’t track concentrations of homeless by the numbers, says David Takami, public information officer for Seattle’s Human Services Department. Most shelters are located in Belltown and Pioneer Square, areas that have historically seen the most need. There are several groups on the Hill that work in part, or specifically to address the needs of this neighborhood’s homeless, but as he’s pointing out familiar figures lying across benches under trees in the park, Williams worries that there’s not enough active outreach.
“A lot of things are being ignored right now in Seattle,” he says. “I’m disappointed in it, especially in the churches.” In Williams’ view, many organizations don’t do enough to discourage what for some members of the homeless community is a hobby. “Homelessness should not be a way of life,” he says, a little agitated.
Of those who he perceives to have found a niche in the lifestyle with little personal incentive to get out, he says, “they aren’t going to attend community programs, but they’ll show up when you have food.”
For single people who are homeless, however, the most commonly reported causes are substance abuse, lack of affordable housing and mental illness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration noted that 66 percent of people who were frequently homeless also dealt with substance abuse and mental health issues, and the National Coalition for the Homeless published in 2006 that “20 to 25 percent of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness.”
Williams says he knows of at least 20 individuals living on the streets of Capitol Hill who are bipolar. These are the people who need help, he says, but getting it to them is often not a particularly safe endeavor. “Some groups don’t want to get their volunteers involved in the danger,” he says.
According to Takami, the city doesn’t have a particular program that proactively reaches out to mediate disputes or address the needs of homeless people dealing with mental illness. It does, however, work with shelters to divert people to mental health programs when possible, and reports from the Committee to End Homelessness, which the city funds, show a concerted interest in creating affordable housing.
Still, Williams says, “You can’t wait for the homeless to come looking for help. You have to go out and get them.”
“The truth is that our mental health systems are based on the principle of volunteerism, so they have to want care,” says Mike Johnson, the special projects director for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Involuntary inpatient care at Harborview Medical Center typically lasts 48 to 72 hours, usually because of a suicide threat. “That is very inadequate to someone who is homeless and who has been homeless for years, and who is hearing voices and can’t hold down a job. These people are not necessarily an imminent threat of harm. They’re sleeping under the viaduct because they hear voices,” he tells me.
The key, as expressed by both Johnson after he ducks out of a meeting and Williams as we’re walking through Cal Anderson, is building trustworthy relationships with those in need.
“We realize that things have happened in their lives that have lead them to start drinking and using drugs. What we need to do is build their trust so they will start talking to us about what happened,” says UGM’s Sharon Thomas.
While city programs are often crippled under the weight of legal and bureaucratic complexities, organizations like Union Gospel are able address a need when they see it, providing they have the funding. Johnson tells me that the mission has just recently hired someone to serve as its director of community health programs. This is a roll for someone with extensive training and experience who will focus on hitting the streets, building that trust.
“If the Mission doesn’t have a team of folks like this director, building a relationship with folks so they will choose to seek mental health care, then people will just slowly die,” he says. The goal is for this director to oversee a team of 12, including interns, who will work to offer help to the homeless while also diverting efforts towards educating the general public so they can better deal with situations and improve the quality of interactions within the neighborhood.
Union Gospel trains its staff in the nationally certified Mental Health First Aid course that aims to equip community members with the knowledge and skills necessary to assist homeless people who are experiencing a crisis. “When someone has a mental illness and is causing a ruckus,” Thomas says, “people call 911.” Sometimes a burly, nightstick-toting man in blue is not what is needed.
We’re heading back up Broadway and Williams is acknowledging all those he recognizes. “You doin ok?” he asks a tall, thin man in a red jacket.
“No, not really man,” the guy responds. They talk for a brief moment as the other tries to explain his hangup. Eventually, they shake hands and we part ways.
Williams turns to me as we continue walking. “That guy can get violent,” he says in a lowered voice. Getting to a guy like that before he goes off, does something angry, is where the city and churches are failing, he tells me.
We tackle it from a harm reduction approach, Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets Executive Director Elaine Simons explains over the phone while juggling what sounds like 36 other tasks. Her Summit Avenue nonprofit provides support and services to the area’s younger homeless population.
Violence and stressors among young people come from everyday survival, she says. PSKS tries to verbally deescalate situations before they become crises. “At the center,” she tells me in a tone reminiscent of a middle school teacher, “kids leave their drama outside.”
On the streets, PSKS tries to encourage homeless youth to take advantage of what the center has to offer. Outreach teams consisting of a case manager and a younger peer head out with survival basics in tow: sandwiches, socks, water. They make their first engagement on the street and plant the seed with the hope that it will lead to a follow up.
Simons has seen an influx of homeless youth on Capitol Hill since Occupy’s evaporation. “Once the camp shut down we still have homeless kids stuck on the Hill,” she says. For many of these kids, going to the city for help is out of the question, and she worries not so much about crime from within the homeless community during the Summer, but about crime directed at the homeless community. “It breaks my heart how many of our kids are assaulted, raped, but they’re afraid to report it because they may have an outstanding warrant,” she tells me.
Crime involving the homeless community is difficult to pinpoint. We would have a better chance of recognizing that something had happened to the person living across the hall, who we see from time to time, than to the woman we pass outside the QFC every day. The disconnect between these two worlds seems to be the largest obstacle facing a solution. Even Williams, who talks nearly nonstop for hours, shies away when I try to get at his own story. He mentions something about his mother and where he grew up, and then quickly tacks back to everything that needs to be fixed.
Next week, we wrap up our series with a story from the other side.