by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
With the winter cold here in force, one of the often ignored aspects of life on Capitol Hill is what happens to the homeless population after the summer ends. Despite all the talk of charity that has long exemplified the spirit of the holiday season, some of the neighborhood’s most needy are left to endure the elements while Christmas shoppers pass them by. So what is it like for Capitol Hill’s homeless population during some of the coldest weather that the region has seen in years, and what options are available to the 1,000?
Although Seattle and Capitol Hill have become known as having a number of homeless shelters available, such as the Central Area Motivation Program near Swedish Medical Center, one Capitol Hill homeless resident who chose to be identified only as Steve says that the limited capacity of these shelters mixed with sub-par conditions lead to many staying out on the streets.
“I try to use the hospital as a place to go because of my leg, but shelters are packed during the winter time, and I couldn’t get into them,” Steve said. “I don’t really like the shelters much anyways. I don’t mind the rules, but you can’t come and go, and you have to leave by 6 a.m. when it’s still cold. Plus, there are always bed bugs. It’s not easy to stay clean out here, but at least you stay away from the bugs.”
Steve, who has been on a waitlist for temporary housing for seven months, and expects to remain on the list for at least another year and a half, says that the only way that he and other homeless people are able to make it through the season is through food programs available at neighborhood churches, and the donations of blankets and sleeping bags from aid organizations and random people.
“I have some blankets that I stash during the day, and some people are usually nice enough to give some blankets away when you need them,” Steve said. “But if they get wet, you’re basically screwed.”
Stories like Steve’s are fairly common among the city’s homeless population that struggles to find aid with Seattle’s limited pool of available resources. Every January for the last 33 years, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness does a one-night count of all of the homeless people in the region to gauge how many people are sleeping outside during the coldest nights of the year. In January of 2013, 2,736 men, women and children were counted by the organization in one night, marking a slight increase from 2,594 in the previous year.
While Steve said that Capitol Hill’s liberal and open-minded attitude generally makes its residents willing to lend a hand, a homeless woman who chose to be identified as Pete said that the holiday season is generally a harder period for the area’s homeless.
“People are trying to be generous, but turn the other cheek,” Pete said. “Around Thanksgiving, people were helping more, but around Christmas people are more concerned about themselves and their families. I was standing out here in the rain with my sign and made absolutely nothing. It was pretty coldhearted for the holidays and Capitol Hill.”
Although both Steve and Pete did ask for people to remember their plight at the time that help is needed the most, they also emphasized the fact that, despite the common misconceptions about them, not all homeless people are drug addicts or mentally-ill. Some, like themselves, actively avoid drug use and simply came upon hard times and haven’t been able to get ahead. If there is one thing that both of them wished for people to know during the hard winter months that they faced, it’s not a plea for help, but for a degree of sympathy and understanding.
“Circumstances happen to people,” Steve said. “Stay strong, and try to avoid having this happen to you. Drugs can lead to it, but a lot of people are just one paycheck away from being where I am now.”
“People can be in my shoes at any time,” Pete added. “They can lose their job, they can lose their car, they can lose their place to live and they end up right here at any time.”
People wishing to help the homeless population may do so by donating to the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness website at HomelessInfo.org or the Union Gospel Mission at UGM.org. The Union Gospel Mission also holds regular blanket and clothing drives.