The morning’s first contact came around 9 AM in Cal Anderson Park when a 29-year-old named Jayson approached the two homeless outreach workers and a Seattle police officer. Jayson quickly opened up, talking about how he had been living on the streets for a decade while struggling with drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues. He said he was released from the hospital the night before, but could not say why he was admitted.
Bradly Smith, a Capitol Hill outreach worker with the Metropolitan Improvement District, asked if he could help. Earlier this month, CHS reported on the first patrols for homeless outreach counselors joining East Precinct officers on the streets of Capitol Hill.
Maybe a fresh pair of socks? Jayson perked up. “Yeah. I just walked through the mud,” he said, looking down at his mud-caked sneakers.
While he pulled on the new socks, Smith asked if he would be interested in shelter for the night. A second outreach worker, Carlo Garcia, checked his phone and confirmed four beds were still available at Peters Place on Rainier Ave. If Jayson could make it to the MID’s downtown offices by 4 PM, they could get him in. “As long as there’s wi-fi,” Jayson said.
Getting clients to commit to meetings is a major challenge for outreach workers. Smith handed Jayson a card with the downtown address, which Smith pushed into his coat pocket, preoccupied with discussing his desires to find a girlfriend.
While a $7.6 million emergency funding package for homeless services makes its way through City Hall, this is how the City’s immediate crisis response is playing out on Capitol Hill. Smith and Garcia have been walking the neighborhood for five weeks now, doing the laborious work of confronting chronic homelessness, one individual at a time.
Outreach often starts with offering people socks or blankets to open up a conversation. The MID workers can also provide city and regional bus tickets, motel vouchers, connections to homeless shelters, and other social services. It’s not a solution to homelessness, but an attempt to solve some of the every day issues homeless people face.
Garcia and Smith frequently talk about the need to be a consistent presence and the importance of addressing clients by name — a simple gesture that can help soften a person’s shell calcified by years of living on the street . “Sometimes they haven’t spoke to someone for a week,” Garcia said.
MID outreach started downtown, where businesses and other ratepayers fund the service. On Capitol Hill the work is funded through a City grant with Downtown Seattle Association, which manages MID. The effort follows promises made in the wake of a shooting at Broadway and Pike in November to bring more services to Pike/Pine to help free up East Precinct officers who have found themselves on the front lines of Seattle’s homelessness crisis.
In his State of the City address on Tuesday, Mayor Ed Murray committed to hiring 200 net new officers from 2013 staffing levels.
Each outreach morning starts on the second floor of the East Precinct, home to the Community Police Team. On this (thankfully) dry morning, Garcia and Smith were joined by CPT Officer Al Lebar. With water, socks and snacks stuffed into their backpacks, Garcia and Smith hit the streets.
The pace of homeless outreach work is slow. Piles of belongings or a smear of vomit on a Capitol Hill sidewalk are things most pedestrians do their best to ignore. For Smith and Garcia, it’s a sign that someone close-by probably needs help.
Garcia immediately recognized one heaping pile of belongings near 10th and E Union. Around the corner, a young man named Preston was comforting his sobbing girlfriend. They chatted briefly and Garcia said he would return later in the week with a birthday cake for Preston.
Spotting an opportunity to speak with the young woman alone, Lebar approached to tell her a story about another woman he helped many years ago and the words of encouragement he passed along to her: “I believe in your beauty.”
“I never miss an opportunity to say it,” Lebar said.
The main difference between outreach downtown and outreach on Capitol Hill is the age of clients
The main difference between outreach downtown and outreach on Capitol Hill is the age of clients, Smith said. Capitol Hill is far younger. The neighborhood also attracts many of the city’s “travelers” — homeless youth who follow good weather up and down the coast. Smith said most of them reject services, but help is still offered.
Capitol Hill is also more more spread-out than downtown, offering far more places to hide away in parks and alleys. “We’re still trying to figure out the lay of the land,” Smith said.
Several interactions throughout the morning began with a simple and surprisingly direct question. “Are you in need of any services today?” A man sleeping under a tree in Cal Anderson Park was less than thrilled when Lebar woke him up with the question. He did take a PowerBar and Smith asked if he they could chat again sometime. “As long as you make it short and sweet,” he said.
Service denial is common. Sometimes people are not ready to make a change, other times the type of shelter or service they need is not available. “If people deny services, we just keep asking because on that 20th time they could want it,” Garcia said.
While rare, people approached about services can sometimes lash out. Police accompany outreach workers for security, but can also offer assistance. During one interaction, Lebar gave an SPD phone number to a woman so she could report a sexual assault. Officers can also offer outreach workers a wealth of knowledge — many already know the most chronically homeless by name.
Working with police comes with some drawbacks, too. Several people walking by the interactions that morning were clearly worried about SPD being part of the conversation. On two separate occasions people approached to ask what was happening. A homeless man said he was interested in services but grumbled about the officer’s presence.
Lebar likes to ask people how they can improve their situation and encourages them to talk about even small steps they can take.
“People will remember something if you talk to their heart,” he said. “None of these people belong here.”