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On patrol with Seattle’s homeless crisis response on Capitol Hill

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Outreach workers Bradly Smith, left, and Carlo Garcia give a man socks in Cal Anderson Park (Image: CHS)

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.

IMG_4748Garcia 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.”

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51 thoughts on “On patrol with Seattle’s homeless crisis response on Capitol Hill

  1. Oh great, now the homeless (Jayson) are demanding wi-fi as a condition of going to a shelter. I wonder if he even got to the arranged shelter that night.

    With so many rejecting help (some with hostility), it seems to me this approach is just a band-aid, at best.

    • It’s definitely a band-aid. Everything we do that isn’t about securing long-term housing is by definition a band-aid, but bandages can have their uses.

      As for the wi-fi, in today’s world there are reasons for a homeless person to need wifi. Access to online info on services, access to email to communicate with support folks.

      The dude sleeps on the street on a nightly basis. So the idea of one night of decent shelter isn’t necessarily like holding out a life-line…he is allowed to have standards and preferences. It doesn’t invalidate the services being offered. Hell, maybe he needs to communicate with friends or family.

    • We get that anything related to homelessness outrages you, but maybe he would like wi-fi because he can’t afford cellular service data and still needs the Internet because, derp, everyone kind of needs it if they want to get a job, get news, communicate with people, etc..

    • Bob, you are always the first to comment on anything related to this issue. Your outrage and lack of compassion is really off-putting. Why don’t you channel some of your outrage to the real dregs on our society – the banks that took billions of dollars of tax dollar money and their CEOs who continue to commit fraud on the American people but never see jail time? You need to search your soul for some compassion for the weakest members of our society instead of condemning them every chance you get.

    • Bob, I was homeless for 5 months at the end of 2014 and the start of 2015. Why am I not homeless today? I got a job. A job I’d have had a near impossible time finding if I hadn’t had access to the internet, which is where most job offers and employment contacts are made today. So think a moment before you say something that sounds distinctly like looking down the slope of your nose at someone who understands what he needs better than you do. I needed WiFi. I got a job because I had access to WiFi. I might never have gotten out of homelessness if judgmental misers had their way and decided I didn’t need that.

  2. Attention SPD: There’s another homeless encampment at 9th and Leary.. yeah.. I know it’s Fremont/Ballard, but it’s there in the little triangle park and last I knew, illegal.

  3. 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.

    Wow, I can’t even imagine how awful it must be to be a homeless woman, living in constant danger. But must our outreach workers open with a steaming pile of misogyny?! Extra insult of objectification for our most vulnerable neighbors. Disgusting.

    • I know “beauty” can have multiple connotations, not all of them objectifying or misogynist, but damn, hearing that phrase from a police officer (even a female one!) would creep me out big-time in this context. However well-meant, it insinuates far too much intimacy, especially in a situation where the power imbalance is so great. I hope this officer’s superiors see this story. He needs some sensitivity training, stat.

    • Everything depends on context and intent. Maybe the language the outreach person used doesn’t translate well into print, but I support these people trying to help others and using every tool in the kit to make things better. Sad fact; being a houseless woman you hear about how beautiful or ugly you are a lot. Outreach workers are people trying to connect with another human being and telling them they matter [without coercion]. It’s a good thing and I can’t find fault with this approach in certain circumstances.

    • [I DO wish I’d complete my thoughts before posting…apologies]

      I hope it goes without saying I agree with the other folks who believe this communication had everything to do with the beauty of another human being. AND…yup, that’s all. Ha ha ha…hot topic for me. I’ve been houseless, I’m female…there are enough very real threats on the streets, and I think jumping on people trying to help is just…well…stupid.

    • Would he say the same thing to a man? He’s equating her value as a person with her appearance.

      In addition to that, he’s bragging about being a White Knight. “Lemme tell you about another time I helped a woman!” He’s awfully proud of himself for objectifying that woman too!

    • If he wanted to say “I believe in you” he could say “I believe in you.” What he said was not that.

      Women are not obligated to be beautiful to have value or hope.

    • @neighbor

      you seem to know an awful lot about what a person is thinking; are you kreskin?

      maybe he does say it to men. maybe he means inner beauty, the beauty that everyone has inside them. not everyone fits a mold that your prejudices have cast for people.

    • Officer Lebar said he never misses an opportunity to say it, and the reporter didn’t mention him telling any men that the officer believes in their beauty.

    • Thank you, CD Rez! And, Neighbor, how do you know he doesn’t tell men they are handsome or some such thing? Assuming he was even talking about physical beauty. And while it may not be important to you, to someone who possibly hasn’t been told that in awhile, it might be nice to hear that and might be exactly the kind of thing that might help them in some small way. I highly doubt any of these homeless people are left feeling abused by such a comment.

  4. The story perfectly explains our problem. Somehow Seattle equates enabling drug addicted people to camp out in our parks and streets with compassion. It is anything but. This young man could have been helped when he was 19 and homeless, now he is 29 and still homeless. He could still be helped but only if we as a city quit tolerating the drug addicted living on the streets. We need a policy of helping those who want help and enforcing laws against travelers and others who only want to use our community as their drug den, bedroom and bathroom.

    • Well you obviously have no knowledge of addiction or homelessness. I was a RN at Harborview for years and got to know many of these types of people and the system is completely rigged against them.
      A little compassion goes a long way buddy.

    • David, I am clearly stating that we should help those with addiction. I agree we are not doing enough right now. There is no need to insult me, I’m probably as compassionate as you are.

    • OK, OK. Didn’t mean to insult. The homelessness issue is complicated. Two nights ago a homeless meth-addict screamed asshole in my face cause I didn’t give her a dollar so I understand the frustration of my hill neighbors with this problem.

    • David, I believe you have misread Tim’s statement. Tim is saying that this system of helping homeless doesn’t work, not that homeless people shouldn’t be helped. The way we “help” often times makes the problem worse.

      As someone who has two family members who could be homeless if they didn’t have a big strong family system to help them, I know the laws and services for mentally ill is lacking and flawed. I also know how bad enabling is. I do not believe it is compassionate to help someone hurt themselves. The help makes us feel better, but makes their lives worse in the long run.

    • Thank you for your comments David and Geri. I have addiction issues myself and know that as long as you enable an addict, he will continue to be an addict. And Seattle is a big enabler.

  5. Hats off to all the social and outreach workers out there. Working with this population is very disheartening and difficult. No coincidence that we will see even more homelessness and addiction as long as inequality increases. Keep up the good work!

    • Enabling? Are you saying we should withhold housing because someone is using? Giving someone a safe place to stay is not enabling. It’s a basic right. Enabling is a rich parent buying their kid a new BMW after they crash it on there way home from a club. Providing reasonably priced housing for someone is not enabling. If you thinking providing housing is enabling I guess providing people with affordable food and water is also enabling.

    • When I use the term enabling, I mean helping someone hurt themselves. A lot of time it is the easiest option or the one that makes us feel better. For homeless the biggest form of enabling is to give them money. This money is frequently used for drugs/alcohol. This makes us feel generous because clearly they need things like food and shelter, but really the addiction is more powerful than that basic need.

      I’m not on the surface opposed to the housing projects that put homeless in housing. I am also interested in studies were addicts are given their drug of choice in a clinical environment. They don’t have to worry about getting their next fix and for many, this gives them time to start putting their life together. But, I feel other services should be included such things as mental health treatment and job training. Then one runs into a problem where many choose to refuse these services when offered, then what? That’s the big question.

    • Geri, thanks for your insightful comment. I would only add that there already is a large government-funded program which provides methadone for heroin addicts (there is a busy clinic for this on First Hill). I have mixed feelings about this approach, because it is really just substituting one addiction for another, but at least it provides an opportunity for addicts to get their lives together and get off drugs all together.

  6. It is hard to walk out the door anymore and not encounter someone who is in dire need of help. It seems the problem is beyond what the city and our neighborhood can manage. I’ve seen that places like Hawaii have declared a homeless emergency, whatever that entails.
    How much worse can it get before it gets better? Is the issue one that needs to be addressed on a national level?

  7. In order to end homelessness we have to address the causes:

    Lack of jobs: create a modern day work authority to put people to work rather than give out shameful handouts. Everybody is better off working

    Mental illness: fully fund this and if somebody refuses to medicate and are a threat to others, public health, or themselves, institutionalize them.

    Drug addiction: either punish hard drug dealing with death or legalize all drugs and tax the hell out of them so that the addicts can pay for their own treatment through taxes.

    Or we can be Seattle and give somebody who doesn’t work an apartment for free in a desirable neighborhood while the working taxpayers among us commute from south Auburn. I love how Progressives care more about those who contribute very little to society than those in the middle class that are the backbone of America.

    • Please find one example of a “free” apartment. People in low income housing pay rent. Just like everyone else. No one is giving away free apartments.

    • There are buildings for free apartments for homeless. One in Eastlake and I believe they are building more and calling it transitional housing. Google it before calling it a myth.

    • Are you talking about DESC’S 1811 Eastlake? It is absolutely not free. Tenants sign leases and pay rent. Nothing “free” about it. Also, transitional housing programs such as those run by Pioneer Human Services, Compass and Catholic Community Services all charge program fees. Again, please find me one Cornett example of “free” housing for people experiencing homelessness.

    • Tenants agree to pay 30% of their income, whatever that is. 30% of nothing, is nothing. But hopefully with time, one can start earning money and paying rent. This seems like a great system to help build a sense of accomplishment, control, and ownership over one’s life.

      There are other free systems to transition people out of homeless, but they usually require one to attend meetings or other requirements.

  8. There’s nothing scientific about this opinion of mine, but I swear the area around Cal Anderson Park has mellowed out a lot in the last couple of weeks. I suspect the actions of outreach workers might have something to do with that.

    • Bob, to be clear, addiction is not recognized as a disabling condition by Social Security. In fact having addiction issues can make getting disability significantly more difficult.

    • You’re right Bob. It just gets tricky when people have co-occurring disorders, and Social Security is trying to sort out which one is preventing someone from working. Is it their schizophrenia? Or drug use?

  9. I work with the homeless everyday and I was at first amazed that they would refuse services. I now know that the services are limited and just enough to keep the service providers in business. We do not have enough rehab options and if we were serious we would look at the european drug house model. We as citizens would also stop giving out cash and open more daycenters with meals and medical conseling. Finally why should anyone give up community and a warm tent for a temporary matt on the floor that you have to hope is still available and if you get to the shelter too late you are out of luck. You should all know there are true working poor in some of these tents. They put on there boots and work a solid 8 hours for low wages. Job training has to get in mix too.

  10. Well, of course houseless people refuse services, especially from cops. Cops traditionally and systematically oppress and abuse houseless people. Can no one imagine that there might be trust issues and trauma at play here. Let’s also take into account that the majority of houseless folks are people of color and LGBTQI which are other groups who face genocide, violence, profiling, and discrimination at the hands of the police. The police are not the ones to be doing this work and it should be obvious to any educated, experienced person that it is simply another control tactic to pry into the personal lives of houseless people to extort incriminating information, control needed resources, and show up with a gun to say “we’re here, we’re always here, we’ll be here for you, and we’re watching”.

    People of income (like you) need to educate themselves, sit down on the street with some houseless people and share a meal or a beer and get to know them. THIS IS YOUR COMMUNITY AND YOU ARE THE TRAITOR IF YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON IT!
    If you’re the one who averts eye contact when someone asks you for change, put your respective situations in perspective; try to understand why it makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t know how to use your income privilege responsibly. Maybe you have rich guilt. Maybe you’re part the problem. But you can change. You’re still alive, so you can still work on improving your self and enhancing your perception of the world.

    Helping the poor and houseless in not just the job of the police and social service workers. If the community as a whole cared, we wouldn’t need outreach workers.