“You make me feel like a human again,” a woman confided to a Union Gospel Mission’s Search & Rescue Team (Team) member after receiving a new blanket, some fresh bottled water and something to eat.
Speaking fondly and respectfully of the people that he’d met in Greenbelt, UGM Team member Brian proudly showed off a necklace one of the residents made for him, strung with fish beads for his love of fishing. One Greenbelt resident named her kitten after Brian.
Moments like these show how the Team and the residents of the I-5 East Duwamish Greenbelt (Greenbelt) are building understanding and respect. Respect is hard to come by for many of the people living there.
I joined the UGM team at their main office on Second Avenue last week to meet the outreach members; this week I spent two hours with them on one of their daily outreach efforts in the Greenbelt.
Some of the Team are formerly homeless themselves, and have been providing basics to people in the Greenbelt for years. They understand what’s needed. Respect and kindness came in the form of drinking water, blankets, shoes, cat food, a dog bed, a lantern, granola bars, a friendly word and listening ears. They know people’s names and stories and the residents know them.
Yesterday’s walk made me consider anew how hard it is to be homeless. I imagined switching places with the people I met: I considered what choices I would make if I had lost my job, my cherished partner, and after burning every bridge with friends and family I found myself without a dime and without a home. I imagined hitting rock bottom and somehow choosing to dull the ache with alcohol or drugs. I would feel humiliated, angry and distrustful. Perhaps I chose to live under the freeway as a last resort because it is dry and I could keep my dogs with me. It’s a
hard life: I have no running water, no shelter, no toilet, no garbage cans and no safety.
In the many times I’ve walked under I- 5 I have seen piles of needles discarded in the dirt and bottles of pee tossed aside. It’s a dreadful sight. But yesterday I noticed half-wrapped tampons dropped on the dirt too. I cringed thinking about women living in such conditions in our own city. No shower, no bath, no towel, no toilet.
We spoke to a families who need significant long-term help; temporary shelter won’t do the trick and they are afraid of what’s next for them. Cheryl, one woman we spoke to lives with her husband and an adult son who has significant behavioral health issues. They have three dogs and a lizard which they rely upon for love and support. Cheryl needs oxygen and uses a gas-powered generator to run her ventilator. It’s noisy; the animals are loving but many; the son is hard to house. They want to stay together. Housing that meets their needs is scarce.
We listened to one woman who rescued kittens from a recent fire set by an arsonist. She lost everything she had in the fire, yet is hand feeding the tiny kittens because the mom-cat was badly burned in the fire. She is keeping the animals alive and they are returning the favor. She is ready to try housing as long as the cats can come too.
At tent after tent the outreach team spoke gently to people by name. They know some of the struggles the people are experiencing; they know who’s addicted, who has been evicted, and who has a criminal record and has been barred from housing. Trust takes time. They offer what they can.
Once residents begin to believe that the outreach workers are there to help, they begin to take cautious steps. The outreach team members help restore the all-critical ID’s or help to get driver’s licenses renewed; they offer legal services through their volunteer clinic to reduce or eliminate debts; UGM can provide an address where individuals can receive mail; they have transported abused women to showers and shelter; they sought medical treatment for people who need it. This is truly person-centered care that I applaud.
Story after Greenbelt story highlights three barriers we must address if we are to make a dent in homelessness: we need more housing or 24/7 options for individuals and families, we need places for people with pets, and we need lockers to store their possessions. There is no shortcut; these investments must be made.