How Some Visionary Seattleites are Helping the Homeless

For some resourceful Seattleites, standing by in the face of the homelessness epidemic isn’t an option. Meet the individuals inventing new ways to make a difference
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
A view of one of Seattle's many homeless camps

Few issues have vexed local officials like the homelessness crisis has. 

Consider the Committee to End Homelessness, a failed effort launched by King County in 2005. Despite the committee’s work, the homeless population actually increased over 10 years. Last year, it soared by 21.6 percent: The annual overnight count of people living on the street—conducted by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness—found more than 4,500 people without shelter in the county, an increase of about 800 from 2015. (The 2017 count is still forthcoming.)  

The homeless crisis led Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine to declare states of emergency in late 2015. Meanwhile, homeless camps—big and small, sanctioned and unsanctioned—have sprung up all over town. The city began shutting down many of these camps early last year, culminating in a massive sweep of the so-called “Jungle” south of downtown Seattle beneath Interstate 5. But the camps keep springing up.

For most Seattle residents, wherever they live or work, homelessness is an issue that’s literally in their faces every day; the guy at the grocery entrance with a sign asking for help; the woman panhandling at the freeway entrance they use every day; the makeshift shelter on a corner they walk by. The problem can seem overwhelming, and it leaves many asking: “If the professionals can’t end homelessness, what can I do?”

But some locals are taking action. They don’t lead nonprofits, oversee large budgets or aspire to house everyone. They have jobs and families and want to do more than hand out spare change. They know they won’t solve the problem, but in ways that are often innovative and specific, they are trying to make life just a little bit easier for homeless people.

All Cycles Outreach Project
Free Hygiene Products for the Homeless

In the summer of 2015, Liz Andrade, Hannah Stover and Jes Olson (who chose not to be photographed) created All Cycles Outreach Project (allcycles.org) to collect and distribute feminine hygiene products to the homeless. The three only knew each other casually before teaming up on this project. Since coming up with the inspired idea one day when they met at Cal Anderson Park, they’ve collected more than 52,000 pads and tampons, which are distributed by local shelters, drop-in centers and outreach groups.  

Liz Andrade: One of the things that sparked this idea was the difficulty of finding these products when you can’t afford them. So a homeless person is really deciding between buying tampons and buying a meal. The organizations we have donated to tell us that it is a product that they need desperately and it rarely gets donated. 

Hannah Stover: In some interactions that I’ve had with somebody, they say, “I’ve never thought about that. It’s never occurred to me.” 

Andrade: I remember doing outreach one day on The Ave. We had put together little one-month supply packs and were offering them to anyone who may need them. One person immediately took one and told us, “Oh, wow. I was just in the dollar store the other day and I was going to shoplift some and now I don’t have to.” 

Stover: I’ve been volunteering since I was little and grew up in that atmosphere. When there was a need that wasn’t being filled, it just made sense to make that step. There’s not one way to support people who are homeless.

Andrade: We’ve kind of set our expectations low and have been pleasantly surprised with how supportive everyone in the city has been. 

 

WeCount
Connecting Donors and Recipients

Last April, tech entrepreneur Jonathan Sposato and social service veteran Graham Pruss discussed how to directly connect homeless people who need essential items, such as backpacks, tents and clothing, with donors who want to buy those items. Two months later, the pair launched the WeCount website (wecount.org) to facilitate these transactions, which includes using a social service agency as a drop-off or pick-up location as a way to potentially engage the recipient with services that can help them get back on their feet. In the first 90 days, 800 people joined and more than 150 items were donated.  


Image by John Vicory
The website launched by Jonathan Sposato (left) and Graham Pruss facilitates a connection between donors and homeless folks with a specific need. Their latest idea: blue sock boxes 

Jonathan Sposato: The vast majority of us in the tech industry have been fairly consumed by the idiosyncratic details and issues relating to tech. As a technology entrepreneur, I feel like we can be similarly entrepreneurial and ambitious in a community-facing space helping homeless individuals.

Graham Pruss: The value of WeCount is that it provides safe locations and matching capabilities, and allows a donor to connect directly with someone in need. [WeCount] is the first to actually pair this sort of peer-to-peer giving model with actual brick-and-mortar social services. That partnership makes WeCount special. 

Sposato: You can’t boil the ocean. It’s critical in a community as varied, complex and populous as King County and Seattle that we knock off each facet of the problem one by one, in small and manageable pieces. 

Pruss: There is a systemic answer to homelessness, which is about fixing the economy and having retraining efforts to get people into the new economies. We can’t take those things on. What we can do is increase the political will around homelessness by engaging people to feel they can be part of the solution. What we try to do with WeCount is offer everybody the opportunity to be part of that.  

The Pledge
A Sticker that Says ‘Welcome’

Community organizer Devin Silvernail launched The Pledge (seattlepledge.com) last summer. Nearly a dozen small businesses—bike shops, bakeries, coffee shops, a thrift store and an art gallery—have placed The Pledge stickers in their storefront windows letting homeless people know they can come inside to get a glass of water, use the bathroom, charge a cell phone or pick up free socks and underwear. 


Image by John Vicory
The Pledge, a simple sticker program developed by Devin Silvernail, lets Seattle street people know which businesses welcome them

Devin Silvernail: There are a lot of different kinds of homelessness: People who are living on the street, in their cars, in tents or couch surfing. What all those things have in common is that during any given time of the day, you don’t have a place to just go and be. The Pledge is really kind of a way for people to not have to feel that burden. It’s basically just acknowledging that people who are homeless are still part of our community. It’s just helping them get through the day. The beauty of The Pledge is that you can do as much as you want to do. If you can only offer a glass of water between the hours of 4 and 6, make that “water happy hour.” Why not? When you are homeless, you have this wall between you and the rest of the community. The Pledge is about taking that wall down. 

I think maybe some business owners have struggles in their own lives. I think there are definitely people who have this ingrained sense of empathy and immediately say, “Of course, I’ll do it.” Over the next year, I would love to at least double the amount of businesses that we have and really foster a relationship between businesses and service providers.  

 

Facing Homelessness
Creating Compassion By Saying Hello

Rex Hohlbein spent more than 20 years as a full-time architect before he found his true calling in 2010—using his camera and interview skills to capture beautiful portraits and record life stories of people living on the streets in an effort to debunk negative stereotypes about homeless people. Today, Hohlbein’s Facing Homelessness project (facinghomelessness.org) encourages people to say hello to homeless men and women, to build compassion and community. What’s more, Facing Homelessness chapters have been established in nearly two dozen cities around the world.


Image by John Vicory
The goal of Rex Hohlbein’s program, now in more than two dozen cities, is to help us see a homeless person rather than to see a homeless problem

Rex Hohlbein: If we all were not OK with homelessness, there would be no homelessness. But we have said, “You know what, it’s OK that people are sleeping under bridges and dying in the winter of frostbite and other medical illnesses.” We’re actually not asking anyone to singularly do any heavy lifting. We just want everybody to start small and simple. Give a smile, make eye contact and just say hello. We believe that is the collective answer—it lies in the power of all of us together. 

People living outside feel invisible. Like all of us, they just want to be heard and to be seen. Photography is a beautiful vehicle for that.

I don’t want to take the picture until they want it as much as I want it. So there is this mutual moment where a friendship and a relationship is established first, where you are truly seeing that person’s beauty and they can feel that you are seeing that beauty. That is the work that has to be done before the camera is ever pulled out. 

I think what Facing Homelessness is doing uniquely is that it’s all we’re doing. We’re not putting people in beds. We can’t tell you how many socks we’ve handed out. We can’t tell you how many people’s lives have been saved or changed. We are simply saying, “Compassion, kindness, and love are extremely important parts of the answer, and we need to elevate it to its proper place. We all need to treat each other with kindness.”

GiveSafe
Making a Connection Via an App

Tech entrepreneur Jonathan Kumar launched the GiveSafe app (withgivesafe.org) last summer to allow individuals to donate money to street people without using cash. Here’s how it works: A smartphone user downloads the GiveSafe app; a street person picks up a small, lightweight beacon from a local shelter. When the two parties pass on the street, the smartphone user receives a text message alert with a photo and background information about the nearby beacon holder and makes a donation, which is redeemed by the beacon holder at one of several small businesses (coffee shops, barber shops, grocery stores and even an employment consultant). There’s another aspect as well. To replace the beacon’s battery, the beacon holder has to check in with a social service provider. To date, more than 1,100 Seattle smartphone users have downloaded the app and approximately 50 homeless people have opted to pick up beacons and participate in the program. 


Image by John Vicory
Jonathn Kumar’s app empowers people to help the homeless, via their smartphone, without handing out cash

Jonathan Kumar: GiveSafe is just helping people do what they already want to do, and looking to empower everyday citizens to take part in a solution to homelessness. I’m not saying there is an app to cure homelessness. There is an app that helps you participate in someone’s journey. 

When you pass by someone in need today, you don’t know their story, why they are out there, if you should say hi or give cash. The reason I decided to do something like GiveSafe is that many of those people have genuine needs and all of them have a story worth knowing. 

With GiveSafe, you are investing in an individual and you’re giving them a lot of choice in how to spend that income. But you are also providing them a relationship. GiveSafe is constantly guiding that recipient into relationships with counselors to help develop milestones and goals, and help them spend the money in effective ways. When you have those two components—the relationship component and just straight-up financial resources—I think we are going to see some incredible outcomes.

One person was in a jam. We gave him a beacon, and he received $40 and got the food and the things that he needed so that he didn’t have to steal. One month later, he got a paycheck from the job he was working and he didn’t need a beacon anymore. 

Editor's note: In the time since going to press, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to limit Seattle renter move-in costs, a win for low income renters. Read more about the decision here

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