Street Stories

Weblog of Seattle minister to the homeless Rick Reynolds, Operation Nightwatch

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Location: Seattle, Washington, United States

Caring for human beings seems like the best use of my time, homeless or not.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Homeless Counters find 2,140 outside

Numbers don't tell the story, unfortunately. Too bad there isn't the time or means to sit down with each of the homeless people over a cup of coffee. It would be quite a collection of tales, no doubt.
I've been watching the current debate in the Senate over raising the minimum wage at the federal level. The minimum wage has not increased for 10 years. All they're talking about doing is increase the wage to restore the purchasing power of ten years ago.
"What does this have to do with homelessness?" It's a reasonable question.
I am convinced that a major contributing factor -- one that the local Committee to End Homelessness cannot control -- is the gap between the wages of unskilled workers and the cost of housing.
There are more homeless workers than homeless panhandlers. Try renting an apartment when you are working day labor.
Let me know what you think. Rick


Friday, January 26, 2007

Homeless Street Count in Seattle/King County

Ok, I've been up all night with the One Night Count -- 735 volunteers going all over (and under) to find where homeless people are "camping" -- or riding bus or under the freeway.

The numbers are still pretty grim, despite a 5% decrease when comparing the same areas as last year. But we found 2,140 human beings surviving without shelter; when we get the numbers from the shelters we're probably thinking about nearly 8,000 homeless people tonight in King County.

Volunteers were hanging from the rafters this year. The energy and interest is tremendous. I can't help but think about 1996, first year of doing this count with volunteers. There were 12 of us for all of downtown Seattle. We counted from midnight to 5:00 a.m. Whew.

This year, like every year, we saw some sobering sights. A guy who's wheelchair was stuck in a storm drain -- the counters delivered him from his predicament. Another poignent scene -- a family in a large national chain entry way in Renton.

But if we're 5% better off, then great. Let's keep heading that direction!


Monday, January 22, 2007

Severe Weather Over -- Shelters Close

Saturday night was the last night for severe weather shelters to be open. These are shelters that are only open on nights when the wind/rain/snow factors reach some arbitrary level of hardship.

The outcome is that 75 - 100 spots at Seattle City Hall are now closed and the 30+ women sheltered in the lobby of the Frye Apartments are tossed out. All these human beings who have been inside now have no place to go.

I decided to work at the dispatch center last night, calming nerves, providing what little advice and support I could to the army of homeless people looking for help.

At 9:15 I drove a woman with a broken ankle, struggling along with a walker, up to the shelter at a local church. No one answered the doorbell, so we waited five minutes. Still no one. Called the manager at home. Meanwhile my crippled friend needed the toilet. So we drove 2 blocks to another shelter; they were happy to take her in and not only let her use the bathroom, propped her up on a sofa all night.

They also gave me the keys to the church so I could open.

Now I've been working with homeless people for what, 25 years? But this is the first time I ever opened a women's shelter.

When I got back up to the church there was a group of women walking away, giving up. It was heart breaking. I hollered. They turned around and came back; the key turned, and together we proceeded to figure things out.

None of these women had ever been to that location before.

Women continued to arrive, and sometime around 10:30 we had staff -- one sub and the manager. Unbelievably lame performance. The manager said she would have to stay until another worker arrived, a worker who was waiting for a babysitter.

In the end we didn't turn away any women -- everyone got in. One woman who had wandered off at the beginning evidently could sleep at her office. And the lady with the broken ankle? She got to stay put on that sofa.

Just another routine night. Grrrrrr. Rick

Saturday, January 13, 2007

News from Homeless Front

During the icy weather Operation Nightwatch volunteers have been working with Seattle Police to help get homeless people off the street and into shelter. The following extended report comes from one of those volunteers:

Our van (2 cops and me -- the cops both working overtime after their regular shift) must have had conversations with 30 or 40 individuals between 9PM and 1AM. Whenever any of us saw any mass of blankets that we thought might have a person sleeping in it or whenever we saw any person we judged might be homeless, we just stopped the van, I jumped out, and usually one of the officers did too. I'd start with a simple question like "We just want to make sure everyone's got a warm place to sleep tonight. Do you?" And from that starting point, we might end up with someone who willingly accepted a ride to shelter [they were taking people to the Rainier Room at the Seattle Center, ed]. Or they might have been on their way to a shelter themselves (e.g. several older guys were headed to William Booth). Or they might have required a real sales job by me and the cops to come with us. Or they might have been so apprehensive of the Police van that they just couldn't bring themselves to get in -- the saddest contact I had was with an obviously schizophrenic guy, with just a light jacket on, fluids streaming from his nose, but you could see that he was so wracked by the image of willingly getting into a police car that he just couldn't do it. I tried everything I could to convince him -- five times I had him to the van's door, five times he started waving his arms and saying "No, man, it's OK. Really. I'm OK." Finally I just felt like I couldn't get him in without something horrible happening to him or his pride, and now I can only hope that he found some kind of shelter last night.

I was impressed by how many of the folks the cops knew by name. Hookers, drug dealers, mentally ill guys, these cops know their territory and have an impressive, no-nonsense relationship with the people.

As with all experiences like this, the results were mixed. I am convinced that the three people we found sleeping on a bench in Pioneer square . . . could easily have died had we not come along when we did. They were far too drunk to even comprehend how cold they were until they thawed off in the van. I can feel good that the 10 or so people we took to the shelter traded their freezing journey for a warm mat (and a good crew from Salvation Army running things). I also know that every single person we talked to, even if they refused shelter, appreciated that the cops and volunteers cared about them. Still, I couldn't help marveling at people like a 60-year-old guy shuffling around Pioneer square in -- I am not making this up -- slippers!, insisting to me, over and over, that he was "OK". Why do we have so much trouble admitting to other people -- and to God -- that we need help?

Thank you volunteers, for the work you have been doing to keep vulnerable people safe. Rick

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pastor Rick with Redhead #1

Just so you know there is another life outside the taverns, here I am with my wife after a wedding in the San Juan Islands.

Yeah, we've been married since bell-bottoms and leisure suits were in.

Ain't she cute?
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year

OK, I got a little lazy with blogging for the past two weeks. The end of the year, the lousy weather, and did I mention NOT ENOUGH SHELTER IN SEATTLE!? I'm gonna keep it up until they get it. Fine and dandy to put together plans for long term solutions, but we've got people camping outside now, every night.

Plus now I have a bartender calling me, upset that their boss is upset with this article:

It's not a very pretty picture of some of my favorite places in town.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, Thursday nights we're still at it. We visited the usual haunts in a different order -- which was nice. Pastor Dave won again at pull tabs. Sheesh. Nice conversations at MFQAT. (My Favorite Queen Anne Tavern) and 3rd & Bell. Then we passed out blankets and knit hats for awhile, got back pretty late --

Pretty tame stuff. Not sure it's worth all the attention. Rick