What are you normally doing on a Tuesday night? For most of us, the answer probably has something to do with being at home. For a couple dozen of Seattle’s finest citizens, Tuesday nights mean a night out on the streets of our city, serving on the Seattle's Union Gospel Mission (UGM’s) Search & Rescue volunteer squad. On the last Tuesday night in January, Jacob and I had the great honor of joining these volunteers and the UGM team on the Urban Secrets Tour.
The Urban Secrets Tour is led by Seattle's UGM president Jeff Lilley through some of Seattle’s darkest corners. Usually reserved for auction prize winners, the tour shed a lot of insight into homelessness in Seattle and UGM’s approach to providing solutions through relationship-building. Richard, their Search & Rescue Manager, was homeless in Seattle and credits UGM and S&R for saving his life. Now he devotes his work to building trust and relationships with people living in homeless encampments, in hopes of keeping them safe and maybe even inspiring them to change their lives too.
After dinner at the UGM Men’s Shelter in Pioneer Square, we hopped into the van to our first stop, at Victor Steinbrueck Park next to Pike Place Market. In a corner of the park, there’s a sculpture that looks a whale’s tail at first glance. It’s so much more than that. It’s the Tree of Life, a bronze memorial commissioned by the Homeless Remembrance Project to honor the homeless who have died on the streets of Seattle. There, Jeff read us a story of one of those lost souls; Walter Backstrom, who went homeless for five days to write about the experience - only to find himself in that predicament permanently just a few years later.
“How utterly incredible it is even in the midst of all this suffering, I found a light in all of us, and that is powered by hope. The challenge is not to allow that light to be extinguished by our circumstance, because there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Our second stop found us in City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse. You know the one, sometimes so packed with homeless people that some prefer to find some quiet (and cover) underneath the Yesler overpass. Circumstance shows us that the homeless from around the County find themselves released from King County Jail, Courthouse, or the Harborview emergency room with nowhere else to go except down the hill to that Park.
After that, it was down to the homeless encampments along Royal Brougham Way and Airport Way. The Search & Rescue volunteers we met at the men’s shelter had made their way down to this encampment for their shift while we were in other parts of the city. Every Tuesday from 6:30 p.m. to somewhere around 11:00 p.m., these volunteers walk through Seattle’s various homeless encampments, offering hot chocolate, sandwiches, clothing, blankets, and a friendly face from one of UGM’s volunteer vans. Some take the volunteers up on the offer of a warm beverage or a new pair of socks, but mostly, they’re looking for a smile and someone to listen to them for a little while.
If you’ve wondered where the residents of The Jungle went when it was cleared out, a good number of them found themselves in Royal Brougham, in what’s now the largest encampment in the city. Rats were running throughout the shipping pallets and garbage was strewn about, left behind from tents that had caught fire a few days before. Campers there will often light propane lamps in their tents to stay warm. It was cold, but a few came out to the vans to chat with volunteers and get some essentials. Many of the tenants there know and love Richard; so much so that, while we were talking about The Jungle, he diffused an argument nearby that could have ended badly.
At another encampment in the shadows of the stadiums down the street, it was our turn to serve as Search & Rescue. As soon as we got there, one guy asked to be taken to Harborview for chest pains. We dropped him off at the ER, offered him a bed at the shelter when he got out, then made our way back to the stadiums. It wasn’t a normal S&R night for them, so we didn’t see too many campers venture to our van. We piled back in and made our way to our last stop of the night - an RV encampment on Spokane Street underneath the West Seattle Bridge.
We met a few people who wanted a blanket, or a sandwich, some underwear, or a pair of gloves. Then we met a man named Ace, who didn’t “look” homeless, but told us he was struggling between freelance tech jobs and engaged us with jokes and conversation for almost an hour. He didn’t want much from us but took a sandwich after some insisting.
I know we are fighting for a lot in the age of this new administration, but that night, the realities of my privilege never left me. That night, I learned again and again that it’s not about a roof over their head or a warm bed to sleep in. It’s that the circumstances of their lives - rejection, pain, struggle, mental illness, addiction - have led them to a point where they don’t feel like a part of society anymore. There are a lot of organizations working together to end homelessness, but Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is focused on making the homeless feel like they matter. That they’re interesting people; more than worthy of eye contact, a smile, and some conversation.
We focus so much on the logistics of how we can end homelessness, sometimes we forget that just love is what’s needed.
Thank you, Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, for this unforgettable experience. That night I truly saw my city in a way I'd never seen before.