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Archive for April, 2009

“I open up my window at night, and all I see is the skyline lit up. You know what I call that? I call that hope.”

I saw The Soloist over the weekend, and have been doing some reading this week about Skid Row. I thought the movie had some definite Hollywood elements that I probably would have edited (pigeons as the ornithological representation of Beethoven?), but I was not disappointed overall. Go see it.

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There are several quotable lines in this recent article in the LA Times, but the one at the top of this post was my favorite. The article is about a few housing projects on Skid Row in LA, projects similar to our 1811 Eastlake here in Seattle and other Housing First programs. Like the movie, the article also contains some rather rose-colored prose…

But as I sit here typing this, I think maybe the movie and the article could be more accurate than I give them credit for. Next time I’m in LA, maybe I’ll check out the Abbey Apartments to see if they really do look and feel like more than a “budget-driven box”.

Patrick Kelley

PS–On May 31st, United Way of King County is co-hosting “A Conversation with Steve Lopez”, the author of The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. Click here for more information.

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[It’s Monday morning, and spring has once again managed to elude our weekly weather report, so there’s sure to be a healthy dose of ‘blah’ in this post. If that’s not your cup of tea today, then check back later this week for thoughts about the state budget cuts and foster youth homelessness. I’m sure things will be ‘sunnier’ then.]

During my participation in the United Way of King County Hunger Challenge, I tried to limit my reading of our blog only because I figured someone experiencing hunger at that level wouldn’t necessarily have the same system of access or support. And the support WAS amazing, I have to say. Thank you to everyone who participated, who posted their thoughts and ideas on how to live on $7 of food a day, and especially to those who wrote about why they were participating. As many of you said, this wasn’t meant to be a contest. And no matter how easy or difficult the Challenge was, none of that should overshadow the sad fact that this is Reality for tens of thousands of people right here in King County, including an embarrassing amount of young children, who do not have a choice. Many of us (myself included) have tended to look at things like this as just another one of life’s incovenient truths. But just because it can be done doesn’t make it acceptable. My sincere hope is that participating in this whatever-you-want-to-call-it has changed that mindset for you. It has for me. Here are some of the thoughts I had during the week:

  • So much for exercising! I ran 3 miles on Monday morning, and wasn’t able to do anything of the like for the rest of the week. Not only is that type of diet lacking in nutritional value, but it sure as hell also doesn’t provide the type of energy to maintain an exercise regimen.
  • I stole some M&Ms. There’s a bowl of M&Ms in my office which I usually partake of once or twice a week. The difference? I was cheating…I was stealing…and I actually looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching me. I would never advocate this behavior. I know right from wrong. But it did make me think, what if that were the only option left to me?
  • I was definitely more irritable than normal, and everyone around me could tell. I couldn’t focus at work. I wasn’t coherent in conversations. I was distracted in practically everything I did the entire week. I did fall off the wagon a few other times, only because I’m lucky and privileged enough to choose to do so…
  • So, at the end of the week, United Way of King County announced our plan. It’s a plan that I’m currently reading, and I hope that you will, too, and that you take action. But before I even look through the entire thing, I have to wonder how close we really are (or are NOT) to finding the answer. Should we sign more people up for food stamps because they’re eligible, or should we advocate for changes in a societal structure that makes people dependent on food stamps in the first place? Nobody likes going to a food bank, so how do we (the people who are lucky enough to not have to) make it so that nobody has to? If the pursuits of Life and Happiness are truly inalienable rights for everyone, how much sense does it make for those pursuits to be so substantially financial in nature?

    These are the things that keep me up at night, now that I’m no longer hungry…

    Patrick Kelley

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    On Wednesday, April 8th, dozens of service providers and hundreds of volunteers assembled at Qwest Field to offer assistance to individuals and families experiencing homelessness in our community. We received a lot of media coverage for the event (probably in light of the current recession), and I also wrote a little about some of the people I met that day in a previous post. We hope to do this type of activity twice a year, so keep an eye out for it in the future!

    We had 863 people access different services throughout the day. While that was lower than we expected, we did see a 60% increase in the number of people who reported being chronically homeless throughout the past year. 85 agencies and other service providers offered everything from employment support to housing services, free haircuts to foot washing. Over 400 volunteers spent their day guiding, helping, eating with, listening, laughing, and sometimes crying with another human being…someone who they otherwise would never have come into contact with. Here a few of their stories:

  • Today I learned that there are many more homeless in the area than I thought. I’ve also never thought about someone being homeless but having a job. I met someone who had been working a steady job for 2 years but remains homeless to this day.
  • My favorite part of the day was running into a formerly homeless man we had served at the first CRE, who now has a job and place to live.
  • My favorite interaction of the day was with a young mother of five. I walked over to her as she approached with her stroller and 5 kids in tow. She was incredibly polite and grateful, and her kids were darling. After further conversation, I found out that she was living in a motel with her children because she had come out of a domestic violence situation. She was so happy, though, because she was able to find help and had a prospect for housing by the end of the day. It broke my heart to hear her story, but I felt so happy that she was able to find help.
  • I heard one gentleman tell a co-worker of mine that he felt like a million bucks. Feet washed, new clothes, manicure and haircut and a great meal! He was so appreciative of these things it really made you stop and think what is important. It was a very eye-opening, sad and happy day!
  • Indeed.

    Patrick Kelley

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    On Monday night I took part in a very interesting volunteer experience that involved running around downtown in the dark and asking complete strangers if they had shelter for the night. Everyone I met. Whether they looked homeless or not! (What does a homeless person look like? Are you sure? Because I’m not.)

    The event partnered organizers from the City of Seattle, United Way of King County, and the Committee to End Homelessness with the University of Washington to find out more about the needs of homeless people, by going out and, um, asking. The city is trying to find out how they can improve the ways they’re spending money on services, and hear specifics from people not in shelters that night (thus the late start.)

    I would like to state, for the record, that this sort of thing is way outside my comfort zone. The system was pretty straightforward though, and once I attended the training I felt better about it, especially upon learning that other cities have done similar things without incident. We were in small teams with a team leader and a tiered system of support. I was with a friend, we all had cell phones and check-in procedures, we had a very specific set of questions to stick to. We had a small reward for those willing to answer questions. And respect for the subjects of our study was of the highest priority.

    We canvassed an area from Cornish College of the Arts to Olive along Westlake downtown, a surprisingly odd collection of buildings including fancy new condos and a Whole Foods, the aforementioned art school (and my alma mater, incidentally), FareStart, a couple of hotels, the Library for the Blind, the Oceanaire restaurant, the Greyhound station, some serious construction, more than one shop specifically dedicated to fancy lighting, the Seattle Police Department and the U.S. courthouse. Plenty of doorways to sleep in. We did not bother sleeping people, and we weren’t there to count, although I will say that the huddled forms numbered more than the fingers on my hand.

    We were to approach every single person we saw, ask them if they would “be sleeping indoors tonight”, and proceed with the survey for anyone who said that they would not be. It was hard to start and we were rather timid at first, but people were so nice. I was surprised how well we were received, actually. Not everyone was willing to be bothered of course, but everyone showed more courtesy than I expected, from people being approached by a person with a clipboard in the dark. One person by the Whole Foods, headed home to a warm apartment, said “Oh yeah, I read about that” and sincerely wished us good luck. You could see that some people were taken aback by the thought that they appeared homeless to someone, but once we got a “yes” and I could tell them that we were required to ask everyone, they relaxed. That was probably the hardest part.

    It’s a good thing we really did approach everyone, because the last person I interviewed did not look homeless at all. This person had a truck to sleep in, and had been living in it for quite. This person was coherent, intelligent, upbeat… rather a joy to talk to, actually. Unfortunately here is where the things I most want to share, the personal stories, have to stay unsaid. We all signed a confidentiality agreement “to ensure that the secrecy and protection of the identity of each individual”, a sign of respect I stand behind 100%. Identifying information was not included in the survey itself, nor was the exact location of any individual.

    I can tell you that we did a few interviews, the experience was fascinating, and everyone I surveyed was polite and helpful. And no two were alike – I really look forward to viewing the results. When we think “homeless,” we don’t think about the incredible diversity – the people, the circumstances, the constitutions. We don’t really see or count the people and families who are sleeping in their cars, couch-surfing for months, or trying to make it work in a motel room. We don’t consider the idea that homeless people can have jobs and lives and look just like us.

    I strongly believe that if more people could have volunteer opportunities that enable them to interact with a homeless person, face to face, and see these people as the humans they really are, that everyone involved would benefit profoundly, and this would be a better place to live for all of us.

    By the end of the night it was incredibly cold. After several hours of walking around, my friend and I were chilled to the bone, our speed tempered by our team leader’s. I had dressed in several layers, good clothes with no holes (okay, very few, but those are my fault), wore comfortable shoes. The luxury of going home and snuggling with my pet under a warm blanket was poignant, to be sure. Still, in the morning my muscles ached from the experience. I could never survive a night out there, on a winter sidewalk with no dinner. The few nights I’ve had to spend outside were never this cold. And compared to this past winter it was nothing, it’s amazing what a human can survive. How can you not respect that?

    Tamara Weikel

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    ‘When researchers refer to mental illness, crime, marital breakdown, drugs and addiction as contributing factors of homelessness, are they referring to the homeless themselves or the politicians and other bureaucrats?’

    I got that from the comment section of a recent Calgary Herald article which talks about how all of these elements do matter, but matter so much more when your income is so low that you couldn’t afford rent in your area even if none of these elements came into play. The author also suggests that the cooling housing market could even prove beneficial to people who are or might experience homelessness, as those who might traditionally attempt to rent a place now could potentially become homeowners at their current income level, freeing up rentals and trickling down to where rents may even decrease as a result, making it easier to afford, etc etc. Those crazy Canucks.

    I read a similar article the other day about dropping housing prices, I think written by someone in California (or maybe Oregon, I can’t remember…sorry). They seemed to suggest, however, that the decrease in housing prices into the mid-100’s to low-200’s was a sure sign of the apocalypse (okay, not really, but that was the basic premise).

    So, the idea that the downturn in the housing market could actually make it easier for some people on the lower end of the income spectrum to purchase their portion of the [enter country of choice here] dream is a BAD thing? Granted, there probably aren’t many financial institutions readily lending to this bunch…they’ve used up most of their bailout money as bonuses for their execs before they fired them, but you already know that part of the story…but how did the concept of having home prices be ‘affordable’ to anyone with a decent income become the work of the devil?

    If you’ve lost your job, have fallen behind on your mortgage, are about to lose your home (or already have), and are having trouble selling it for a fraction of what you paid or owe, I feel for you. I really do. And I stand right there with you in utter anger and frustration if this ‘housing stimulus’ plan does nothing to help you keep your home. That really doesn’t make any sense to me.

    But it’s also never made sense to me that owning a home should just be a dream for the middle class. (Actually, restricting a human being’s access to permanent, stable housing to their ability to pay for it has never made a whole lot of sense to me, but that’s another conversation). I’m glad housing prices are coming down. I’m glad more people making less money than many of us can look at homeownership as an option. And I hope that these folks in the banking, lending, and real estate industries have learned their lessons–help people get into homes, come up with the best payment option to keep them there, stop looking at them as a salary range, and quit trying to make the quickest buck on someone’s life. You’re all a step or two away from becoming this generation’s ‘lawyer’ equivalent in the “the only good banker is a…” lexicon. I might even go so far as to add those groups to the original quote at the top of this post…

    Patrick Kelley

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    Congratulations to Seattle’s best newspaper, Real Change, on their national Excellence in Journalism award! Assistant Editor Rosette Royale won for her series “The Man Who Stood on the Bridge.”

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    I just found a great site containing stories of homeless people through Change.org. It’s called invisiblepeople.tv. I couldn’t get through more than 3 of the stories at a time. And as I sit here, I start to think about other stories I know, others that I’ve heard.

  • There’s the married couple I met at the Community Resource Exchange last Wednesday. As I checked their bags outside so they didn’t have to carry them around at the event, they told me a little bit of their story. Been married less than a year, and both lost their jobs before Christmas. You could see they were in love, in that newlywed kind of way. But they were also scared. They were a few weeks away from losing their apartment, so I directed them to the housing services area inside. Then they disappeared into the crowd…
  • There’s Rick, another individual who came by the event. Rick’s story was featured on several local stations (TV and radio). It’s a story that was mirrored by dozens of others on Wednesday, yet genuinely unique if only because it was HIS.
  • Stories. Of course, we all have one. But along with that fact of life, don’t we also need someone to tell it to? Ask any volunteer from Wednesday, and they’ll probably tell you the best part about the event was the opportunity to listen to another human being tell their story, someone who they would have never (not in a million lifetimes) otherwise taken the time to listen to.

    Go to invisiblepeople.tv. Read their stories. Buy a copy of Real Change, and chat with the vendor. Listen to their stories. Better yet, offer to buy them a cup of coffee and get inside somewhere, because this weather blows.

    You will be surprised.

    Patrick Kelley

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