On a hot July Saturday night, a group of citizens who specialize in community outreach gathered at the foot of Pike Place Market under the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Brandishing supplies such as bottled water, sandwiches and socks, they gathered in a parking lot and divided up the supplies into cloth shopping bags to distribute to the homeless residents in that neighborhood.
The twist to this? Some of them were dressed up in “superhero” outfits, going by names like “Girl Scout,” “TieDye Tom,” “Knight Owl” and “Drop.”
The group calls itself “The Initiative.” It’s a group originally derived from the “Real-Life Superhero” movement, brought to large public attention from movies such as “Kick-Ass,” as well as Seattle’s controversial Phoenix Jones.
As with similar Initiative groups across the country, the WA Initiative keeps the costumes toned down to keep the focus more on the outreach work. Initiatives are organized to serve their communities through activities such as helping the homeless, safety patrols, conflict resolution and other forms of outreach as events demand.
The outreach on this July evening was part of a national campaign called “SIGNs of HOPE.” A nationwide partner to Project HOPE, SIGNs of HOPE was a nationwide campaign aimed at bringing attention to the homeless and those who work with the homeless on a day-to-day basis.
A Midwest native, John, known as “Drop,” has been doing community outreach for almost two years. His passion for it is deeply rooted in his strong sense of altruism. Drop also takes part in volunteer emergency-response activities and hopes to become an EMT — he said his work is “not about me” (the slogan for this year’s SIGNs of HOPE campaign).
He explained that this campaign was meant as a “redirect”: The usage of things like flashy costumes are “a means to draw people’s attention and redirect them toward things that should draw their attention,” he said, “like the people who work in the soup kitchens, volunteer at the Union Gospel Mission and those services such as the Downtown Emergency Services, where people are not allowed to touch anyone but verbally de-escalate conflicts on a daily basis, and services such as 2-1-1.”
2-1-1 is the 9-1-1 for human-services needs. Sponsored by The United Way and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS), 2-1-1 provides free and confidential information and referral for needs, including food assistance, health care, housing, employment and mental-health counseling. It is available in all 50 states (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) and in four Canadian provinces. According to the 211.org website, as of October 2011, 2-1-1 served more than 260 million people.
In Seattle alone, it is estimated there are close to 8,000 who qualify as homeless. According to the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless, it is estimated that almost 23,000 people are homeless in Washington state on any given night. There are various reasons why people end up homeless: job loss, fleeing domestic violence and mental-health concerns.
During the outreach on July 14, the largest concentrated area of homeless people where the costumed “heroes” depleted their supplies before walking back to replenish was outside a high-end furniture store at the foot of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The homeless ranged in age from 18 to early 70s
Many of them had tattered mattresses and sleeping bags, which some of them shared with others, with bags containing the few belongings that they had. Their faces expressed happiness, although subdued, for the small help that was extended to them.
Amy, an uncostumed participant in the July 14 outreach, works with homeless and at-risk youths in north King County.
“I wanted to get involved in Seattle where they are more at-risk,” she said.
Yet, the Emerald City is viewed by many as a place that helps its less fortunate. In March 2004, Seattle was recognized in a report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of the seven cities in the country that are leading the way toward reducing chronic homelessness.
Seattle offers a wide variety of resources to address poverty. There are food banks such as Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline, and programs like the Community Psychiatric Clinic, which provides housing for about 5,000 homeless, mentally ill clients per year.
The Seattle Housing Authority also provides 5,300 low-income, public-housing units for more than 24,000 residents. Its first development, Yesler Terrace, constructed in 1942, was the first public-housing development in Washington State and the first such integrated development in the country.
Also, Downtown Emergency Services Center provides housing help, medical care, mental-health counseling and conflict de-escalation.
Seattle also has some innovative programs run by nonprofit groups. Real Change is a newspaper sold by homeless individuals to provide them an income without panhandling. FareStart provides job training and placement in the food-preparation industry and provides food service in the Seattle Central Library.
Also, Seattle’s Tent City, also referred to as “Nickelsville” (named after former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels) is a self-sufficient, self-policed community of homeless people.
Yet, many people do not seek help because they feel it is a hit to their dignity or that people they know might find out and shame them. They also may not know of the various resources available or aren’t willing to give out their personal information before being helped.
Beth Johns is a longtime volunteer at The Food Bank at St. Mary’s in the Central Area, one of the area’s oldest food banks. Johns said it was fulfilling in serving her community. It is also somewhat personal for her, knowing people in her own life who have needed the assistance of a food bank.
“Since I live in the neighborhood, I feel as if I’m contributing to the well-being of my community in a really direct way,” she said. “It seems like almost everyone I know has used a food bank at one time in their lives — whether they were a struggling college student, newly married couple or unemployed for too long.”
Johns said that, while it is inspiring to see the number of volunteers who are stepping up to address the problem of hunger, it depresses her, too, because “the line of people who need food never seems to shrink.”
This anguish is quite common among volunteers in food banks and other hunger- prevention programs. Kate Murphy of The Seattle Foundation’s Hunger Intervention Program, explained, “The most stressful aspect of working in hunger issues is that there are always more mouths to feed and individuals that you haven’t yet reached.”
Johns noted that it stuns people to realize the amount of food donations that pass through their doors — food that otherwise would have gone to waste.
“It’s easy to forget that stores are stocking more than they can sell,” she said. “But when you see the crates and crates full of salads and bread and meat and cheese and apples and green peppers…you realize that the business of food leaves a lot of leftovers.”
Northwest Harvest’s Andrea Flatley echoed what Johns said regarding the increasing need for food. “We have seen unprecedented need and some parts of the safety net — such as food stamps — eroding due to budget cutbacks,” she said. “However, as the need has increased, so has the response from generous donors and our communities.”
It could be you
After handing out socks and sandwiches to a group of homeless teens camping across from the Washington State Ferry terminal during the July 14 campaign, volunteer “TieDye Tom” said his reason for involvement was “not a choice.” Tom, who lives with his family and works a full-time job in Seattle, sees this as the responsibility that everyone should have.
“I feel it is important to share with everybody in my city,” he said, adding that the homeless “could be any of us.… Each and every one of us is a few paychecks away from [poverty].”
Living paycheck-to-paycheck is basically the norm for many to survive. Many of those who donated to charities and volunteered are now finding themselves in need of the same assistance.
“Across the state, we are seeing people coming to food banks for the first time, and often in greater need,” Flatley said. “After years of tough economic times, other resources are exhausted.”
Brent Martin lost almost everything he owned when his painting business collapsed two years ago. Soon enough, he found himself camping out in a makeshift tent under Interstate 5 near the International District.
“I never imagined that I would find myself in that position,” he said. “Growing up, I watched my parents work hard to live a good lifestyle. I thought that’s all it took, and being homeless was for other people — I was wrong.”
Having donated food and clothes to charities in the past, Martin found himself relying on the help of food banks and shelters.
Now in a local job-training program, he is slowly rebuilding his life to become self-sufficient again. He said that he would not have survived without the resources that are widely available in Seattle.
“If you don’t think that this can’t ever happen to you,” he said, “you’re fooling yourself.”