A little over a year ago I was walking along “the Ave” (a street known for homelessness in Seattle’s University District) with a friend as we looked for her acquaintance, Eddie Wang. We were meeting up with Eddie that night to talk with the homeless who called those streets “home.” As we passed a local grocery store my friend and I kept our eyes fixed ahead of us, not wanting to engage the homeless men sitting at our feet, mostly because we were two girls and it was getting dark, but also because we were waiting to interact with the homeless until we had a more “official” reason (like walking with the founder of the group, Sleepless in Seattle).
Five minutes passed with no sign of Eddie—and then it hit us. We turned around and, sure enough, he had been sitting with those homeless men outside of the grocery store the entire time… the men we hadn’t even acknowledged. The shame was instantaneous. I can assure you, nothing is more convicting than totally failing to be a good person in your pursuit of being a good person.
But that experience served as a much-needed wakeup call for me to understand homelessness in Seattle, as well as the people working to address it.
WHO: Sleepless in Seattle is a group of Seattle-based volunteers, led by Eddie Wang, on a mission to equip the homeless across King County with warm sleeping bags, mats, tents, care packages, and compassion.
WHAT: The statistics are startling, but on any given winter night at least 3,800 people in King County sleep unsheltered. This is a 21% increase in the last year alone. With temperatures dropping and emergency shelters becoming unable to meet the increasing demand for shelter, the situation for King County’s homeless is more dire than ever. One concerned Seattleite explained, “Walk down Capital Hill at night and you will see the need everywhere. These are teenagers—KIDS—sleeping out here. I mean, how could you not help?”
HOW: In a little over a year Sleepless in Seattle has organized two “Big Give” events to distribute necessary items for the homeless in King County to survive Washington’s coldest months. In 2014 they raised $75,000 to fund their efforts; this year they raised $87,000! To achieve this, Sleepless in Seattle partnered with dozens of organizations across the non-profit and for-profit sectors and relied on the community’s generosity to donate funds via their IndieGogo campaign. That money has then gone towards purchasing thousands of sleeping bags and other winter items for those in need. This is all because a small group of concerned citizens realized it was time to step up and address homelessness in our backyard.
So after my less-than-perfect introduction to homelessness in Seattle, I decided to jump in as a volunteer for Sleepless in Seattle and have since participated in the 2014 and 2015 Big Give events. Both events changed my heart for the homeless community because of the people and stories we encountered. More importantly, these events left me feeling confident and equipped to engage with the issue of homelessness throughout the rest of the year.
What I love about Sleepless in Seattle is that on a single night, when hundreds of volunteers fan out across the region, the barriers we build up between ourselves and the homeless are torn down. And once shattered, those barriers tend to stay down.
A few days ago while walking in West Seattle I came across an old man sitting on the sidewalk as it was getting dark. I still had a few sleeping bags in my car left over from the 2015 Big Give and so I approached the man and offered him a sleeping bag.
I was about to leave, but he stopped me and started to weep.
He told me it was kindness like that which kept him going, so I sat next to him for over a half an hour while he told me about his life, his love for writing, and what he has learned while being homeless. He recited two of his poems, surprised me with his math skills (he actually has a degree as a mathematician), and during our conversation ended up encouraging me! His name is Jeffry and he is just one example of the many beautiful people I have met on Seattle’s streets.
When you take time to look for the beauty in a person’s eyes, hear their dreams and fears, empathize with their struggles, and then hold them in your prayers, going back to barely acknowledging them isn’t really an option. I believe this applies to all people groups, whether they are homeless individuals, Syrian refugees, or communities ostracized because of race.
By not looking, we fail to see anything but bad in a situation that appears hopeless, even contemptible, to the untrained eye. Our refusal to look not only dehumanizes individuals, but turns them into problems. Homelessness is a complex issue and it will take time and empathy to see through its unpleasant exterior. So why not start now?
How you can get involved:
- Begin engaging, say hello! Simply starting conversations with those you would normally pass on the streets can make a huge difference. Nothing is more hurtful than refusing to acknowledge someone’s existence, so why do we allow ourselves to do it to the homeless? Engage and listen, it’s that easy.
- Sign up for next year’s Big Give Event or join one of Sleepless in Seattle’s neighborhood teams. You can find more details here.
- Join the community of people responding to homelessness. I know you’re only supposed to have three bullet points on these things, but I can’t pass up the chance to point you to Homeless in Seattle’s Facebook Page, where you can see photos and read stories of the homeless right in your neighborhood (and meet their needs)!
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter or with a local nonprofit addressing the needs of the homeless in your area. If you live in the Seattle area, here a few of the many great organizations worth learning about…
For much of my life I reduced helping the homeless to a single event or as something you talked about around dinner tables with compassionate words, yet closed hearts. I urge you to resist this temptation. When it comes to homelessness, take time to understand the need, meet the people, and then use your voice and your actions to combat this issue with love. One person at a time.