Looking to connect, help the homeless | GUEST OP
March 8, 2013 · Updated 12:23 PM
By Eric Greiling
For the Kent Reporter
Mike Johnson, special projects director at Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, tells a story about attending a function with a friend who had lagged behind when Mike went inside the building.
"I just gave $50 to a guy and his daughter who were standing at the front door. Their house burned a couple nights ago, and they needed money to get a hotel room," said the friend, not just a little proud.
Mike looked at his friend and asked what the man's name was.
The friend didn't know.
In the end, the story was not about the handout but about the missed opportunity for actual connection, an opportunity to hear the story or be able to actually direct the man to resources that could help him, not only for that night, but for his life. Not just a handout, a path toward a solution.
One Saturday night last November, 379 Kent residents attended a fundraiser sponsored by KentHOPE, Seattle's Union Gospel Mission and local businesses. The generosity and support for building a 24-hour shelter for homeless individuals in Kent raised more than $82,000. This despite the fact that at the time, the center was still just a vision, without a specific building. The community had spoken loudly in its support of the effort.
Every person is a product of their own personal backstory. When that story includes misfortune, a really bad break, loss of a job, serious injury or a miserable childhood, the story might also include homelessness.
The path out of homelessness has no simple fix. When access to services, storage for one's belongings, a computer to apply for jobs, shelter and a consistent meal are taken away, the burdens build on each other, creating a maze from which there may be no way out without help.
People in these circumstances cannot be categorized as a "group." They are our neighbors and fellow citizens. They include families, single mothers, underemployed and recently unemployed. Many have jobs, but lack the resources to generate first/last month's rent and a security deposit. And they are young adults who perhaps with some direction and resources can find their way off the streets.
Kent has a strong network of loosely connected service agencies that provide help to homeless persons. In an effort to help consolidate and maximize the effectiveness of these services, Seattle's Union Gospel Mission and KentHOPE embarked some two years ago on a project to build a center from which these services could be made readily available.
Working in concert with the community, Kent businesses and city officials, KentHOPE and SUGM are developing what in November was a vision into a reality. The surface objective is to provide homeless persons a place to get off the streets and out of the library during the day, and to provide meals, resources, storage and counseling alternatives to those in need.
The more important objective is to provide a foundation for people to transition from homelessness back to healthy everyday lives.
There is a fundamental problem when referring to the "homeless." Stereotyping, often a product of fear, nearly always leads to generalized conclusions about a certain group that tends to fan the flames of that fear, and to categorize homeless individuals as somehow less desirable than other citizens. KentHOPE and SUGM are not dealing with the "homeless situation". The shelter will work directly with individuals, many if not most of whom would prefer not to be homeless.
Time to build trust
Again, every person has their back story. To earn the privilege of learning that story sometimes requires time to build trust. Necessarily, the first step is to see each person as a person, deserving of the same respect and dignity as anyone else. To learn that story is a gateway to discovering the tools that person needs to begin to climb out of the downward spiral that is homelessness.
As the many entities involved work together to determine the best course to building the day center, location has become a significant point of discussion. Pragmatically, the most desirable location would have easy proximity to transit, public services and healthcare. Many homeless persons do not have transportation to get to jobs and interviews, or access other necessities.
Ideally, the best location is able to serve the need of the guests, and is suitably located to operate compatibly with the needs of Kent business owners. In a recent meeting, the KentHOPE executive board unanimously voted to willingly withdraw its application for building out a location on Gowe Street in response to concerns from the business community. KentHOPE Executive Director Pat Gray expressed her desire to address issues from every interested party and to work in concert with business, community and the city of Kent.
The plan for the center includes cleanup crews comprised of the shelter's guests to police the proximity around the center building and surrounding area. Could it not be just as likely that the shelter could be a benefit to the surrounding area's businesses as a detriment? When members of our community have access to restrooms and showers where none existed before, the entire community wins.
The vision charted by KentHOPE and Union Gospel Mission has less to do with a building, less to do with stopgap handouts and everything to do with providing people in our community access to the services they need to escape homelessness. It has everything to do with interacting with people, to learn their stories and to define their specific needs.
Back in November, our community sent a strong message of support, in essence saying, "By the way, what is your name?"
Eric Greiling serves on the KentHOPE executive board.