How to help our homeless neighbors in Seattle

Every night in Seattle, roughly 5,000 people sleep on the streets, in tents, or in their vehicles. That means most of us see signs of homelessness every day.

But figuring out how to process what we see — and deciding what to do about it — isn’t easy. That’s why the final story in our chronic homelessness series focuses on a question that several of you sent us: “What can I really do to help? What agencies can I volunteer for (or) donate to, to make a difference?

Feeling overwhelmed or helpless around so much human suffering is completely understandable, says Sara Vander Zanden, executive director of Facing Homelessness

“For a lot of people, it’s not a lack of compassion, it’s a lack of direction,” Sara says. 

Start with yourself

When thinking about how to help our neighbors living homeless, a good first step is to develop a deeper understanding of the issue so you can empathize with people on an individual basis. One place to start: Our 2018 Q&A with nine unhoused neighbors who explain in their own voices what they want Seattleites to know about homelessness. 

Then, think about your own skills and expertise. If you’re an architect, for example, you might be able to provide free or discounted services to an organization that’s building affordable housing. If you’re a Pinterest pro who loves crafting, you could volunteer your time to host a hands-on activity at a supportive housing facility.

The first question Facing Homelessness asks its volunteers: “What are you passionate about, and what are you really really good at?”

“If you’re good at it, you’ll make a difference, and if you’re passionate, you’ll stick with it, which is really the recipe for social change,” Sara says. 

Tara McColloch-Lussier works as a nurse on the Housing Health Outreach Team at Neighborcare Health. Her job usually takes her to permanent supportive housing facilities, and she’s seen how activities that bring people together help residents who might not be used to living in a community.

“Stuff that feels special really makes a difference to these folks,” Tara says. “It helps build connections with neighbors and with the staff in the building.”

Tara recommends that you reach out directly to service providers to ask how your interests might align with what’s needed in the community. Plymouth Housing (the sponsor of this series) and DESC are two of the largest permanent supportive housing providers in King County. Neighborcare also keeps a wish list of items for its youth clinic on its website. 

Just say hello

It sounds simple, but saying hi to a stranger takes courage. “Just say hello” is the slogan behind Facing Homelessness, but Sara admits that it’s often intimidating to take that first step.

There are no guarantees as to how the conversation will go, and many of us worry that we won’t be able to come through for a person who needs our help. Sara’s advice: Remember that listening is a gift in and of itself. She uses the example of a friend who calls to complain about her boss: In that scenario, you’re not tasked with solving the problem; you’re there to lend a supportive ear and show empathy.

“That’s usually enough. It’s profound to sit with someone in their suffering even though you don’t know how to fix it,” Sara says.  

That philosophy of relationship-building is common among local service providers. REACH, a team of outreach workers scattered across several Seattle neighborhoods, prioritizes connecting unsheltered people with housing. But with resources so limited, building trust and coaching people through harm-reduction are just as important, says co-director Chloe Gale. 

REACH workers canvas neighborhoods, going from tent to tent to get to know folks and figure out what they need: a bus pass, a new ID, a referral to an emergency shelter.

“They’re partly relationship builders, and they’re partly system brokers,” Chloe says.

REACH also works with local business coalitions to respond to business owners’ concerns about homelessness. And REACH representatives regularly attend neighborhood meetings to offer resources and help neighbors strategize.

At this point, though, REACH doesn’t have the capacity to take calls from individual residents who are concerned about a homeless encampment or person in their neighborhood.

If you see someone who is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others, it’s always best to call 911, Chloe says. King County also maintains a crisis line, 211, for non-urgent problems — like helping someone find a shelter bed for the night.

In either scenario, Chloe encourages folks to be there for each other however they can

“In our communities, we are already all neighbors,” she says. 

Other ways to help

Want to make a financial commitment to help your homeless neighbors? The Evergrey’s 2018 Giving Guide has some tips for finding an organization that aligns with your values. (And we should note that all the nonprofits mentioned in this story have donation links on their websites.) 

Instead of opening your wallet, maybe you want to open up your home to a person who is living homeless. The BLOCK Project, part of Facing Homelessness, is working with a handful of local homeowners to build backyard cottages on their property that will be occupied by a formerly homeless person.  

It’s a big, big commitment. But there are other ways to get involved with Facing Homelessness, including volunteering on BLOCK Project build sites and signing up for regular community cleanups

Do you have a favorite local nonprofit working to address Seattle’s homeless crisis? Send a note to let us know: [email protected]

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.