When I tried to leave my home Monday night on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine streets in downtown Seattle, the door was being held shut by two men smoking pills off tinfoil.
I cracked open the door and politely asked if I could scoot by. I’ve had this door slammed in my face many times in situations like this, but last night I took a different approach. I have a friend who manages a building with a coffee shop near the Space Needle, and he recently told me that when tents popped up, blocking their doors and sidewalks, he learned to work with the campers rather than get mad or try to force them out. He would bring them coffee in the morning and chat to see how they were doing. Slowly, one by one, they all moved on. My friend helped connect some to social services while others just agreed to leave when a friendly face asked them not to block their doors.
So on Monday, I asked the guys how they were doing. One just stared at me, tinfoil in hand, snot dripping from his nose. The other had a knife in one hand and a toy action figure in the other. He showed me the toy, and we both agreed that it was pretty cool. He said he was doing OK and didn’t need anything, and I left without either of us mentioning the knife.
When I went back out the next morning, there were five campers. Again, I asked if they were OK before seeing if they would move their tents away from the nail salon trying to open for the day. One lady explained to me she had gotten out of jail last night and needed clothes and toiletries. A few minutes later, I handed her a bag with supplies and passed out cigarettes to her friends. They happily moved their makeshift tents and told me they would look out for me. I said I would do the same.
This year, I’ve been expecting Mayor Bruce Harrell to ride in on a white stallion and “fix” downtown’s safety and civility problem. But when he was recently quoted as saying we don’t have enough police officers and it is going to take time to get more, my heart sank. But I had learned an important lesson from my friend at the coffee shop, and I’ve begun to make progress outside my own front door. I also recently applied to Seattle University’s graduate program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in the hopes that I can one day do more.
In the meantime, I’m encouraged by the work of the Downtown Seattle Association to bring private security to downtown and with its plans to beautify the area with more art. I’m also hearing amazing stories from organizations like We Heart Seattle that are using person-on-the-ground tactics to provide individual attention to people in camps in an effort to find them safer places to stay. And there is a coalition coming together of residents and business owners in the area to brainstorm other ways to salvage our neighborhood and help our unhoused neighbors.
This is what it is going to take. Our police and elected officials are slowly starting to take action while other organizations and residents engage in grassroots efforts. A cup of coffee and a conversation is a small act of humanity. Finding housing for half a dozen people and cleaning up a camp seems to hardly make a dent. But it’s all these efforts combined that are going to bring back Seattle. It’s these efforts that are going to make us a shining example of how to bring about change.