IN A SENSE, Damian Monda grew up in The Jungle. But in the 1960s, it wasn’t yet an infamous homeless camp, Interstate 5 hadn’t been completed, and it wasn’t even known as The Jungle. It was just a neighborhood of abandoned old homes.
But there were homeless people there, even then.
Damian and his brothers and their friends would hike down the hill from Pacific Tower, where his family lived in the doctors’ quarters, to explore the empty homes. Entering them was like a dare.
“It was dangerous and it was cool, and we were always afraid that we would run into somebody,” Damian says.
And they did. At first, they avoided homeless camps, but one day, Damian talked to a homeless man. The man didn’t seem scary. He asked whether they had food, so Damian started sneaking out canned salmon his dad had caught to give to the man.
Throughout his life, Damian has watched The Jungle grow and morph, the abandoned homes replaced by tarp tents. A licensed pilot, he even could see it from the sky as he flew into Renton, before the camp was cleared out by order of the mayor.
Today, Damian goes to homeless camps several times a week and, some weeks, every day. The Jungle has become more of a concept: There are now little Jungles all over the south side. One woman who lived there says, “There’s a Jungle and a half.”
Homeless people know Damian, and they know his wife, Debbie; the pair brings instant coffee, hot chocolate, sanitary wipes or Debbie’s signature banana-nut bread.
Damian and Debbie are not associated with any organization. They’re Catholics, but they don’t do this as part of their parish, and they don’t witness to anyone. They’re not “bleeding-heart liberals,” they say.
But in the past couple years, they’ve become regulars in South Seattle’s camps, asking people what they need, and bringing it, and when someone wants to get into shelter, they try to make that happen. They’ve even brought family members out to the camps.
“We’ve got a couple of friends who are really curious and a little envious,” Debbie says on a recent trip. “ ‘Oh, you must be so brave.’ ”
“They think we’re saints,” Damian says, laughing.
Damian and Debbie do not think they are saints. They have a very simple message: Going out into the camps is not scary. Ordinary people, like us, can do it.
For a long time, “helping the homeless” has meant working at a soup kitchen, or donating clothes or food. But in the face of a wave of homelessness, a street population larger than almost any city’s, a new kind of volunteer has emerged in Seattle: people like Damian and Debbie attempting to wade into the tide. But people who are comfortable doing this are still rare.
“You could say that Damian and Debbie are the … point guards,” says Rex Hohlbein, founder of the nonprofit Facing Homelessness and a regular in the camps himself.
Critics have complained that efforts like Damian and Debbie’s make it easier to illegally camp outside. Damian laughs at that.
“When people say, ‘You’re enabling their behavior by doing the stuff you’re doing,’ I say, ‘You’re giving us too much credit,’ ” Damian says. “What we’re doing isn’t enabling their homelessness any more than not doing it would be leading to a solution. If we stop this, things won’t get better.”
But even though they’ve been out here for years, they’ve persuaded only four people to come into a shelter, tiny-house village or housing. Their work is slow and, at times, frustrating. They don’t pretend it’s going to end homelessness.
So why do they do it?
IT’S A SUNNY but brisk March day in Sodo. Damian and Debbie jump out of their blue Subaru Forrester ready for a party. They’re empty-nesters in their early 60s, married for 35 years. He’s a retired Boeing engineer with a salt-and-pepper beard who always wears a STIHL hat so homeless people recognize him from far off. She’s a blond Michigan native who bounced between stay-at-home mom and receptionist.
Today, they’re celebrating the 35th birthday of a woman who goes by Zoë and lives in a 40-foot school bus parked in Sodo. Debbie is bringing her famous cheesecake.
“So, what are you doing on your birthday?” Damian asks Zoë, who is from Virginia and wears dreads and a fanny pack with “Juicy” in brass letters across the front. Her real name is Sara Vella.
Zoë shrugs. “You’re looking at it.” Usually she’s in better spirits, but she’s been forced to move her bus in the last few days by law enforcement. Nine days after her birthday last year, her bus was towed. Her significant other, who had money, paid for this new bus, but Zoë doesn’t love it.
“I used to tell people I’m married to my bus, but this one I can’t trust,” Zoë says. “It doesn’t have glow plugs.” Heat from glow plugs is important for cold winters.
Men come over and do drugs in Zoë’s bus; she says she doesn’t do them herself.
Damian and Debbie light candles. Others come by. They sing “Happy Birthday.” They eat cheesecake with cherries on top. Damian and Debbie leave, and 15 minutes later, Debbie realizes she left her phone there. They race back. It’s right where she left it.
“This is a good group,” Debbie says, smiling. Late that night, Zoë is arrested and booked into jail after a confrontation with an officer.
For Damian and Debbie, it’s a typical day.
ZOË WAS THE FIRST homeless person Debbie met. Before that, she had a totally different view of homeless people.
In 2016, Damian would come home to Renton from work in Georgetown, telling Debbie about the homeless people who lived around his office. He brought them sandwiches and went out to visit them during his lunch hour. Soon, he was heading out on weekends to visit and take things to people.
Debbie didn’t get it.
“I just thought, ‘These people need to get a job. They’re crazy,’ ” she says. She told Damian, “I don’t want to hear anything more about it.”
Damian finally persuaded Debbie to meet the woman who lived in a bus. And when Debbie met Zoë, she felt an instant connection. Zoë is a quirky, rainbow-child character who has traveled across the country, and she’s around the same age as Debbie’s daughters. Debbie’s nurturing nature kicked in.
“She was so completely opposite of my preconceived notion,” Debbie says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m wrong about the whole homeless thing.’ ”
She found herself blurting out, “What do you need?” Zoë made a list — Q-tips, hand sanitizer, “bacon!” and — something Zoë asks for every time — a sit-down meeting with the mayor. Debbie came back the next day with everything except the mayor.
She was hooked. She started going with Damian to other camps, and then sometimes without him, asking people what they needed. She took people’s clothes home and washed them over and over until they were clean. She and Damian would come back from a day of camp visits smelling like they slept outside.
“Pope Francis said, ‘Christ’s followers should smell like His sheep,’ ” Damian says. “There are days when sheep smell a lot better than I do.”
Things are transient and sometimes surreal in Seattle’s camps, shifting from day to day. One time, Debbie met a man who called himself “Chicago”; he was camping behind the Sodo KFC. He asked for art supplies. Debbie bought paints and canvas, and came back the next day.
He was gone, and there were new people in his tent who said they’d never heard of anyone named “Chicago.”
Debbie and Damian try to be a constant in this maelstrom. When they say they’re coming back, they do.
“You learn on the street not to trust anybody,” Debbie says. “People say they’re going to do something, and then they disappear.”
The work began to consume her. She would lie in bed at night feeling guilty that she had a bed.
“The first couple of times I’m doing this, I thought I was changing somebody’s life,” Debbie says. “You really feel that way at first.”
But soon, Debbie came to accept the reality: What she was doing wasn’t going to end homelessness. But it was going to change her.
DAYS AFTER MEETING ZOË, Debbie met Becca Uhlrich. Becca’s a self-proclaimed UFO-ologist, born in Tennessee. She says she has spotted UFOs herself. Her homelessness, she says, has come off and on for about as long as her addiction to meth — around 25 years.
When Debbie met her in 2017, Becca lived in a parking lot under a tarp propped up by an old patio umbrella north of Georgetown. She used a hard-hat as a toilet, and rats attacked her almost every night. Debbie and Damian barely knew her, but they decided to do something they’d never done with anyone else: invite her into their home for a hot shower.
Damian brought Becca to their house in Renton, and Debbie set out the nice towels, her cologne, fresh-bought underwear and one of her sweaters. Becca spent half an hour in the shower, and when she came out, she had a huge smile on her face.
Debbie volunteered to drive Becca back to her camp. She was worried the drive would be awkward, but Becca, she quickly found, was hilarious and easy to talk to. Between Becca’s “South Park” impressions, and talking about being moms, something clicked.
Then Debbie dropped Becca off at her tarp. The contrast between their house and the tarp seemed to expand, and at night, the camp seemed an even scarier place than usual.
Debbie knew she had to get Becca out of there.
But months went by, and they couldn’t persuade her to leave. The city came and left orange notices; Becca’s camp was going to be swept. The day of the sweep came, and Damian and Debbie went to talk Becca into moving.
Becca was crying in her tent. She was scared of change, and she didn’t want to be far away from Mike, her on-again, off-again partner of more than 30 years. Even when outreach workers found a spot in Nickelsville Georgetown, a tiny-house village, she refused to go.
Debbie went to get Becca a Frappucino, and came back with hard talk.
“Becca, there’s only one decision here,” she told her. In Nickelsville, she said, “There’s a shower. There’s a door that locks. You’d have privacy, which you haven’t had in 17 years.”
Becca said, “All right.”
ON A GRAY, rainy day in March, Debbie and Damian walk into a Starbucks in Georgetown, and Debbie buys a Frappucino for Becca. This is a regular ritual. Damian, who just went over their budget, gives Debbie a look.
“How many more coffees are you going to buy?” he asks. Damian is practical; he thinks about what people need. Debbie thinks about what will make them feel good.
Debbie goes to Nickelsville. She can’t find Becca anywhere, even though Becca said she would meet them. Frustrated, Debbie gives the coffee away and leaves.
Debbie has a soft spot for Becca, but Becca also upsets Debbie more than anyone. A week later, Debbie takes her to Denny’s, knowing Becca is more likely to show up for a Philly cheesesteak.
“My life’s been so funked,” Becca says, eating a fry. “I’m in a funk. I’m in several funks. I’ve been in a funk all my life.”
Becca’s been living at Nickelsville for more than a year at this point, and things aren’t perfect. Her drug use has decreased, but she’s received troubling diagnoses. Becca has collected and hung on to so many things that there’s no longer any room in her tiny house for her to even lie down, Debbie says. Mold began growing. Becca kept leaving the village to stay with Mike, her old boyfriend.
Debbie invested more time and hope. She persuaded Becca to reconnect with her kids and grandkids over Facebook, but couldn’t convince her to see them in person. She tried to take Becca to the doctor, but Becca would cancel at the last minute or disappear.
“There’s times I’ve gotten really discouraged with her,” Debbie says. “I’m always kind of disappointed because she doesn’t make the choices I think she should.”
This dynamic came to a head in February, when Becca got double pneumonia, and Debbie came to check on her. Becca couldn’t be found. Debbie was furious.
She drove to Mike’s trailer and pounded on the door. “Becca, I know you’re in there,” Debbie said.
She was. The two fought. Debbie said Becca was supposed to be resting, taking care of herself, and instead she was back with Mike.
Debbie didn’t visit Becca for weeks.But Debbie couldn’t stop thinking about her, wondering where she was and how she was doing. She started missing Becca. She sent her a message on Facebook. Becca told Debbie, “I still love you.”
Debbie came back — and this time, just as a friend. “I was trying to be her mother — have her do what I think she should be doing,” Debbie says. “But there are some people that, no matter what you do for them, they’re always going to be homeless.”
THERE’S AN “ugly truth” about volunteering, says Hohlbein, who first met Damian and Debbie in the camps.
“It comes under the banner of doing something for somebody else, and the real truth is you’re doing it for yourself,” he says. “I think anybody who’s volunteering in a serious way understands that. I don’t mean it in a selfish way, but that’s the beauty of volunteering. It enriches your own life.”
After 35 years of marriage, Damian and Debbie have grown closer. They have something they both love doing and talking about.
They don’t feel like patron saints. There is no Jungle, not anymore. And their efforts won’t solve homelessness. But if you go into a camp in South Seattle and bring up Damian and Debbie, you’ll hear homeless people call them friends and even family.
“This is the number-one problem around solving homelessness — getting people to come close enough to see the boogeyman, and realize he’s not actually there,” Hohlbein says. “Do we need more people going into camps? Sure. But we need more people to realize homeless people’s humanity.”
In Denny’s that day,Becca sets down her Philly cheesesteak and looks at Debbie.
“You don’t realize what you meant to me,” Becca says. “I don’t know where I’d be if you hadn’t come. You gave me the strength to move out of that parking lot.”
Debbie tears up. The two hug. Becca boxes up the rest of her cheesesteak and takes it home.