When the volunteer-run organization Anything Helps, headed by a man who said he could do homeless encampment outreach better, approached Seattle Public Schools this summer and offered to end an encampment outside Broadview-Thompson K-12, the school district agreed.
The district was under pressure from people in the surrounding Bitter Lake neighborhood to remove the 60-plus-person encampment, and had argued with the city of Seattle for much of the past year about whose responsibility it was and how it should be done.
The school district didn’t devote much money to the effort, and the offer from Anything Helps was appealing because of its price tag: The district thought it would only be paying the costs associated with getting people inside. The group’s leader, Mike Mathias, who used to be homeless himself, and his volunteer team were all unpaid. The district ultimately reimbursed him for more than $20,000 for those costs.
The district did not run a background check or confirm Mathias’ employment history, according to a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools. Neither did the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which began working with Mathias on getting housing vouchers to more than a dozen of the homeless people.
If these agencies had, they might have reconsidered putting Mathias and Anything Helps in charge. It was a young agency, run entirely by volunteers and headed by someone who was the subject of protection orders filed by two women who alleged stalking and harassment.
The school district also didn’t run a competitive process to pick the agency it worked with, or provide much, if any, oversight to Mathias.
District officials declined to answer questions about whether Mathias’ background would have affected their decision to work with Anything Helps or what their responsibility was during the encampment removal.
Now, at Bitter Lake, two people who used to live in the encampment who spoke to The Seattle Times allege that at the same time Mathias was helping people move toward housing, he was pressuring them to help him buy methamphetamine, using nonprofit funds that came from the school district or community donations, and help him inject it.
Mathias has denied the allegations of misusing money and getting high, but said he did some things he regrets because of the immense pressure he was under.
The events at Bitter Lake raise questions about resources: If more public money had been devoted to the effort — by the school district or Seattle government — would a larger organization with more internal checks and balances have been hired instead?
Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, blamed former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, rather than the authority or the school district, for what happened.
“While this is terrible, the real questions should be — why was Seattle Public Schools left to figure this out without actual professional, contracted, experienced staff?” Eisinger said.
Spokespeople for Durkan didn’t respond to questions.
The school district has ended its agreement with Anything Helps and the homelessness authority has handed off the 14 housing vouchers set aside for the nonprofit to a larger outreach organization.
“An opportunity to do something different”
The Bitter Lake encampment is one of the more controversial of the last year: Nestled on the shore of the lake between a school playground and a playfield where kids’ sports resumed in 2021, some neighbors and parents pressured the city and school district to remove it. Others pushed for the city to allow the people there to stay and provide hygiene facilities so they wouldn’t need to wash in the lake, potentially hazardous to everyone.
Even after the camp removal, a group of neighbors and parents of Broadview-Thomson students filed a lawsuit in December against Seattle Public Schools over the camp.
But the School Board and district leadership had committed to not remove campers without a place for them to go — a mission Mathias said he shared. Mathias had watched previous cleanups and wanted to help pioneer a more compassionate way of ending encampments, he said.
“We just saw an opportunity to do something different at Bitter Lake,” Mathias said.
No other nonprofits were offering to do this work, certainly not for so little money. The school district said yes.
District officials didn’t specify any oversight they provided and they didn’t check into Mathias’ background or experience specifically.
A spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools said the contract was with Anything Helps, not Mathias, so they simply confirmed Anything Helps was a registered nonprofit with the state. They didn’t contact any other organizations.
A spokesperson for the Regional Homeless Authority said in an email that the agency did verify the organization’s nonprofit status and that Anything Helps had a “relationship” with Seattle Public Schools.
But the brand-new nonprofit was essentially just Mathias, who’d created Anything Helps last spring, according to Anything Helps board director Mark Garrett. Garrett said he met Mathias in April 2021 when the two were helping homeless people displaced by encampment removals. They shared a desire to change the way encampment removals happen, so Garrett signed on as board president.
Garrett said the board members essentially worked as advisers to Mathias.
“It’s a nonprofit created by Mike. It’s really Mike’s entity,” Garrett said. “If Mike stopped working in this area, then Anything Helps would fold.”
A past unchecked
Mathias’ employment history is difficult to verify, and court records show past allegations of intimidating women.
Seattle schools officials did not comment on whether these issues would have concerned them or whether Mathias should have been in a position of power without formal oversight.
Mathias’ LinkedIn profile says he worked for the city of Issaquah for four months last year, but a city spokesperson said he worked for a local food bank under a city contract for just two. In a phone call, Mathias acknowledged he didn’t work for the city directly, but said it was three months. He also lists stints at Pioneer Human Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Eastside chapter, but neither could confirm or deny he worked there.
Two women who said they were in fear of him filed for protection orders against Mathias in 2017.
They stem from an incident in which he broke into staff workspaces at a North Seattle substance use and mental health clinic where he was receiving treatment and yelled at employees, chased or lunged at his therapist, and threatened to beat up his psychiatrist, according to 12 statements from employees.
Staff members felt extraordinarily unsafe and “are concerned that his mental health issues, continued substance abuse, his calculating and premeditated behaviors,” the clinic manager wrote, could result in “continued contact, threats, and dangerous behaviors, especially if he feels triggered.” That year and the next year Mathias was also charged with malicious mischief and fourth-degree assault in Bellevue and Redmond, but he completed community service and anger management training and the charges were dismissed.
Mathias said that those were issues in his past, and that they were exaggerated — but that he’d also grown from them, and produced a letter from a therapist he met with afterward that said he was not a threat.
Campers’ claims raise questions
Weeks ago, an unknown number of Anything Helps volunteers sent an email outlining disturbing allegations about Mathias to a slew of homelessness policymakers.
The volunteers said that Mathias had abused his position as the person with the power to get encampment residents inside, and used illegal drugs on the clock.
When the email became public, Mathias denied most of the allegations but said he did ask a person in an encampment to help him use drugs once.
The Seattle Times spoke to many people living at the encampment on and off the record. Some defended Mathias and praised his work getting them into housing.
But Adriana Krieger, who came to Bitter Lake in July, said that Mathias invited her to his place this summer to let her shower. Before she went into the bathroom, she said, he asked her to help him find a vein so he could inject meth.
Krieger made a joke — if she screwed up, would her housing be in jeopardy? Mathias assured her no; Krieger tried several times, was unsuccessful and Mathias changed his mind, she said.
Mathias said he didn’t invite Krieger back to his apartment. After a few unsuccessful attempts in his car, he said, he stopped before he got high.
Mathias said he regretted his decision and hasn’t used any drugs, or asked any campers for help using them, since.
But Krieger said that she helped him successfully inject five or six times after that.
Sheri S., who asked her last name not be published because her story involves her own drug use, said she helped Mathias use four or five times this fall as well, and that she saw him use the nonprofit’s company card to get cash he then gave her so she could buy meth for the two of them.
“He said he was helping me out,” Sheri said. “‘I’ll help you get yours today if you can help me shoot up.'”
Mathias denied these allegations as well.
Public records obtained by The Seattle Times showed that instead of including receipts, invoices from Anything Helps simply listed services the group said it provided, such as “moving expenses and cleaning fees,” and amounts. The school district has asked for all receipts related to the work and Mathias is providing them, he said.
“I feel like I’m a martyr”
Mathias believes this is a coordinated defamation campaign resulting from a falling-out with a former Anything Helps volunteer. He says since the email outlining accusations was sent and covered in local media, he’s been harassed at home, at encampment removals where he’s tried to help and even physically attacked — Mathias shared pictures of his face with stitches.
“I feel like I’m a martyr in all this,” Mathias said.
He pointed out that he is formerly homeless and received financial assistance from the state while he was doing outreach.
People with experience being homeless and navigating the behavioral health system make the best outreach staff, according to Derrick Belgarde, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, which works with Indigenous people who are homeless.
“They’re more accepted into the community or into the encampment,” Belgarde said. But those people need to be vetted and supported when they’re going back to situations like the ones they’ve been in, in the past.
If an outreach worker or case manager started using drugs and it was affecting the person’s work, Belgarde said, Chief Seattle Club would work with that person to perhaps take leave and get into treatment. But if they were caught even trying to do drugs with people they’re supposed to be helping, it’s a “fired-on-the-spot offense.”
“We’ve got to make sure they’re ready, because the last thing we want to do is retraumatize people, or put them into a situation where they’re triggered,” Belgarde said.
The email with allegations — which wasn’t signed by individuals, just “The Anything Helps team” — caused the homelessness authority to temporarily suspend housing vouchers Mathias had been working to get for people at Bitter Lake.
But no one appears to take responsibility for investigating whether wrongdoing happened. The homelessness authority said an investigation was under the school district’s purview, and the school district said it is up to Anything Helps. But because Anything Helps leadership is basically just Mathias, the nonprofit won’t be investigating.
Mathias stepped down from Anything Helps after the allegations emerged so the housing vouchers from the Regional Homelessness Authority wouldn’t be endangered, he said. Board member Garrett is now the acting director.
“To set me up to the degree of which there would be this expectation that I would be this put-together, formal leader in this space is not what I was ever trying to do,” Mathias said. “I was just trying to build a parallel structure. I was trying to do something different.”