A man is using his story of escaping homelessness to try to get others out, too, through Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission’s Search & Rescue program.

Share story

Richard McAdams wanted to die after being awake for five days. He closed his eyes — hungry, homeless and high — hoping it would be for the last time, using a cardboard box as a bed.

“God, I just can’t do this anymore,” McAdams recalled.

A van of volunteers with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission’s Search & Rescue program thought differently. They persuaded him to go to an emergency shelter, where he slept and joined an addiction-recovery program the next day.

Search & Rescue by the numbers

These figures are for 2015 as of Nov. 19.

27,033: number of homeless people helped

2,725: hours that vans were out

7,646: gallons of hot chocolate served

19,298: blankets given

Source: Union Gospel Mission

More than 2½ years later, the 46-year-old Kirkland resident is running the same program that he says saved his life. He manages hundreds of volunteers who provide homeless people with late-night hot chocolate, supplies and open invitations to temporary shelter from Union Gospel Mission, a Christian-based nonprofit.

“Exactly what he asked for that night, in a sense, he got,” said Dru Lee, who was among the crew of volunteers who found McAdams. “His whole life at that point was put to death, and he was brought in, and he changed.”

The van program reaches an average 2,100 people monthly, or about 75 percent of the number of estimated people in Seattle without shelter, according to last winter’s One Night Count, an annual tally of homeless people in King County.

Advocates and local leaders are applauding community-based programs like Search & Rescue as they grapple with the area’s rising homeless population. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine last month declared states of emergency to address the problem, promising shelter beds and aid for prevention and outreach programs.

But experts agree policy work, such as opening city-sponsored camps or mapping out plans for affordable housing, won’t alone reverse the trend. Assistance from other sources, whether churches or nonprofits, is crucial for helping the area resolve the ongoing crisis, they say.

Before the pickup

On a routine Search & Rescue stop recently, McAdams sucked on a cigarette and carried a charity meal as he walked along railroad tracks with a handful of volunteers near Ballard’s Pacific Fishermen Shipyard.

He’s covered fingertips to neck in tattoos and quick to smile. People seem to recognize him on his routes.

“We go to places where people don’t want to go,” McAdams said of the van program.

Since Search & Rescue’s start in 2011, nearly 85 percent of men and 74 percent of women who agree to seek long-term help from Union Gospel Mission are sober two years after graduating from one of the nonprofit’s programs, in stable housing, connected with family and religion, and employed or in school, according to spokeswoman Torie Rynning.

One Night Count of homeless

January 2015 count includes Seattle and select areas in King County.

2,993: people in transitional housing

3,282: people in shelters

3,772: people on the street

10,047: total homeless people

Source: One Night Count

The nonprofit’s operating expenses totaled more than $23.3 million last year, the majority of which was paid through individual contributions.

McAdams has been directing Search & Rescue for more than eight months.

He was in a daze when the van found him in March 2013, meth coursing through his blood. He was coming down from a high, he said, with a blood clot in his leg and a weight of 140 pounds.

He had not eaten in five days and had no teeth.

“I got to the point where I had nobody in my life,” McAdams said. “I knew that if I didn’t make that change, I was going to die.”

The lowest point came after leaving prison, where he served about three years for possessing and selling drugs, according to his account and court documents. The crimes followed a childhood with a relative who abused him and a rough early adult life, marked by a relentless drug addiction that started in his youth.

“I ended up losing everything (after prison), and ended up being homeless with nothing to my name,” McAdams said. “I was living on the streets — I hadn’t talked to my family in 19 years — in the worst place you could be.”

“The big picture”

McAdams sees people living like he used to on the Search & Rescue routes, including old “friends” he used to get high with. The ones sleeping on cardboard boxes without blankets, he said, bother him the most.

About 3,000 people become newly homeless each month in King County, according to state public-assistance records. The number is offset by those finding stable shelter, which experts say is sometimes comparable but difficult to track.

Daniel Malone, executive director of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, said efforts to get people out of homelessness work, but that doesn’t stop new people from becoming homeless.

His nonprofit organization is one of Seattle’s largest that primarily focuses on meeting the needs of people experiencing chronic homelessness, or those who experience long-term or repeated homelessness.

“It doesn’t appear in the big picture that we’re succeeding,” Malone said. “People who exit homelessness stay out of homelessness. As soon as they leave, someone else comes and takes their place.”

January’s One Night Count found 3,772 people living on the streets in King County, including more than 2,800 in Seattle — a 21 percent increase over 2014.

Kyle Crowder, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, said that for the chronically homeless there is a different set of barriers to finding permanent housing compared with people who are “precariously housed,” or have shelter, but are just one economic crisis from homelessness.

Those experiencing chronic homelessness are more likely to also be dealing with addiction or mental illness, he said.

“It’s a much trickier business than just affecting affordability in the metropolitan area,” Crowder said. “If you’re working with someone with drug dependency, untreated mental illness, that’s a different set of hurdles than a single mother who’s trying to raise her three kids on a minimum-wage job.”

Sometimes, it takes social services to start the conversation and show that people care before the homeless can find a resolution themselves, said Mark Putnam, director of All Home, formally the Committee to End Homelessness.

“It takes building a relationship with him,” he said.

McAdams left his cardboard box to get in the Search & Rescue van nearly three years ago because he said “complete strangers were taking time out of their day to touch base” and find out how he was doing.

He ended a decades-long meth addiction.

Making stops

Heaping piles of garbage lined the walk in Ballard on a Search & Rescue mission recently, framing the tents of a small homeless clan. Two residents twitched from meth, while another chatted with McAdams about a mutual friend’s alcoholism.

McAdams tells anyone who needs help to call his cellphone at any time, which can result in conversations at 2 a.m. or midday dates at Chinese buffets to chat about sobriety or housing.

He shares his story at churches and local awareness events, too, collecting hundreds of contacts both on the streets and in the world of advocacy in King County.

On the walk, smoke and the sound of crinkling trash followed the group’s steps as a middle-aged resident of the makeshift camp gave layout explanations, as if on a home tour.

She said that when the rain comes, some of the trash and the residents’ belongings wash away. When trains roll through, the residents make sure to move things to avoid damage because some of the camp’s debris is near the tracks.

McAdams said he can relate to changing scenery. Living outside means always being on the move, never feeling warm and constantly staying alert, out of fear of theft or violence, he said.

One of the drug users was a teen in a cotton T-shirt but no jacket despite the cool, night air. As she jerked and wobbled with anxiousness, McAdams said he recognized the effects of meth.

He quietly expressed concern during the first seconds of getting back to the van, before he turned up the radio to lead a singalong during the drive — he’s routinely thinking about how to keep the volunteers’ spirits from sinking, he said.

“We’re all broken in some way or form. We all have dreams, and we all have hopes in life,” McAdams said.

“But those folks that are out on the street, they’re our community.”