Three observations from my recent Seattle visit that included volunteering for an organization that advocates for the homeless:
As I walked through downtown one afternoon looking for street newspaper vendors to interview, the rains came.
I was soaked and needed to dry out before boarding the train home. My port in the storm? An Irish pub in Seattle’s gritty Pioneer Square.
At the bar, a man with close-cropped gray hair — and sunglasses — had just ordered a drink. The bartender asked where he was going to sit.
After the man settled into a booth near the entrance, I noticed he had a backpack and a large, lumpy garbage bag with him. Both were at his feet, sticking out into the aisle. He took his time with his drink, gazing out the window at the rain, sunglasses on. He folded and unfolded a small piece of paper, looking at it and putting it back in his pocket several times.
The place started to fill up with well-dressed professionals who had called it a day. The man got up and headed for the back of the pub, presumably to the men’s room. He left his backpack and garbage bag where they were. After about 10 minutes he hadn’t come back, and I left.
The next day I saw the man sitting with his backpack and garbage bag on a bench in nearby Occidental Park, a common gathering place for Seattle’s homeless.
If you’re homeless and in a crowded white-collar establishment, you needn’t worry about anyone stealing your stuff.
The smell of urine — stale, pungent, soaked into clothing — is unmistakeable and powerful. I observed two instances, both involving women and unrelated to the volunteer work I was doing. I was simply using public transportation.
As I waited on an underground platform for a train, three men in bright yellow security vests converged on a woman. She was wrapped almost head to toe in black, and gave off a strong odor they must have detected before I did.
They surrounded her, and rather casually told her she had to leave. I heard the word “hygiene.” She left, but not before sitting down next to a trash can and rocking back and forth until she was again told to move along. I wondered where she would go.
A few days later: A disheveled, white-haired woman boarded a city bus on a busy Saturday afternoon, sunny and warm. As she walked by, there was no mistaking the odor. She was in bad shape. The bus was crowded. She picked a seat a few rows behind us, next to a man who, to his credit, didn’t get up and move. I looked back as we got off the bus, and I wondered where she was going.
Jonas Stone is a street newspaper vendor who told me bits and pieces of his life story. He worked a variety of jobs, served in the military, was a sound technician for a rock ‘n’ roll band, married and divorced twice. He’s 57, has five children and four grandchildren.
“I really started drinking when my first son died at birth,” he said. That was in the 1980s. “I had a one-track mind, drinking two fifths of rum a day.”
He ended up in Seattle and was homeless for about 15 years, often sleeping under a tree. One day he was sitting on the ground and a woman asked him if he wanted help. He said yes, and wound up in rehab.
The day after Jonas told me about the woman, I asked him: What made you say yes?
“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, as they say,” Jonas said. “She had seen me a few times, and could see my condition was deteriorating.”
He relapsed after a month, got into trouble and was given the choice of rehab or jail. He chose rehab, and this time it stuck. That was 2007. Now Jonas goes home every night to an apartment he shares with another veteran. “I don’t want to drink,” he said, “and I don’t need to.”
I wonder. If that woman hadn’t cared enough to ask Jonas if he wanted help, where would he be right now?