Homelessness in Seattle: Part Two

A regular on the streets of Seattle's Pioneer Square.

A regular on the streets of Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

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.”

Jonas Stone sells a copy of the weekly street newspaper, Real Change.

Jonas Stone sells a copy of the weekly street newspaper, Real Change.

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?


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Homelessness in Seattle: Part Two

  1. reocochran says:

    Jim, such thoughtful profiles of living, breathing examples of humanity. One’s who may have had problems or hit a brick wall. Overcoming challenges is easy if you have much, it is harder when you are living day by day, paycheck to paycheck. One bad move or disaster takes people into homelessness.
    You showed their qualities. I admire this so much, Jim.
    I have written short character studies of 3 local homeless people. They are in amongst my posts. Thank you for a great post which meant a lot to me.


  2. My heart breaks for those two women Jim. That odor is hard to be around. I usually say no to homeless people asking for change. Sometimes I don’t have any, other times I’m in hurry, and other times, I’m just scared they’ll get booze. But honestly, when I think about it, no one monitors whether or not I drink..

    Today after work, as I passed a homeless man sitting on a bench, he said excuse me. And I stopped. “I don’t want money,” he said. “I’m really hungry though, would you buy me some food?”

    Jim I’ve said no a lot lately, and I’ve found myself wondering why, and I tell myself next time I will help and then I say no again. So today I said sure, what do you feel like eating? “Chinese,” he said. So a few minutes later, I was ordering the #4 combo and was about to leave but decided to talk to him a bit first.

    I gave him my business card and told him if he ever decided he’s had enough and wants to get sober and seeks treatment, he should call the organization I work for and apply to live in a home in a nice neighborhood, away from danger areas.

    On my way back home, I saw him sitting at a table on the sidewalk eating his meal. He didn’t see me. He didn’t know I sent up a prayer for him. Maybe…maybe my encounter with him will have the same affect as the woman who spoke with Jonas had. I sure hope so. ❤
    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      That’s beautiful, Diana … that encounter happened for a reason, I’d say. Something told him to ask you specifically for Chinese, and something told you to help him out. You may have turned him around onto a better path. But even if that doesn’t happen, you fed someone who was hungry and gave him a chance. Who knows, maybe tomorrow he’ll take you up on that offer and call your organization. You gave him hope, and that’s where it has to start.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Angie Mc says:

    Baseball metaphor alert -> life often feels like “3 strikes you’re out” but really, most of us need many attempts before we can push past all the pain to get to the next level. When I worked with victims of domestic violence, the number of times a woman needed to attempt to leave was staggering. It is tempting to get frustrated with the attempts of ourselves and others, to give up, to judge harshly. I’ve found the best way to see the attempts is that each gets us closer to the mystery number that can set up free. I’m so glad a woman offered help to Jonas, helped with an attempt. Attempting and helping others attempt is invaluable!


  4. markbialczak says:

    A little bit of caring can go such a long way. Thanks for illustrating this so clearly, my friend.


  5. Jim the saddest thing is when others dehumanise those lost souls. I use to try and help when I had extra cash on my inner city street but I think you become conditioned into thinking this is just normal, especially when the same person does not recognise you on your return and asks for more money. Sadly no one should be brushed aside or ignored and I am amazed when kind people do more good and kindness and change somebodies life. Putting a story behind each person helps those to understand more. Thanks for doing just that.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Kath … That’s very true, the feeling that accompanies someone asking you for more and not remembering that you already helped, makes it harder to be generous sometimes. I just saw so many sad and lost souls, begging for spare change. My parents used a phrase a lot, “hat in hand,” to refer to someone asking for help. I saw one older man literally holding a baseball hat out at a street corner asking for money. It was empty.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Michael Dare says:

    Everyone in Seattle can get a free shower and do their laundry at an Urban Rest Stop. http://www.urbanreststop.org/. People who stink have got serious mental health problems far beyond mere homelessness.


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