After hosting a charity auction for the Union Gospel Mission in October, KIRO Radio host John Curley was invited to ride along on one of their search and rescue missions. The experience of a trip in a rickety old 1980s van traveling between homeless camps around the city was something he had to share on Seattle’s Morning News.
“I’m telling you guys. It is the oddest experience,” says Curley. “It’s so odd to all of a sudden be face-to-face with the stereotype of the homeless man.”
Curley joined the Union Gospel Mission Tuesday on their regular route distributing blankets, sandwiches, and candy to busy homeless sites around Seattle. He was accompanied by nine women and one other man. The only rule on the mission was that you can’t just give something to a homeless person, you also have to interact with them in some way.
“You just hand them a sandwich, you’re like, ‘How’s life?'” says Curley. “And they’re just chatting with you.”
Standing at the first stop, a homeless camp under I-5, Curley says he set aside all the defenses he normally arms himself with when confronted by a homeless person.
“If your beard is grizzled and you smell like something disgusting, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a story,” says Curley. “The homeless that live under I-5, each one of them has a story and it begins with the fact that they are human.”
Curley asked his fellow volunteers, more familiar with the program, who these homeless people are that they’re helping. He was told many suffer from addiction problems and their lives involve a lot of drugs, turning tricks, and other generally unfavorable behaviors.
“So how do you wrap your mind around the fact that you’re giving someone a sandwich and maybe they then are just living another day to support a drug and alcohol problem? How do you come to terms with this?” Curley wondered.
Kristine Moreland, the woman who invited him on the outing, says she just turns the question around.
“Have you walked an hour in their shoes to know why they’re there? Do you think that the drugs are preventing them from making the right decisions and it becomes a disease ultimately? I do. So in that sense, I no longer believe I’m enabling someone. I’m helping them survive.”
The warm blanket or sandwich could give them strength to survive another day, when they might just decide to turn their life around, Curley notes. While it’s about survival for some, Moreland says there are cases where the support is enabling people.
“They’re making decisions, for whatever reason, to be out there. There’s some that just choose to be on the streets. For example, my father,” Moreland volunteers. “He has made a decision for the last 55 years to live on the streets.”
In the beginning, she says she was motivated to help mostly by her father’s situation. But now it’s not just about him.
Her story is a reminder, Curley says, of just how closely we all are connected, and that these folks out on the streets are part of that network as well.
“Somewhere on the streets is her father, maybe in Seattle or maybe some other city. But he has a story and he has a family and he is connected to someone, and we are all connected to one another.”
After spending a night in the dark in homeless camps around Seattle, Curley thinks the work the people at the Union Gospel Mission do is amazing.
“They stop in these places that most people would never want to go at night and out from the darkness come these individuals,” says Curley. “They’re out there every single day. Not judging, just helping.”