Seattle’s Westlake Center, 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. The shoppers are gone and in their place, a group of homeless people sit around talking, skateboarding, their dogs in tow. Every week they get a visit from the Union Gospel Mission’s Search and Rescue van. Packed with volunteers and interns, they hit up several neighborhoods and cities each day, bringing supplies and conversation to the homeless.
“We meet their physical needs,” says Search and Rescue’s Dru Lee. “Blankets, hot chocolate, food, hygiene, clothes. But now me, personally, I got real big on the other side, which is the relational side. Most of the time I’ll spend 20 minutes to a half hour at a spot. I know all the guys. Outside of us, they don’t get much normal, healthy conversation. And that’s what we bring ’em.”
Dru got dropped off at Union Gospel Mission two years ago. Here’s his life story in 21 seconds.
“I actually left my house when I was 15 because I was stabbed and shot and I lived on the street. Cleaned up a little bit. I ended up doing a four and a half year bit in prison. Got out, went back to the same kind of stuff, got good again, opened a business, got bad again, attempted suicide. Family brought me out here, tricked me into coming here. Two years later here I am.”
Now he’s a changed man, who works with the Search and Rescue Coordinator on these nightly missions.
“When I first started it, I did it to get out of the building. I didn’t care about anybody. But doing this, you know, it showed me love and compassion. I love it. Not only was it the path that was set in front of me. It’s a deep, deep passion of mine.”
Every night he works with a new crop of volunteers. He gives them a little speech before they go out.
“You’re gonna be conversating with people. All of them are going to be high, they’re going to be drunk, they’re going to be mentally ill. If you don’t know how to start a conversation, say ‘Would you like a cup of hot chocolate?’ Most of them love it because I make some killer hot chocolate! Engage them, ask them how their day was. How they’re feeling, anything good happen, bad happen?”
Before they leave, there’s always a prayer. A Union Gospel Mission intern named Adam leads the prayer.
“Let us treat them like humans and let them feel like humans tonight for once. Ask all this stuff in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Our first stop was in SoDo, where a scattering of people live in their vans and old RV’s. Including Norm, a kind older man with a big white beard who doesn’t feel comfortable going to the shelters and soup kitchens.
“I don’t do well with crowds and whatnot. I’m kind of a shut-in because I shut down around too many people. I can’t do more than a half dozen people. I get very claustrophobic.”
When Norm got out of prison, the only work he could get was as a telemarketer, but he was laid off when the economy tanked in 2008 and hasn’t snagged a job since.
“The items that they bring us, that really helps out,” Norm told me from inside his van. “But the fact that people come and they’ll talk with you and spend some time. Recognizing that somebody takes some time out of their day to come down and help somebody that’s down, it means a lot to us because when you’re in this kind of situation you lose touch with friends and family and whatnot. Not having contact like that, it makes you feel very, very alone. Very vulnerable.”
He’s formed a little ragtag community on the streets.
“Hey Roger!” Norm calls to a passing man. “82 years old. Been living in his van for 20 years or more.”
We left Norm with a pair of socks, some hot chocolate and a couple of sandwiches.
Next stop: Westlake.
A young, very pregnant girl approaches Sharon, Union Gospel Mission’s PR person. She says she needs a place to stay. Sharon immediately makes a call to a women’s shelter to get the girl a phone number and some information.
Dru says the work they do on the street is different from what happens at the Mission in Pioneer Square.
“What we do at night, we pass no judgement. We help them. Whether they’re drunk, high, whatever. It’s very different from what goes on [at Union Gospel Mission]. The mind set in here, you’re drunk or high, you leave. Out there, I don’t turn anybody away.”
Which is 180 degrees different than the way he used to be.
“I used to hate people, I couldn’t stand them. But I was also never a believer in God. Finding my way through God and learning as much as I have, at the end of the day I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
The thing the homeless people need most is socks, and Union Gospel Mission never has enough. They hand out 35,000 every year.
If you would like to donate some socks, you can drop them off or mail them to:
Union Gospel Mission
3800 S. Othello St
Seattle WA 98118