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Reaching out to the Seattle homeless, one firetruck at a time

Steve Hickey grew up with family members who struggled with drugs and alcohol, and came to understand that while addiction can spur negative activity, there’s always another side to the person who’s struggling. This perspective spawned a rather creative use of a couple of firetrucks.

A real estate developer by day, Hickey previously purchased a couple of firetrucks to water down building sites, and thought they might be useful for community outreach, too.

“I remembered something they used to do in Marysville growing up where they would drive firetrucks around and put a Santa Claus in them. They would drive through communities looking to collect canned foods and any other types of donations that then they would give to families in need,” he said.

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So Hickey used his firetrucks to do just that. With a team of volunteers, he loaded up the firetrucks and took them around the second week of December to collect canned goods for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Teaming up with Union Gospel Mission

“By the time Christmas came we’d already raised over ten thousand pounds of food, which far exceeded what we were expecting,” he said. “At the end of this, it was kind of a realization that this was a ragtag operation with just a handful of volunteers on a short amount of time. We were able to make a pretty big impact and so we started thinking about what else could we do.”

Hickey then drew inspiration from the search and rescue program at Union Gospel Mission, where volunteers head out into homeless communities and try to initiate a positive contact, offering basic supplies like blankets, food, something warm to drink when it’s cold and something cold to drink when it’s hot, among other necessities.

“A lot of these people may not be ready but when they are, we want to have somewhere for them to go that they know they can feel safe and be able to enter into a drug rehabilitation program, and look at housing,” he said. “They have a lot of resources, but it really starts with having a positive contact in that moment, which is something they don’t get much throughout the city.”

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Using this understanding, Hickey is creating his own nonprofit called Clarity Outreach, which he hopes will streamline the process for the homeless and create fewer steps between them and the resources, and the help they so desperately need in and around Seattle.

“When we go out into these communities, one of the challenges with a lot of the outreach programs is being able to connect somebody to services when they’re ready,” he said. “The next step, generally, is to start connecting them with other organizations, but that can be a long, cumbersome process that’s going to involve many multi-page applications, that’s going to involve appointments in different locations throughout the city.”

Hickey says this can be difficult for someone experiencing homeless, considering the trauma they’ve often been through, as well as a lack of transportation, all of which sometimes leads to a lack of follow-through.

“We want to be able to streamline that to where we can come out, make contact with somebody, get to a standardized intake process and be able to refer them to those organizations in the moment, instead of scheduling out weeks out for appointments and then hoping that they follow through,” he said.

Using firetrucks as outreach

The firetrucks will absolutely play a part in this.

“For the food drive, it was a pretty easy fit. They’re noisy, they’re flashy, and it gets everybody to come out. We found that going into these communities with a firetruck, we’re meeting children we didn’t know were in these communities. A lot of the adults really enjoy it, too.”

“The firetrucks themselves are really an international symbol of peace and help, and so to be able to use these to let them continue serving communities seemed like a pretty good fit.”

Hickey hopes that we gain a better appreciation of the human side of the struggles that many homeless people face, often lost in a sea of negative headlines.

“A lot these people are doing things that the public is not comfortable with or the public sees as destructive — I’m not going argue that. But they are somebody’s parents, somebody’s child, somebody’s sibling, and if we can find a way to get them out of that situation, not only is it good for them from a compassionate standpoint, but it’s good for the city, it’s good for everybody who lives out here.”

MyNorthwest is spotlighting local businesses that are making a difference in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness. If you know of a business that you think is creating solutions, please email us at [email protected] with details.

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