Snohomish nonprofit gives struggling drug users a hand up

Dec 21, 2017, 2:52 PM
hand up project...
Hand Up Project volunteers. (Contributed)

As Snohomish County battles the opioid crisis and the homelessness that comes with it, a group of recovering drug users are giving a hand up to get people the help they need.

Their drugs of choice vary: from cocaine and meth to booze and, of course, heroin and other opiates.

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One thing they all have in common is the personal experience with the struggle to get clean — and in many cases the struggle to get off the streets.

Now, dozens of volunteers with the Hand Up Project who have been clean and sober for anywhere from days to years are helping others who have experienced similar struggles.

Robert Smiley started all of this when he launched the nonprofit about 4.5 years ago. Only six months after he kicked his own drug habit.

“It started out as something to help people off the streets, out of addiction, and into recovery,” Smiley said. “And it slowly blossomed.”

Smiley and his volunteers fan out all over Snohomish County to reach out to homeless people addicted to drugs and find out if they’re ready to get some help.

“Yesterday, as an example, we were out in the woods, and there’s a lady, she showed up, she was crying, she was done, she wanted help now,” he said. “We get on the phone and we start calling the detox centers, normally the ones that are outside the county because Kitsap, Skagit, and Port Angeles we can get in the same day. They call, they do the interview, they say there’s a bed ready and we get her in the car and drive her where she needs to go. ”

Hand Up Project

That’s what the Hand Up volunteers do for anyone who is ready for help. When they finish detox and in some cases 30-day treatment, if they’re committed to staying clean they get a spot in one of the six sober houses Hand Up has in Snohomish County. If those are full, Smiley finds sober homes run by others to take the overflow.

Travis, who has been clean now for two years and supervises many of the sober houses for Hand Up, also goes out with the outreach teams.

“We would stomp out into the woods and find little tiny tent cities and we go offer help. Hey, listen are you hungry? Do you need some smokes? Anything to get them talking to us, handing out food, handing out hygiene packs. You know, you look into their eyes and you can tell they’re almost nothing but a shell.”

The outreach team’s efforts are similar to what Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputies teamed with social workers do. Smiley says they try to develop relationships with drug users and homeless people to build trust so that when they’re ready for help, even if it’s not right that moment, they know how to get it.

“You can’t force it. Just go out there and tell your story, let them know you care. When they’re ready they’ll come to you, and when they do … there’s not a better drug out there in the world. Somebody is coming to me after what I did to everybody my entire life? Somebody is coming to me because they think I can help them?

I got a chance to go out with some of the volunteers during an outreach effort in Everett last week. That effort included Stephanie, who has been with Hand Up since July.

“It’s hoping that you can reach one soul and find a roof over their head, food in their mouths, and get them on a road to recovery. But you know, a lot of people just aren’t there yet.”

Another volunteer with us was Adam, who was living in some of the homeless encampments he now does outreach for just a few months ago. That is until he took an offer for help from Hand Up.

“I was shooting up heroin and meth, I have been using hard drugs for 16 years and recently it got bad enough to where I just didn’t care, it was just easier to be on the streets and do drugs rather than bringing anybody else down.”

He’s been clean now for just over 100 days and now lives in one of Hand Up’s sober houses, which he says is going well.

“It’s amazing. Everybody around is just really supportive and I’ve been doing really good. I don’t have urges to use.”

Another volunteer, Rochelle, had lost just about everything, including her kids, because of her drug habit and was living on the streets. After getting help from the Hand Up folks, she’s been clean far almost a year and just got word she’ll be getting her kids back.

Rochelle says going out with outreach teams to try to get others into recovery and off the streets is a key to her sobriety.

Smiley says that’s the idea.

“We hope that everybody we interact will stay sober, but that’s not our issue. My issue is if I’m dealing with you and you’re telling me you want to get sober and you’re willing, I’m going to do my best to help you. Whether you stay sober or not is none of my affair. I’m doing it so that I stay sober.”

The Hand Up Project has helped more than 350 people get off the streets into recovery a nearly 70-percent success rate.

Most of what they do is funded through donations and they always need more help. You can find out more about the Hand Up Project and how to help here.

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Snohomish nonprofit gives struggling drug users a hand up