This is a follow-up to my last post “Drive-by People“, call it “No more driving by”. Scroll to the end to see my “Buy a Book, Save a Foot” idea.
I met Chris under the freeway on Jackson Street. A year ago, he could have been me. Middle 40’s, successful business owner, had a house on an acre of property east of Seattle, wife, two kids, dog. But when I met him he was living under the I-5 freeway on Jackson Street. Why? He told me. He was an alcoholic and that had ruined his first marriage. But he got sober. He built a life that worked. He built a family. He built a construction business. Then one day he injured his back working on a construction project. He was prescribed opiates for the pain and it triggered his addiction. When the prescription drugs ran out, Chris turned to heroin and cocaine.
When I met Chris he was months into a downward spiral. I noticed he had two large, dark scabs peeling from his cheeks. I thought he might have fallen or been in a fight. I asked him what the scabs were from. The reality was far worse than I could have imagined: the cocaine Chris was still doing was laced with a veterinary drug–levamisole, a pig, cattle and sheep de-wormer. It’s a common and terrible additive in much of the cocaine circulating these days. Levamisole causes the skin of the face to begin rotting away and that’s what was happening to Chris. He knew it, he hated it, he wanted to stop doing the drug that was causing it. “But,” he said, “I know I won’t if I don’t get help.” He told us he had an appointment at a treatment facility in Renton the next day. He was worried he would sleep too long and miss his bus to Renton. He knew which bus to take, just not if he would be on it.
I was with a group from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission rescue van program. A week after we met Chris, a couple of the others in my group called the Renton treatment facility to see if Chris had made it there. They had no record of his arrival. The group members went back to the spot under I-5 where we’d met Chris, but they never found him.
In my first post about drive-by people, I admitted I was annoyed by the presence of so many homeless because I didn’t know what to do about the problem. Since then I’ve decided the most important thing I can do about the problem is to stop judging it from the outside and, instead, get inside of it. My friend Larry Snyder (author, charity auctioneer, philanthropist extraordinaire) invited me to go with him on the Union Gospel Mission rescue van. I went. I’ve been multiple times since. I’m going out again tonight. What I’ve learned is that the problem is huge, but it looks bigger from the outside when I’m doing nothing. On the inside of the problem are people who are suffering. People who need. They need supplies–dry socks, clean underwear, toothbrushes, gloves, hats, blankets. They need food. They need shelter. They need a system that better supports them. Many of them need drug treatment and they know it. They need a lot of things. But most importantly, they need three things: 1) They need compassion, just as we all do. 2) They need the experience of being treated like people–you don’t have to give them money, give them a moment of your time and a “hello, what is your name?” 3) They need us to not give up.
No one person can solve the problem and even collectively street-level action is not going to reverse the tide. But we individuals can ease suffering and though the individual action is small, it is important
Buy a Book, Save a Foot
Here’s what I’m doing right now:
The first time I went out on the van I was amazed to see that, yes, the people were happy to get some food, and a warm drink and a blanket. Those things got them excited and it didn’t surprise me. Something else that got them excited and was a big surprise to me was socks and underwear. I thought about it afterwards and realized it shouldn’t surprise me. Of course! If you’re cold, wet and dirty from the skin out it just compounds your suffering. Undergarments are often overlooked when we’re thinking about what needs we can address. And I’ve heard it said since that first outing that, when you’re homeless, “if your feet go, you’re in really big trouble.”
I have a publishing company, Iron Twine Press. We’ve just released a new book: Color Stories: the Short Fiction Coloring Book. It’s a lot of fun, this new book. Thirty-two flash fiction stories paired with coloring pages inspired by the stories themselves. It’s the coloring book for lovers of story, the story collection for lovers of coloring books. You can find it on Amazon and Elliott Bay Book Company and read more about it on the Iron Twine Press site.
From today until the end of the year $1 from the purchase of each copy of Color Stories will be used to buy new socks and underwear which Iron Twine Press will then donate to The MORELove Project for Seattle’s Homeless. This organization directly supports the Union Gospel Mission rescue van program and can get the supplies to the people who need them. I know, socks and underpants are funny…unless you don’t have them when you need them, then they’re kind of serious.
This is just a first step. In January 2017, I’ll assess how this is going and either continue it or try something else.
Please consider buying a copy of Color Stories. And even if you don’t buy one, please spread the word about this, lets see how big an impact we can make together. If you do get a copy, I know you’ll enjoy the book and you’ll have the added enjoyment of knowing that you’re helping ease a little of the suffering around us.