We should serve those in need, not ourselves

The young boy was screaming out words from his mother’s lap. She was trying to calm him but she herself wasn’t doing so good either. The volume of his wailing and the smallness of the shelter’s office made my voice and the questions I was asking melt into the cacophony.

“What’s he saying?” I said, hoping we could move on but also with an edge of impatience. “He’s saying, he wants to go home,” said Sara, his mother. “So do I,” she added, quietly.

I thought of the noise, the baking summer heat, the flies buzzing, my frustration, and then, as I was trained to do, I returned my attention to Sara, her son and their lives.

“Who do you serve?” an acquaintance from an earlier time in my life would ask of recruits she had mustered to help run a substance abuse recovery program in the local jail. The answers Lois received from us were full of hope and expansive idealism.

“I serve the neighborhood,” said a Mr. Abdullah. “I serve all of God’s children,” Father Schopfer could state with unequivocal love. “I serve the sinner,” said Mr. Lostumbo. The Jesuit novices said something complex and intellectual. Christ, Allah, the Virgin Mother, liberation theology and social justice were also very popular. But, in the end, we were all wrong.

“You are here to serve one person,” Lois Benevento would remind us. “And that is the person in need who has been placed before you.” I would be assigned to a single inmate who would be my sole focus.

It was clear, this was not about me. I was not there to serve my goals. I was not there to advance my agenda. I was not there to tell but to be told. I was there to learn and my first lesson was to be humbled by all that can and often does go wrong in a person’s life.

Then, one person at a time, we changed their worlds.

In all my years of work, I’ve never run into a homeless person who would rather live on the street than in an apartment; I’ve never met a soul who would rather live in the woods than in a house or who would confuse a hut with a home. Nevertheless, slumped bodies inhabit downtown doorways, and tarps tied to ragged tents dot the local woods.

Why is this? The answer is simple: We only help people who conform to our service model. Which means that our service model might not really be about those who are homeless but more about us. And that’s not a criticism, just something to consider.

As a community, we need to do some thinking about a few basic ideas, such as: does isolating the homeless on the edge of town or in encampments in the woods help people who are wracked by abandonment issues, self-loathing and despair? Is it ever wise to mix the short-term homeless population with those who are chronically homeless, a much different population beset by mental illness, addiction and a history of poor decision-making?

Do we moralize to the least of our brethren or attach pragmatism to realism and allocate funds to adopt strategies that enjoy nationwide success? Is there anything wrong with saving money, saving lives, improving downtown and making our woods safer — all the while aiding those whose cries would otherwise go unheard?

Rapid-rehousing programs, such as Sidewalk, actually put money back into the business community by connecting their clients with privately owned available low-cost rental units. That’s taxpayer-generated money going back into the hardworking community that created it.

SideWalk does it for a fraction of the cost of traditional programming with successful outcomes 96 percent of the time.

Housing First (Permanent Supportive Housing) programs, such as 1811 Eastlake in Seattle, save taxpayers millions while improving the recovery and rebuilding the dignity of formally chronically homeless men. This program is successful 87 percent of the time.

Serving those who are homeless might not be your calling, but how they receive publicly funded service is, in part, your decision as a voting citizen. If you or one of yours was out on the street, how would you want to be helped?

Curt Andino is the Executive Director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He may be reached at curt.andino@spshabitat.org