Shaun Knittel wears many hats: editor of Seattle Gay News, spokesperson for Neighbors nightclub and founder and president of the LGBTQ social justice organization Social Outreach Seattle.
Somehow, he stills finds the time to spend some of his evenings driving around in the Safety Shuttle. It’s an idea he crafted to address rising concern over LGBTQ hate crime in the neighborhood and the desire for a community-driven response.
Since March, when he announced the two-month pilot program to an applauding crowd at a community forum, Knittel and volunteer drivers have been shuttling people home — for free or by donation — during the peak Capitol Hill nightlife hours of 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., Thursday through Sunday. The van carries nine people and is meant to offer a safe place. Those in need can text the van’s driver or hop in when they see it parked nearby. Since the launch, the van has served between 10 and 20 people nightly, roughly 500 since the pilot started.
The Safety Shuttle has received support along the way. A company recently offered to create rainbow-colored vinyl skins for the exterior, LGBTQ organizations have used the van for events and trainings, and an anonymous donor helped Knittel upgrade to a different van — the original white one had tinted windows and looked, well, a little ominous (the new van gets better gas mileage anyway).
The trial period has drawn to a close, and Knittel is heading into the official launch on June 1 with plenty of new knowledge: It costs about $25 nightly for gas, the greatest need for transportation is between midnight and 4 a.m., and much of the crime he witnesses on a nightly basis goes unaddressed.
Along with that knowledge, Knittel has a new mobile app and lots of plans for the future. Real Change caught up with him just in time for the launch.
Why did you do the pilot program?
I wanted to do two full months, because I think it’s foolish to launch a program and act as if we knew exactly where and when the need was. We didn’t know, and so I wanted to do this right. And I really feel that we have because — my goodness — we got so much data and information from doing this.
Who used the shuttle?
A lot of people did not have money. They were either drunk and lost their wallet or had been left by friends somehow. Some of them had been attacked. We have taken five different people who had just been attacked and their phone and wallet was taken. All five of those people did not want to make police reports, unfortunately. So we still made sure that they got home safely without charging them or asking their name. Our only goal is to move people about the Hill safely or to get them home. We’ve gone as far away as Kent and Issaquah and SeaTac. Obviously, we would like to keep it in the neighborhood so we can get people moved around on Capitol Hill where there’s a greater concentration of bias crimes lately. But we will go that far to take people home, and there’s no other motivation other than that.
Those five people didn’t report to the police, but they called the Safety Shuttle?
Two of them found us because we will park the safety shuttle sometimes at that Shell Station on Broadway and Pike. It is a major, major problem; there is so much crap that happens at that place, and we know that us being there is a deterrent. Twice, the security teams that work there brought people over to us and said, ‘Hey, this just happened to them and we wanted to let them know about the Safety Shuttle.’ So then we say ‘OK, where are you going?’ and we take them.
There had been some criticism in online discussions that it might just turn into a hub for drunk people or for people who are not really the intended population. Was that an issue?
Here’s the truth: When we’re driving people or taking you home, we don’t ask your sexual orientation or your gender identity when you get into the van. Therefore, quite frankly, unless someone came out and said it to us, I couldn’t tell you the actual real number of gay versus straight because we don’t discriminate. So although it’s a beacon of safety and a safe place for those that are in the LGBTQ community, nobody’s asked when they get in the van. Honestly, the people that are taking rides home from us are like angels and we’ve cracked up about it. Me and the driver were talking one night and I said, ‘Gosh, everybody thanks us, and this is supposed to be a bunch of wild drunks and everything.’ People have been fantastic and there are lots of groups of friends that are mixed: male, female, gay, straight. We only had two people who were visibly intoxicated and they acted just fine once they got in the van. The truth is we have not had anybody try to abuse the program. … The shuttle drives by and people will honk, wave, give us the thumbs up and thank us for what we’re doing. I would challenge anyone who has a criticism of the shuttle to test us and take a ride with us, and I guarantee you, they’ll feel differently about what we’re doing.
Do you have any goals for what the Safety Shuttle might become in the future?
What we’re in the process of doing is getting a shuttle bus — one of the ones that’s a 20-seater or something like that. And again, having it rainbow decaled so it’s recognizable and to make sure people understand it’s ours. Also, really setting up a regular route on the Hill so that people trying to go from place to place can wait a couple minutes and this bus will come around to different bars and nightclubs that want to be a partner in this. Then, the van will be used just for people who need to go farther distances. We really want the community to understand that this is here for them, and to be a partner with us by helping us mold this. What are the needs that maybe six months from now might change? We’ll be flexible.
Anything else that you learned that you weren’t expecting?
A lot of the people that have taken the van are touched. They really are like ‘Wow, thank you very much.’ It’s been very heartfelt, and I didn’t expect that. I think that because our heart is in the right place and our goals are community-oriented, the van has not been so much as scratched and nothing has been written on it. We have not had anyone intimidate or threaten us and we’ve had nothing but good responses from people who really, sincerely have said ‘Wow, this is great.’ It’s been fantastic. It’s really brought us a lot closer to the community that we serve, and we are humbled by it and thankful for it. We wish that one day it won’t be needed but until that need subsides, we’ll be out there getting people from place to place safely.