On a gray and chilly spring morning, 40 volunteers converged at the Yesler Way bridge.
Off the road, erected under a canopy of pines, a series of tents and makeshift structures sat facing the metropolitan heart of downtown Seattle.
Below that, collecting along the fence separating a steep drop to Interstate 5, are piles of garbage: bed sheets, blankets, various articles of clothing, empty bottles and cans.
Hundreds of used syringes litter the ground.
A couple homeless residents watch as men and women begin gathering the litter in garbage bags, carefully disposing of the needles in special containers.
Rex Hohlbein, founder and creative director of Facing Homelessness, walks up and down the edge of the encampment with his camera, stopping to snap photos of the volunteers.
“Some people are going to hate the garbage and complain about it,” Hohlbein said. “And some people are going to hate the garbage and do something about it.”
This is the third cleanup organized by Hohlbein and the latest undertaking by his organization to provide services to Seattle’s homeless population.
Done in coordination with Seattle Public Utilities and People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, the cleanups are now a regular, citywide effort.
Hohlbein was inspired to create Facing Homelessness after his conversations with homeless individuals, whom he would invite to his Fremont architecture office, according to the organization’s website.
Hohlbein’s organization began as a social media project on Facebook, where he would post black and white photos of the homeless community.
In 2013, Hohlbein founded a nonprofit so that he could balance his career as an architect with his work for the homeless.
Other projects include their “Just Say Hello” campaign, which encourages the housed community to engage the homeless community interpersonally, and a “Window of Kindness,” where volunteers give away socks, sleeping bags and gloves.
The philosophy behind Facing Homelessness is that homelessness can be solved only when the entire community coalesces around the issue, which is why all of their projects require direct engagement.
“It’s not a compassion issue. It’s a proximity issue,” he said.
Blair Jordan, a Facing Homelessness volunteer, showed up that day for her third time participating in a cleanup.
“I feel like this is a good way for the community to get involved and meet people who live outside,” Jordan said.
Several years ago, she began following the organization’s Facebook page, where she befriended a homeless man. Through offering support and raising funds for him online, he was eventually able to find housing and has been off the streets for more than a year now.
Jordan, who is studying business at University of Washington Bothell Eastside Leadership Center, plans to start a nonprofit that works with the homeless after she graduates.
Another volunteer was Samantha Garner, who has been homeless since 2001.
“I wish the city would bring a big ol’ truck here and shovel it all up,” she said, referring to the trash.
Garner and her mother came to Seattle from Tennessee when she was in middle school.
Before living in a tent, she spent much of the past 18 years in motels, shelters and transitional housing.
She was glad she could help with the cleanup.
“It’s really amazing [that] people make time to come out and do this,” Garner said.
Homelessness in Seattle has vexed local politicians and residents, who feel overwhelmed with increasing garbage and needles around the city, according to The Seattle Times.
Ballard is one example of a community dealing with, at times, hazardous trash produced by encampments.
“It’s often an embarrassment,” said Aaron Klaus, the property manager for the apartment complex The Commons in Ballard.
Across the street from the complex, the Commons Park is frequently occupied by those living outside. But for Klaus and his tenants, it’s not the camps themselves that are the problem.
“The bigger issue is that it’s a tent surrounded by all the trash that the people coming there are letting go of,” he said. “We’ll find that, most of the time, it contains biohazards; sharps, needles — we see a lot of fecal matter.”
Klaus believes that offering mental health services to the homeless population is an important component to resolving the problem.
Frustration with the garbage is not limited to those who are housed. It’s shared among those living outside, who often experience the same fate as their messy neighbors.
Sabina Lopez, a homeless resident and Real Change vendor, recalled the time her encampment was swept. She returned just in time to gather her personal belongings before they were taken by the city.
“Because of all that mess, people get kicked out for that,” Lopez said. “We had to keep relocating or get swept up and lose everything.”
Finding an alternative to sweeps was a primary motivation for the cleanups, said Hohlbein.
“By cleaning up garbage, we can remove the need for sweeps,” he said. “Sweeping is just creating trauma for people who live outside.”
Hohlbein does not believe that it is effective to assign blame with the city or the homeless population.
Instead, he invites everyone in Seattle to get to know the individuals who live on our streets and help alleviate the issue of homelessness together.
“I would encourage people to begin,” Hohlbein said. “That’s the hardest part about getting involved.”
Read the full June 12 - 18 issue.
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