James Randall joined the Army at 18, was deployed to the Middle East and came home an alcoholic.
His addiction led to his being discharged not only from the Army, but into the streets. He was homeless for two years, sometimes in a drug-induced psychosis, and was arrested more than 20 times. After his last arrest, he chose to go to King County Regional Veterans Court here in Seattle, which required that he be in treatment. Only then did the idea of recovery cross his mind.
“It had to be my choice,” Randall said of going into treatment. “But the resources had to be offered.”
That should give all of us pause. We are in crisis, and are raising millions upon millions of dollars to “end homelessness.” But I worry that our focus is too much on buildings — and not enough on rebuilding the addicted lives that lay shattered before us on sidewalks, overpasses and shelters.
The other day, the city announced plans for a $46 million complex to house 94 homeless and low-wage working families in South Seattle. The project was funded with $30 million from billionaire Paul Allen, $5 million from the city and $10.7 million from a housing tax credit.
Last week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced plans to donate $2 billion in funding to existing nonprofits helping homeless families, and create a network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities.
And this past summer, Pearl Jam’s Home Shows raised $11 million toward ending homelessness.
My hope is that when all this money is being disbursed, a good chunk goes to treatment services, ending the addiction and the hopelessness that comes with it. Give people a sense of community. Show them the potential they gave up long ago. Don’t just put them in a room and think the problem is solved.
“That’s an interesting idea,” said Christopher Anderson, who lives at a shelter and is a member of Recovery Cafe, which had its annual Standing in the Gap Breakfast the other morning. Getting sober requires “a serious personal commitment” that Anderson doesn’t hear much about beyond the Recovery Cafe’s doors.
“I don’t see the leap, the internal leap, when people walk into the shelter,” Anderson said. “To have a contact or a touchstone in a shelter that would bridge you to something like that? That would be very powerful.”
Said Randall: “To offer those resources would be awesome, because most people don’t know they exist. I was on the streets for three years not even knowing where the shelter was.”
Two years later, he’s sober, a 4.0 student at Bellevue College and a barista at the Recovery Cafe who facilitates recovery meetings.
“The healing starts,” he said. “And it’s profound healing. Like, profound.”
Consider: Every time an encampment is cleaned out, or a cluster of tents is removed from a greenway or from under an overpass, the detritus of addiction remains. Syringes. Foil. Tiny plastic bags. Cans and bottles. People aren’t just living in filth and aimlessness. They’re in pain.
Last year, 72,000 died of drug overdoses nationwide. And the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has grown to 8,522 — too many of them addicted. If we want to get people out of all those tents that line our streets and sidewalks, we have to start by getting them out of the grip of addiction and into recovery.
In San Francisco, city officials have ordered the removal of homeless encampments. The aim is not only to improve public safety, but to direct people to resources — including recovery services.
Robert Prince, the director of contract operations at Seattle’s Fare Start, sees it every day. The nonprofit offers job training and life skills to those who have struggled with homelessness and addiction. And, as part of their training, Fare Start members serve meals in the same shelters where some of them once lived.
“They see the opportunity they have on this side,” Prince said. “It’s almost like looking in the mirror. Any step up requires sobriety.”