North Urban Human Services Alliance (NUHSA) hosted a free, three-part series on the issues and impact of homelessness in the community this fall, getting neighbors together to talk about the problem on an overarching and individual level.
The last meeting in the series, held Dec. 11 at Kenmore City Hall, was titled “Dangerous vs. Difficult: Useful tools for responding with compassion and concern.”
Dr. Kevin St. Jacques led the first part of the session, explaining how to assess and engage in a potential crisis situation with effective de-escalation techniques. St. Jacques said that most people in crisis feel alone, unheard and scared.
“I want to send a message that, ‘you’re not alone,’” he said. “So I’m going to use a lot of ‘we.’ ‘We can work through this,’ or ‘we can find a solution to this.’ And I want to help [them] feel safe.”
St. Jacques suggests using empathy; try to get to know the person and figure out what their needs are.
The most effective approach is one that is not aggressive. Anyone planning to act as an “interventionist” should also manage their own emotions and be aware of when to walk away or get professional help, he said.
St. Jacques said he offers many different types of trainings, for everyone from soup kitchen volunteers to law enforcement officers all over the state of Washington. St. Jacques holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and is currently a licensed mental health counselor in Washington state, as well as a certified crisis intervention specialist.
Event attendees wanted to know what the humane response is to a homeless person who doesn’t seem dangerous. If you see someone on the street who is not in crisis, “just say hello,” he said.
“Validate them,” he said. “Sociologically and anthropologically, the worst thing you can do to a human is ignore their existence.”
Dr. Wes Browning of Seattle’s Real Change newspaper then talked about his own experiences with homelessness. He’s been homeless four times, and the first was when he was studying math at Cornell University. He was evicted from his apartment, and couldn’t afford another room, so he started sleeping on campus.
“It was kind of a game of hide and seek with the security guards,” Browning said. “There was some comedy.”
Browning now writes a humor column for Real Change called “Adventures in Irony.” He also works for the paper as a vendor relations specialist, editorial committee member and with its Homeless Speakers Bureau.
Browning said he was physically, emotionally and sexually abused as a child, and began to experience severe symptoms of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder as an adult. The illness resulted in homelessness again in the 1980s, after he left school. Browning said he has also been homeless on other occasions simply as a result of poverty and the whims of property developers and company layoffs.
He said that the most important thing people can do to help homeless people is not criminalizing homelessness and not harassing homeless people. Sometimes, the difficulties of being homeless can lead to a dangerous situation, he said.
“The worst thing about being homeless is that you don’t get to sleep, so you’re always tired,” he said. “Malnutrition adds to the problem.”
Rob Beem, a NUHSA board member, said the organization felt it was important to have a conversation about the norms of interacting with homeless people. Members of the community, local leaders, elected officials, business owners, agencies and faith communities were all invited.
“I think we’re going to have people living unhoused for quite a while,” he said. “And we’re not set up to deal with it.”
NUHSA advocates for North King County human service needs with regional and state decision makers, encourages increased funding for human services and offers networking opportunities.
Other topics of discussion in NUHSA’s three-part series were “What’s happening in your community?” and “Adverse Experiences and Resiliency: Why some struggle and others don’t.”
The series was sponsored in part by the Rotary Club of Lake Forest Park, King County Library System, the cities of Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, Ronald United Methodist Church, Hopelink, Center for Human Services, Outreach for Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness and Compass Housing Alliance.
See www.nuhsa.org for more.