About nine months ago, I left a well-paid staff position at the magazine you are now reading and took an entry-level job at a chaotic, drug-infested homeless shelter in Seattle. I took the plunge for lots of reasons: because life is short, because I am young and without a family and value experience, because I had tired of politics and the media, and because I had met one too many people who, when asked if they enjoy their work, shrug and say, “Well, it pays the bills.” But most of all, I entered social service because I received life-saving mental-health treatment in college and am interested in giving something back, either for several years or permanently.
I work for a non-profit called the Downtown Emergency Service Center. I became interested in DESC after reading this profile of its executive director, Bill Hobson, in the Seattle Weekly. He seemed like a dedicated, competent, no-bullshit advocate for the disadvantaged. About 20 years ago he abandoned a political-science professorship and began a $5-an-hour job at DESC, then just a nighttime shelter with a handful of employees. Under his leadership, DESC has grown into a $7.5 million organization. (Ten years ago its budget was just $2 million.) It consists of a 24-hour emergency shelter that serves 10,000 people a year, four apartment buildings that house nearly 500 formerly homeless people, and 200 employees, including clinical staff who provide mental-health and addiction-recovery services to about 650 people.
A year ago I called Bill Hobson, introduced myself, and told him I was a political journalist looking to enter social services. He talked to me for about 20 minutes and suggested I volunteer in the shelter, to get a taste. I did, and three months I later took a full-time position. My job title is “counselor,” which is misleading. I’m not a therapist, or even a case manager (i.e., someone who monitors the basic needs of a caseload of clients). My job is to help run the minute-by-minute operations of the shelter during the daytime. This includes monitoring who enters the shelter (everyone has an ID card); enforcing rules against fighting, yelling, and drug use; signing people up for mats; passing out goodies like coffee, towels, toothbrushes, and tampons; and trying to figure out the needs of people who are often dirty, smelly, angry, hungry, crazy, high, scared, confused, and needy.
The shelter is on the second floor of a 1908, seven-story brick building called the Morrison Hotel. The Morrison Hotel used to be just that, a luxury hotel, and was even home to a society of entrepreneurs called the “Arctic Club.” Today, the five floors above the shelter hold 200 closet-sized apartments for formerly homeless people. The street level features DESC’s administrative offices, a nightclub, two eateries (one of which is a homeless charity), lots of drug dealing and loitering, and the occasional shooting. Across the street are the King County Courthouse and a small park. Within several blocks there are more convenience stores, check-cashing outlets, and bail-bonds agencies than you can shake a stick at. In a word, I work on Skid Row.
When I say “Skid Row,” I mean that literally: The shelter is located next to Yesler Way, which in the late 19th century became known as “Skid Road” when pioneers dragged logs down its steep incline to a waterfront mill. As Seattle’s business district migrated north during the 20th century, the area deteriorated, and from “Skid Road” came the term ” Skid Row.” The area, also known as Pioneer Square, was gentrified 20 to 30 years ago, but it is still home to most of the city’s homeless as well as to the social-service agencies that serve them.
Many of those agencies are religious. DESC was founded, in 1979, as one of the first secular charities in Pioneer Square. Almost all its money comes from the government. The City of Seattle provides over 90 percent of the shelter’s budget. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development contributes about three quarters of the housing program’s expenses. (The rest comes from private sources, most prominently from an AIDS group.) The salaries of the mental-health staff come from both King County—as a pass through from Washington state—and Medicaid. It’s worth noting that DESC, like most human-service charities, operates on a shoestring. Its highest-paid administrator, Hobson, makes $75,000 a year, and most of its employees make far less than do people with comparable experience and responsibility in the for-profit world (including at Slate).
I usually work Wednesday through Sunday. This week I altered my schedule to jibe with the “Diary“‘s publishing schedule. I have today (Sunday) off. I return to work tomorrow at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m., when the bleary-eyed night shift takes its leave. I often dream of the shelter, and I’m never fully slept.