My day started early Saturday morning; the first meeting was 6:00 a.m. in Uptown with a group called Heroes for the Homeless. Thirty of us re-packed donated oranges, sandwiches, cheese sticks and Fran’s chocolates into zip lock bags; we separated dry socks, clothes and hygiene items into other bags, and prepared gallons of hot chocolate and coffee.
Many of the Heroes for the Homeless volunteers have been distributing food and supplies twice a month for years. My team included one kind-hearted man who has a day job designing airplane composites; another woman is a lawyer dedicated to the justice system; a third is a seamstress who makes costumes for kids’ theater; and another is a veterinarian. They have traveled the world and have seen hungry people and starving animals. What they all have in common is the belief that making today just a bit easier for people in Seattle who are homeless is an honorable and kind way to spend their Saturday morning.
At daybreak, we broke into teams and headed off in the drizzle, prepared to share the food and supplies with people who woke up this morning in the woods, in doorways, in their vehicles. We announced ourselves a respectful distance away from people’s sleeping areas. The hot chocolate and coffee were prized, followed by oatmeal and snackpacks and needed clothing.
We spent the morning talking with people about their living conditions and their hope for what’s next. The weather this day was raw and it was no fun to be outside in a muddy tent. I heard stories about losing jobs, losing partners, losing ID’s and losing everything in government ‘sweeps.’
I saw a sick teenage girl who sounded like she was about to cough up a lung. Her face was covered with bed bug bites and she looked miserable. Fortunately we had a nurse along, and he was able to offer help. I thought how lousy I would feel to be cold and sick with no way to get clean, nor get a dependable bowl of hot chicken soup.
Then I met Meghan which is where this story really begins.
Some of the volunteers knew Meghan by name and knew she had asked for a new tent and tarp. Meghan is 24 years old and she lives with her husband. She’s seen a lot.
Her husband has a potential job with a local pizza delivery company, but Meghan said he needs to have an active cell phone. This makes sense if you’re going to be on call. The problem is that Meghan and her husband couldn’t pay the phone bill for the past two months and his cell phone service was discontinued. They needed to get a new SIM card and to pay the $40 monthly pre-payment upfront to their MetroPCS carrier before he could go to work. Sounds like a solvable problem, right?
Meghan has been in contact with a case manager but the case manager has been on family leave and unavailable. No help from that quarter. So, after I completed my rounds with HftH, I circled back to talk with Meghan to help get her phone reactivated. We called MetroPCS together on my cell phone, and after a significant number of robo diversions, we got a live person. Hallelujah!
The live person couldn’t help us, however, because Meghan needed a new SIM card. Our live person could send her one, but Meghan doesn’t have an address. She lives in the woods.
I offered to have the SIM card sent to my business address, but that would take a week, and Meghan’s husband has a chance for a job this weekend. No time to waste.
Meghan had bus tickets, but I had a car. So we decided the reasonable approach would be to drive to the closest MetroPCS location and I would buy the needed SIM and advance one month’s’ service. I figured it was something helpful I could do and might just be a good investment in future pizza.
We drove to Ballard together, located the store-inside-a-store and fortunately found a parking space after only a two block cruise.
Then the fun compounded.
The store clerk shook her head and said sorry, her MetroPCS server was down. She couldn’t sell us the SIM nor could she reactivate Meghan’s service. However, she cheerfully advised us that there were other stores within two miles.
As Meghan and I walked back to the car, I called the next closest store in Greenwood but was disconnected twice.
I then called the North Aurora store and was told by the bouncy recording that they appreciated my call but they were busy with other customers. Please call back.
At that point I decided to drop Meghan off at her tent with promises to return.
After a few more phone calls from home, I checked the downtown store locations and was directed to a store close to my home that was “open til 9:00”. I walked up the hill only to find that it was totally dark inside. Closed.
After a drenching walk back home, I decided to enlist my husband in the hunt. We verified by phone that the Chinatown ID store was open until 4:00, so we headed off in the direction of King Street. The Chinese New Year celebration was in full swing and getting into the phone store took significant maneuvering.
After some searching and walking into and through the Inter-Im building from various sides, I finally found the phone store (they had moved and the address on the website was off by a just a few meaningful storefronts). Feeling confident at this point, I learned that the young woman at this MetroPCS store was able to sell me the SIM card, but she couldn’t help me complete the payment. That had to be done by phone or online and she was closing.
No problem, I thought. I’ll just call the helpful 800 number. Except, even though I had all the information Meghan had given me on a soggy piece of paper about her name, social security last four digits, phone number, device number, serial number etc., I didn’t have the required 8-digit security code from her last known account.
With the SIM in hand I figured we were half way there, so my husband drove me back to the tent site, I walked for the third time up the hill through the mud to the tent, hailed Meghan again, and got two 8-digit numbers, one of which she felt certain had to be her security code.
The phone app didn’t work, so I returned home to my computer, hopeful to complete the project for her. But no. Either the passwords or phone number is wrong.
So tomorrow, I will go back again to Meghan’s site, this time with my cell phone, my computer, a credit card. We will go to the nearby Starbucks and try again.
Here’s what I learned anew: being homeless is worse than most of us will ever know.
Just this seemingly-simple act of getting cell phone service restored can be so ridiculously hard for someone without a home. The entire point of my afternoon’s effort was to help just one person get communication restored so he can get a job so he and his wife can get out of the cold and save money for a stable place to live. Without a car, without a phone, without an address, without a credit card, job hunting is nearly impossible.
This brings me back to my call for 1000 new dry and stable places for people to live in response to our homeless emergency. As a community we can take a quantum leap forward.
Whether we are addressing needs of people who are homeless, people who are suffering from physical or mental illness, or those who are struggling with addictions, we can change how we look at each other by supporting each individual with a home, a friend, and a job.