Grassroots Mutual Aid Network Provides Services for King County’s Unsheltered Community

by Carolyn Bick

The wind catches Dee Powers’ short, wavy hair as they lean out of the window of the mobile home they share with their partner. Squinting in the sun, Powers banters with Daniel Ojalvo, who has come to drop off jugs of bleach and other supplies that Powers will divide into small amounts for distribution among the homeless community.

Both Ojalvo and Powers are part of the homeless mutual aid network, a grassroots effort that formed to serve the homeless community during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The community often doesn’t have access to regular sanitation or food in normal times, and has even less access now as the pandemic sweeps across the world. Much of the regular homelessness outreach has dried up, since it’s more difficult to do outreach safely these days. That’s where the mutual aid network, in partnership with existing nonprofits and other community organizers, comes in.

Longtime community advocate and volunteer organizer Elaine Simons started the network, after realizing that some homelessness outreach services might be duplicated, while others might not be happening at all. These services include food delivery, dropping off sanitation supplies, and providing harm reduction services. Simons wanted to try to create a network that would streamline delivery of these services and make them safer for everyone involved.

Dee Powers rests their head on the windowsill of the mobile home they share with their partner in the SODO area of Seattle, Washington, on May 10, 2020. The mobile home serves as a distribution site for the homeless mutual aid network, which formed to help unsheltered people, during the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Simons herself can’t go out, because she’s in a high-risk category. So, instead, she coordinates efforts among veteran activists and newcomers to the activist scene. For instance, she said, a man who works for a local tech company wanted to start chipping in by sending pizza to different camps. He’d never done anything like this before, she said, and he was nervous. So, Simons coached him. She helped him pick three camps to which to deliver the pizza, and put him in contact with three different volunteers who would help deliver pizzas to the camps. She told him to wear gloves and a mask, and not to have contact with anyone. They also came up with a system to divide up the pizzas before drop off, so the people receiving them wouldn’t have to risk cross-contamination by taking apart the pizzas in the regular way.

“The first time he ever did this, he only [served] maybe about 15 people,” Simons said. “Guess what he’s up to now, on his own? He barely even works with me anymore. Guess how many he’s serving now? Over 100 people.”

Simons said this volunteer now works with an Indian restaurant, and several different pizza places, and has an entire system for food delivery in place. The last time Simons heard from him, he sent her a picture of 100 individually packaged meals from the Indian restaurant.

Homeless Organizing Community Seattle (HOCS) co-organizer Chris Barker is also involved with Simons’ efforts. He said both HOCS and Simons’ network overlap and focus on what the homeless community says it needs, not what others might assume it needs. The network does this by both visiting encampments and maintaining regular communication with encampment leaders and members via social media and messaging platforms.

Barker said that one of the practices he and his co-organizer Lowell Bander are trying to foster is regular engagement with the same people. Barker said that he goes out himself at least once per week to a specific camp and tries to find the same people to talk with every time. That way, he can better understand their needs and issues, and figure out how he can help.

“So, for example, I was at this camp last Thursday, and I talked to this guy who told me he just finished reading the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, and now he’s looking for a copy of ‘The Hobbit,’ and then I went back there on Sunday with a copy of ‘The Hobbit,’ Barker said. “I really want to embody the concept of listening to people’s needs and not assuming what people need.”

Barker also keeps an updated public document that has safety information specific to the current novel coronavirus crisis for all HOCS outreach volunteers to follow.

An encampment in the SODO area of Seattle, Washington, is quiet on May 10, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Raven Crowfoot is the leader of an encampment, and has been living unsheltered for the past 16 years. He and Simons have known each other for years. As encampment leader, he collects a list of what people in his encampment need, and passes along the message to the network. He said that he and his fellow encampment residents are grateful for the network, because regular outreach teams have stopped coming around as frequently. The network helps to fill some of the gaps left behind.

Crowfoot also believes attitudes towards homelessness have become even more polarized, and those who viewed homeless individuals as dangerous before the pandemic see them in an even worse light now.

“It’s the people — what we call on the streets the ‘housies’ — who have never been homeless. Ever. And they assume that every homeless person is a druggie, a criminal, lazy, and what have you,” Crowfoot said. “And that’s definitely half-true. [But] some people on the streets are single parents trying to raise their kids. Some of them are going to school, and work, and raising kids. It’s not only druggies and criminals and lazy-ass and all that. But it’s people who don’t experience homelessness, who don’t know that … and they act like they are entitled. Like they’re better.”

Powers’ trailer serves as a distribution site. Though they used to go out to do homelessness outreach, they are currently unable to distribute supplies, as they have asthma and other underlying conditions. They said this network is more vital than ever, particularly because the City of Seattle’s Navigation Team has resumed sweeps, despite the fact that there is not enough shelter space for everyone they clear from the encampments. They noted that sweeps also pile on an extra level of daily trauma to living unsheltered, during a highly contagious, lethal viral outbreak.

“It’s real hard to pick up everything you own, and watch everything else you own get thrown into a dump truck, like, every other month. It’s really, really traumatic. It causes [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Powers said. “Everyone you meet on the streets, at this point, has PTSD. And it’s heartbreaking.”

Councilmember Tammy Morales will be introducing a bill at the Monday, May 18, Seattle City Council session that if passed would create a public emergency ordinance to define the conditions under which sweeps may happen.

Powers said the outbreak has laid bare just how unprepared the City of Seattle was to address keeping its homeless community safe in the face of a global pandemic. Not only is there not enough shelter space, they said, but there also aren’t enough basic sanitation measures in place for the homeless community. Seattle’s current conditions do not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for keeping the homeless community safe, but this is not new, Powers said. They think the homeless community has always faced subpar conditions, even though the City of Seattle declared a state of emergency on homelessness in 2015.

Since then, lawmakers have been spending more and more money every year to address the issue, but Powers thinks they’ve been investing in the wrong things. Powers thinks too much money is going towards sweeps and law enforcement, and said in a text message that money should be going towards things such as social workers and basic sanitation. The recent Ballard encampment sweep is proof of this, they said. The CDC’s current guidelines recommend allowing homeless individuals to shelter in place with adequate access to sanitation and hygiene. But the City of Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group made up of law enforcement officers and Human Services staffers, swept the Ballard encampment in early May, citing a hepatitis A outbreak as justification for the sweep.

“A weekly scheduled trash pickup is two guys and a compactor truck. A cleanup team is 12-25 people with heavy equipment,” Powers said. “The hepatitis A outbreak in Ballard could have been avoided if that had been provided.”

Wildflowers Dee Powers planted near their mobile home in the SODO area of Seattle, Washington, are in full bloom on May 10, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Lisa Al-Hakim also believes more sanitation measures for the homeless community would mean better outcomes for everyone, particularly when it comes to drug use. She’s the director of operations at the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA), a nonprofit that sources clean drug equipment for need-based distribution with the aim of reducing disease and death among drug users. It also promotes education around safe drug use, and participates in the mutual aid network.

Al-Hakim said that many people she has encountered think unsheltered individuals choose homelessness and that drug use causes homelessness. But this doesn’t hold true with what she’s heard and experienced. In her years as an outreach worker, Al-Hakim has never heard anyone say to her that they chose to become homeless. She also believes that homelessness causes drug use.

“It’s scary. It can be violent out there. … It can rain, it can be cold, it can be very hot, so … their first concern is survival, and part of survival is being able to go forward with life through the trauma,” Al-Hakim said. “And a lot of the time, people cannot function without something to take them to a place where they are calm, if that makes sense, which is where substances generally come in for people, initially. … It’s very hard, and brutal, and it’s a way to sort of check out.”

In their outreach work, Al-Hakim and others at the PHRA try to educate homeless communities they serve about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. All PHRA workers wear masks and gloves, and drug use equipment distribution and needle dropoffs are done in a no-contact manner. They give out personal hand sanitizer bottles filled with sanitizer from the Green Light Project and alcohol pads. When they have extras available, PHRA workers also give out masks. Most of their supplies come from grants, as well as the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN).

Like Powers, Crowfoot believes the efforts behind sweeps should be channelled into more productive moves forward for the homeless community, such as providing services along the lines of those offered by the mutual aid network. He said he’s been swept “countless times” over the past 16 years. Each sweep is just as painful and traumatic as the one before, and it leaves the people who had lived in a swept encampment with few possessions and without reliable shelter from the elements.

“When someone goes to a homeless encampment, and they break the tent, they break the poles, and take stuff, they trash it. What they are now doing, they are basically telling that person, ‘I don’t care who you are. I want you to suffer more,’” Crowfoot said. “Because when they are doing that, they are damaging a tent. … I’ve had my tent broken, during the winter, when it rains nonstop. … When you are doing that to someone, you’re basically telling them, ‘I want you to, hopefully, die, or if you get sick, who cares?’”

To see a list of what the mutual aid network currently needs, click here.

An earlier version of this story had Daniel Ojalvo’s name as ‘David Ojalvo’.

Featured photo: Dee Powers accepts bagged face masks from Daniel Ojalvo, not pictured here, through the window of the mobile home they share with their partner in the SODO area of Seattle, Washington, on May 10, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.

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