Dwelling under makeshift tents and tucked under blankets, tarps and sleeping bags, crammed into alleys and wedged between dumpsters in the empty spaces of parking lots, the homeless are everywhere. Here today, chased away by the police and gone tomorrow, back the next day.
Many of us have walked along the street and have had to step around a prone body. We have no way of knowing if the person is alive or dead. Some of us look away. Others cannot look away. We care and want to help, but we don’t know what to do.
The volunteers who participate in the outreach group called Sacred Encounters know what to do. Sacred Encounters serves those who are experiencing homelessness. Their mission ascribes to an act of faith: everyone deserves to be loved, even the most unlovable among us.
The Sacred Encounters group is based at Christ Our Hope Catholic Church, located in the Josephinum in downtown Seattle. The Josephinum building harkens back to Seattle’s early history. Once called The Washington Hotel, the first building was demolished. Then the New Washington, a luxury Hotel, was built on the same site in 1908. Today the Josephinum is operated by Catholic Housing Services. Aside from being the home of Christ Our Hope Church, the building has 221 low-income units and houses approximately 250 individuals.
Every Wednesday at 11, the Sacred Encounters group assembles, quickly gathering supplies for the day. Loaves of sandwiches, along with freshly baked cookies and brownies, bags of chips, energy bars, and tangerines are stuffed into backpacks, and bags—two to each person. Two canvas wheeled carts are piled high with water. People who are unsheltered are often dehydrated. Many have broken or missing teeth, or are completely edentulous. The sandwiches are wonder-bread soft, and there are two kinds: peanut butter and jelly or meat and cheese. Not everyone can eat meat because they can’t chew.
Other emergency items include hygiene kits, sanitary kits for women, Band-Aids, and clothes, depending on the season. It’s summer now, sandals and T-shirts replace the need for cold weather wear and blankets.
Jani Kelly, a gifted poet and wheelchair bound resident of the Josephinum, begins the day’s outreach with a prayer. Then the group is off, trundling down Stewart Street, and descending into the Pike Place Market, before looping north through Belltown, returning downtown to Westlake Park. The final stretch on Pike Street, between Fourth and Third Avenues, can aptly be described as a nightmarish journey through Fentanyl Alley.
For two years Sacred Encounters has walked among the homeless, offering them food, water, and clothing. The group was launched on March 31, 2021, the Wednesday before Easter Sunday during the height of the pandemic. Barbara Ivester, a retired medical librarian, has been with Sacred Encounters from the beginning. She said the idea for Sacred Encounters came from Dennis Kelly, who is the Executive Director of MercyWatch in Snohomish County.
Dennis Kelly, a former broadcast media executive, is also an ordained deacon, and had once been a pastoral leader at Christ Our Hope Church. In 2016 he started MercyWatch in Everett. Based on his experience with MercyWatch, he knew this type of outreach was needed in downtown Seattle. “I thought we got a lot of people right outside our building here and we never go out and really engage them, so we put together a team.”
“He was very enthusiastic,” Barbara Ivester said. Soon she told Dennis Kelly she would give it a try. “I went through their training sessions.” A series of videos covered topics ranging from what it was like to encounter a mentally ill person to dealing with addicts, and also how to maintain personal safety.
Jillian Jacobson, a former junior high school history teacher, has also been with Sacred Encounters from the beginning. She recalls that the training meetings were done via zoom and lasted for nearly two months, so volunteers could get a full understanding of the mission, and also know what to be cautious about. She is quick to point out that people on the street don’t necessarily want to be known by their given names. Broken by life, and separated from their birth families, they have street names. “Instead of asking: what is your name, ask: what do you go by?”
Calling a person by name is compassionate care in action. Interactions with people on the street are up close and personal. “The mission is to go out to the people on the street and let them know they are neighbors and part of our community,” Jacobson said. The group offers more than food and water. The most important gift of all is looking someone in the eye and asking: how are you doing?
Members of the Sacred Encounters team don’t have mental healthcare backgrounds, but they do hand out cards to people directing them to places where they can get medical and/or mental health treatment and housing. “It’s a positive experience for them and for us,” Mike McKasy said.
McKasy, a retired attorney, also noted that “We’ve been called enablers. I’ve had that thinking too. Am I promoting their current situation? Am I giving them a stamp of approval for their addiction or for cluttering the streets and making a mess?”
But the success stories speak volumes. “I find if I get one positive experience that can make a difference,” McKasy said. “After the sessions, I find myself thinking about one or two things that have happened.”
Michael, a Native American from Alaska, was living in a tent under the Pergola in Pioneer Square. Michael, known as Eskimo, lived on the street among a group of Native Americans. In his late thirties and large, Eskimo considered himself to be the protector of the others. “We had a really good relationship with all of them,” Jacobson said. “We were always glad to see them.”
One day when the group was in Pioneer Square, they didn’t see Eskimo and asked where he was. When Eskimo emerged from his tent, he was so covered with bedbugs and sores that it was frightening.
“We walked him to the Pioneer Square Medical Clinic, which was just two blocks away,” Ivester said. “It was a side effect from drugs, or bug bites that had festered. He was sad and he was crying. He was from Nome, and nobody wanted to live with him anymore. We sat and talked with him and hoped for the best.”
“I didn’t see him the next week,” Jacobson said. “They had swept the tents out of there. We did ask the security guard in the area and he told us they were moved up to the Palladium Hotel by Virginia and Second, next to the Moore theater. That’s all we knew.”
The Sacred Encounters group embraces the fact that there is no one reason why a person becomes homeless. According to Dennis Kelly, “Homelessness is a three-legged stool: dependency issues (alcohol or drugs), mental health issues, and the other one is poverty. It can be one of the three or it could be all three—that’s what triggers people into being unhoused—for well over 95% or 99% of people on the streets.”
There is a tendency in American Culture for people to think that the homeless brought about their own plight—that they didn’t work hard enough, or are lazy and weak-minded. Then there is the reality of meeting those who are experiencing homelessness one-on-one instead of from afar. “I realized many times that their plight has been formed by the trauma they have experienced in their lifetime,” Kelly said. “There is some trauma that is forming what they do, why they are living this way.”
Prior to Sacred Encounters, most of the group had not encountered the homeless to any great extent. Mike McKasy is an exception. When he was in college in Minnesota, he had a job as a night watchman in return for room and board. The House of Charity in downtown Minneapolis served as his introduction to homeless people. “They weren’t uneducated bums,” he said. “People had been professionals. Through addiction, mental health issues, or divorce, they found themselves homeless.”
Barbara Ivester recalls feeling sad for those experiencing homelessness, but she was also upset that people would desecrate downtown and steal for their habits. “I would avoid them,” she said. “I didn’t want to give them money because I didn’t feel right about it. I felt ashamed when I could see that their need was so great.”
“We’ve also seen poverty,” Kelly said. “In fact many of the people we work with, they encounter homelessness as a result of poverty. And that’s what the driver is.”
The group does not carry money when they serve the homeless. Yet, on occasion, a passerby on the street will donate money to Sacred Encounters.
Before Jillian Jacobson became involved with the outreach, she didn’t have an understanding of the people on the street. “I thought if you really wanted to, you could change.” Now she knows better. “Some people are genetically wired so they can’t easily stop using drugs or alcohol.” She says, “Don’t judge them, just smile and help.”
You don’t end up becoming homeless without suffering from a broken heart. Listening is a gift that you can’t sell wholesale, and it can be the ultimate balm that heals. Dennis Kelly said, “Everyone we encounter on the streets, if you spent some time talking to them, you are going to find that they have experienced trauma in their past. It could be in their childhood or it could be in their adulthood.”
Seeing a familiar face on the street and calling that person by name creates a bond between the Sacred Encounters caregiver and the person who, against all odds, is being treated like a human being.
Little Mariah is all bent over in an alley on Pine Street between Second and Third Avenue. Jillian Jacobsen asks her if she wants a sandwich. Her face lights up and she stands as straight as she can. Val wears an old gray suit that hangs on his frail body. His eyes are red-rimmed with infection and his hands tremble as he reaches for a sandwich.
Jordy is in his wheelchair with a blanket pulled up over his head. His wheelchair is usually parked on Third Avenue, just south of Pike Street or at Westlake Park. Jordy is a black man who has a large street presence and a noble bearing. No one has asked him how he lost both of his legs. There are a couple of places, one is at Westlake Park, where he can recharge the battery for his wheelchair.
Barbara Ivester remembers hearing of the time someone stole Jordy’s charger for his wheelchair, and he was abandoned at the bus stop for a day and half. “I learned he was allergic to peanut butter,” she said. “I asked if anyone can help him. He said he can’t get out of his chair. He should have an aide helping him. But I don’t think there is anybody. I’m worried he might have sores. He had hurt his arm. It was swollen and that’s a real problem for him to move around. He had his hat over his face and was sobbing because it hurt so much.”
Michael (not Eskimo) sits at a table at Westlake Park. Mike McKasy describes him as articulate and brilliant but he is also way out there. Every time the group visits him, he has a fantastic new story to share. “He told me he used to fly Air Force One. And he was the Gerber Baby. For his birthday we got him a card and gave him a cupcake.”
“We try to do special things,” Ivester said. “Some of the people that I’ve met, I remember their names. And I see them again. They’re like, ‘Oh, wow, you remembered me.’”
Then there are the people who are only encountered once and never seen again. No one knows for sure where they go or what has happened to them.
On Leonora Street, a woman pushes a stroller down the hill to Third Avenue. Her arms and torso are heavily tatted and her front teeth are broken, mostly gone. Her baby, though, is beautiful, a tow head with a round chubby face. His name is Oliver.
A heavy set black woman huddles in the corner of a building on Third and Lenora. She keeps her hands in her pockets. Her face brightens when she sees the food. She motions with one hand to have a sandwich, cookies and chips placed into the pocket of her red jacket. At first it seems as though her other hand is clenched in a fist, but then it is clear she is missing fingers. Her hand is a stump.
One man’s mouth is an open wound, abscessed, oozing blood and pus. His teeth are broken but he can eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because it is soft. He is given a card to get medical help at the clinic in the market. A woman with purple hair and long fake lashes is grateful for the food and offers her blessing to the group. “They are always very nice and extremely grateful,” Jillian Jacobson said. “It's very rare when we run into an ungrateful person on the street.”
On Pike Street, close to Third Avenue, the air is thick with the scent of Fentanyl. Hordes of addicts are slumped against the side wall of Ross Department Store or spill out from the alley behind the building. Some rock on their feet, nodding off, ready to collapse onto the pavement. Others are already on the ground and out cold. A careful nudge on the shoulder checks to see if they are alive or dead.
Tony is crumpled with his back against the wall. He’s slightly built but tall and has thick dark hair. He looks like in another life he could have been a model or an actor. But today he’s an addict and so dehydrated that the white foam of dried spittle is completely crusted around his mouth. His red sneakers lie on the ground in front of his bare feet. He’s given socks and water. He’s drinks a half a bottle in one thirsty chug. He says he came from Great Falls, Montana and doesn’t have any family. He only had his girlfriend, Ashley. Then he starts to cry. Ashley has just overdosed. He sinks to the ground, lowers his head into his knees and sobs.
The Sacred Encounters group frequently crosses paths with other groups that are also trying to help. WDC members can be identified by their black shirts and gray vests. WDC is the acronym for We Deliver Care, a new nonprofit group. The WDC defines itself “as a grass roots company with the interest of human beings at its core.” This past May, the City of Seattle enlisted the support of the WDC to help clean up downtown Seattle. WDC employees walk the streets in clusters of three, handing out water, snacks, and cigarettes. They work with the shelters and social service agencies to get people temporary or permanent housing.
On the day that Sacred Encounters comes into contact with Tony, it’s clear that he needs imminent help. Now that Ashley’s dead, Tony is at an even higher risk for overdosing. It took effort to search for the WDC folk to tell them about Tony. So, there’s a handoff of sorts. There is no way of knowing if Tony will go with them to get a chance to get off the street.
Another highly visible group is the Downtown Street Ambassadors. Many ride bikes. The Ambassadors are funded by the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) and perform a variety of tasks from cleaning the streets to calling in the EMTs to get someone prompt medical treatment. When Barbara Ivester found Jordy in pain, she summoned the Street Ambassadors to help. Jordy had already been to the clinic, so there wasn’t anything that could be done.
City of Seattle Council member Andrew Lewis has put in his time being seen on Third Avenue. With his back toward Fentanyl Alley, he stands as stiff as a utility pole on the southeast corner of Third and Pike. An election is coming up. Ron Blasi, a former attorney and participant in Sacred Encounters, expressed hope that providing mental health and addiction care will become a greater priority. There is also the growing realization that all types of people live downtown. The homeless are there, and not necessarily to score drugs. Downtown is a place where poor people can live among their own in genuine community.
Mike McKasy spoke about having that one positive experience that made him understand the true essence of a sacred encounter. “There was a man in a wheelchair,” McKasy said. “And I gave him some stuff and he asked me if he could give me a blessing. How many times does this happen? Just that positive experience is complete in and of itself.”
Marty Hillary described her feeling of “separateness” before becoming involved with Sacred Encounters. She said, “That separateness has now turned into togetherness, a true joining of the human spirit, a connectedness, a realization of, at a very visceral level, the God-given dignity of every human being.”
After Michael (Eskimo) had been displaced from under the Pergola in Pioneer Square, no one had seen him in over a year. Last September, the group was walking up Pike Street when two men approached them. One of them was Michael, the Eskimo. He looked like a million bucks and gave Jillian Jacobson and Barbara Ivester a big smile. “I got housing, I got my native card and I got a job,” he told them.
“That was very rewarding,” Jacobson said. “I’m hoping it was our kindness leading him. Michael was so grateful all of the time. What we had done had made a difference.”
About a month ago, a young man yelled to the group while they were in Belltown. At first no one recognized him. He said, “It’s me, C.J. I used to be in a tent on Western and Spring. I’m three and a half months clean, I went to Evergreen Services and I now work at Matt Talbot, the community service place down on Third Avenue.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Dennis Kelly started MercyWatch in Snohomish County. Since then, under Kelly’s direction, the organization has grown to become a medical care nonprofit with 242 volunteers, seventy of whom are medical professionals. In Kelly’s words, “Since we started MercyWatch, everything happens just the way it’s supposed to happen. Oh, we need a medical van? We just raised a $100k to buy a medical van.”
As of late, a day shelter is being proposed as a partnership between Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church of North Everett and MercyWatch. If the deal goes through, the church would lease the space to MercyWatch to operate a program, Monday through Friday, for 60 to 80 people. It would have bathrooms, laundry services, meals, medical screenings, showers and social workers, as well as potential partnerships for life skills training and other education. “We want it to be a place where people can heal and get out of the circumstance that they’re in,” Dennis Kelly said. “To do that, they need what I call ‘basic human necessities.’”
The Sacred Encounters group currently hovers around seventeen participants and is growing. Immersion groups from other parishes also participate. Kathleen Emry became involved with Sacred Encounters because “It is a moment in life where the exchange of a sandwich or a brownie is a blessed encounter of mutuality, a place where the giver and the receiver can be seen. I look into their eyes recognizing them as a child of the Divine, as an integral part of this great mystery we all share in. It is a blessing to both of us, a sacred encounter.”
One cold Spring day a guy known as Murph was walking around without shoes. A smaller man came up by his side and explained that this man had no shoes. The smaller man sat Murph down on the bench in front of the Josephinum. He told Murph to stay there. He went upstairs to his apartment and brought back a brand new pair of boots to give to Murph. He said to him, “You need these more than I do.”
In front of the Josephinum, next to the bench where Murph sat, there is a bronze sculpture of a man sleeping on a bench. The man is wrapped in a hooded shroud and his face cannot be seen. At first glance, the bronze sculpture appears to be an ordinary homeless man, but his feet and hands bear the wounds from having been crucified. Gazing at the sculpture, for a brief shining moment, there is the implicit understanding that we are all broken. Everyone deserves to be loved, even the most unlovable among us.
Sacred Encounters is what happens when a group of caring individuals get together and do what government cannot do. The infrastructure is in place to grow. Each week loaves of sandwiches appear like manna from heaven. Calling people on the street by their chosen name reflects the dignity inherent in every human being. Jillian Jacobson sums it up best, “You think the world has no humanity, then you see the essence of what it means to be human.”
If you are interested in supporting Sacred Encounters in some way, large or small, or by joining the group, please contact the parish office.
1902 2nd Ave
Seattle, WA 98101-1155
Deanna Tighe, Pastoral Coordinator firstname.lastname@example.org