Every year, The Stranger auctions off a whole catalog of unspeakably awesome items—sex toys, bongs, our own integrity—to benefit local charities. This year's Strangercrombie auction debuts in next week's paper, and we've got some wonderful, weird, and wonderfully weird items up for bid (start bidding Wednesday, December 2, at thestranger.com/strangercrombie). It's no secret that 2009 has been a difficult year for nonprofits, and so we're trying to stretch your dollar to benefit as many people as possible. Three charities—Urban Rest Stop, Country Doctor, and Senior Services—will split the Strangercrombie money evenly. This week, we wanted to give you a chance to learn a little more about them.
by Paul Constant
I don't know anyone with a bathroom cleaner than the showers and stalls at Urban Rest Stop (www .urbanreststop.org). This year, transient men, women, and children have taken over 36,000 showers at the hygiene center. The showers are disinfected between each use; there's no trace of mildew between the tiny white and blue tiles, the air doesn't reek of bleach or ammonia. It just smells clean.
Patrons, as URS staff call them, are given a towel, a razor, a toothbrush, and small paper cups filled with toothpaste and shaving cream. Inside my assigned room, I find a toilet, a sink, a mirror, and a shower, along with a wire rack for my clothes and towel. I have 15 minutes to get clean.
The packed-full laundry room at URS is calm and quiet. The homeless and jobless sit together, making calm conversation. Many are wearing jumpsuits with PROPERTY OF URBAN REST STOP stenciled on the back—their only clothing is being washed—and they flip through donated paperbacks and newspapers, waiting. Everybody looks up when a drunken, wobbly man walks in and tries to get a friend to go find some booze with him. "Come on, man, we got to go!" he shouts. His friend waves him off. "Man, I'm gonna take a shower." The drunken man leaves, disappointed. His friend shakes his head. "Fuckin' drunks," he says. In the other corner of the laundry room, a deaf man points to a mostly full 40 sticking out of someone's knapsack. He makes a "no-no" gesture with his finger, and the chastened man tucks his bottle away. A woman named Terry teaches an old man how to use a washer; it's his first time here.
Homeless and disadvantaged people have taken over half a million showers here in under 10 years. They've washed over 200,000 loads of laundry in URS's washing machines. The all-purpose soap in the showers is top-notch—it smells of mint and washes away without any residue—and Judy at the front desk says she wishes she could afford the laundry detergent URS buys for its patrons. URS also provides basic health services and podiatry. The center is on the front lines of public health, says Ronni Gilboa, the manager at URS. Good hygiene, she explains, is the best way to prevent diseases like swine flu from flooding the streets of Seattle.
Gilboa says that URS's $600,000 annual budget has remained basically the same since its founding in March of 2000, even as costs have increased and the hygiene center has expanded its services—the administration has gotten better at belt-tightening measures every year. Last year's financial downturn led to over 1,000 men, women, and children visiting URS for the first time. Some of them were homeless. Others were in transitional housing, and still others were unable to pay their utility bills in time and needed quick access to basic hygiene services to hold on to their (usually minimum-wage) jobs.
In a remarkable show of trust, the doors to the bathrooms at URS are full-length, and they lock. Once you get into the shower—if you choose, you can make the water as hot as you can possibly bear, and while the water pressure isn't exactly worthy of the Grand Hyatt, it's more than serviceable—all the outside sounds, the conversation and the laundry machines and the traffic, fade away. For most people, the shower is the one guaranteed moment of meditation we get in a day. Homeless people don't often get four walls to themselves and a quiet, clean space to collect their thoughts; the psychological benefits of a good shower are invaluable.
by Eli Sanders
I walked in on a Wednesday afternoon, not looking particularly needy—and, in truth, not being particularly needy. Around me in the waiting room of the Country Doctor Community Clinic (www.countrydoctor.org) on Capitol Hill was the typical doctor's office tableau: fish tank, magazines, hand sanitizer, masks for the active coughers and sneezers. I stepped up to the receptionist and told her I was unemployed, had no health insurance, and wanted to get a physical. (All lies, but all in pursuit of a worthy cause.)
The receptionist asked if anything was wrong with me.
Nope, nothing particularly wrong with me, I said. Just hadn't seen a doctor in a while.
Without much further trouble, I had an appointment. Depending on my future proof of income—or, as was allegedly the case, my future proof of no income—this visit to the doctor would cost me as little as $40 (with only $15 required up front). I was on track to be a beneficiary of Country Doctor's generous sliding scale and fast, professional treatment. No humiliation at a dingy free clinic. No terror of being turned away. No need to explain myself.
I canceled the appointment soon after—I have a job and health insurance, and thankfully I don't need Country Doctor at the moment—but the experience was amazing given how ruthlessly money-centered the rest of the health-care system can be. Here is a nonprofit doctor's office dedicated to treating those of us without health insurance as humans who all deserve quality health care, no matter the size of our bank accounts.
It's a rare and special thing—and, as it turns out, Country Doctor needs donations now more than ever.
"Right now our situation is such that we are seeing more patients and getting less public funding," said Emily Bader, the organization's development director. "So the need for private support is the greatest it's ever been."
Cuts to the Washington State budget are one reason; more people are more needy than ever before, yet state-funded health-care programs that often reimburse Country Doctor for some of its services are smaller and harder for low-income people to access than ever before. The soured stock market is another reason; the income of the private foundations that help keep Country Doctor afloat is often based on how their investments are doing and, said Bader, "last year and this year aren't exactly golden years for that."
So Country Doctor is making a push to close the gap with increased private donations.
It's not just the organization's two clinics (the one that I visited on Capitol Hill, plus another in the Central District) that need to stay solvent. Country Doctor also provides health care at four women's shelters, two of them safe houses for women fleeing abuse. "More women are coming seeking shelter because more men are taking out their frustrations of having lost their home or job—taking those frustrations out with physical or verbal abuse," Bader explained.
Keeping all of these services going—the care at women's shelters, the cheap clinics—is a must, especially when people's limited alternatives are considered. "If we weren't there, then they wouldn't have any place to go," Bader said. "The only other alternative is to go to a public emergency room where they really don't belong."
by Megan Seling
A frigid midmorning rain beats on our heads harder than it has fallen all season, but Fai Mathews, a driver for Senior Services' (www .seniorservices.org) Meals on Wheels program, is all smiles anyway. Fai has been cruising around the streets of Seattle, delivering meals to Seattle's seniors for four years now. This morning—this rainy, miserable morning—she lets me ride shotgun in her big, white cargo van as she hops from apartment building to apartment building on First Hill. Even in this weather, she insists that she loves her job. And it sure seems like it; she explodes with laughter as she tells stories, like the one time she had to chase after a runaway dolly cart.
Stop after stop, we climb out of the van, pile a few bags of Senior Services' frozen meals and various other groceries onto a cart (one that thankfully doesn't go renegade) and deliver a week's worth of food at a time. Senior Services offers everything from breakfast items to entrées such as Swedish meatballs and vegetarian lasagna. People can also order groceries like milk, cereal, bread, and juice through Senior Service's Mobile Market.
One woman, who is watching The View with the volume turned up to 11, has a feisty little wiener dog that does not stop barking until Fai tosses his bone for him. Another woman, 95 years old and living in a small studio apartment decorated with black-and-white photos and decades-old yellowed newspaper clippings, couldn't remember how to work the new microwave her son had bought her. Fai patiently shows her, over and over again, what buttons to push and waits with her while her meal cooks.
Another man sits in his recliner, as Fai says he usually does, eating one of his breakfasts to show her how much he enjoys it. Another woman (who'll turn 90 years old on Thanksgiving Day) gives Fai two little ceramic clown magnets that she made and painted herself. She gives me a Santa Claus magnet with green eyes.
Senior Services' Meals on Wheels program—just one of the many services the nonprofit operates, from retirement planning to in-home care—is delivering more than just microwaveable dinners. For some of these people, Fai and her Senior Services coworkers are the only visitors they'll get all week. And judging by the smiles on their faces when they open the doors of their apartments, they look forward to her company. Fai greets every single one of them with a smile, a hug if they'd like, and sincere interest.
Honestly, and I'm aware that this sounds completely ridiculous, I had never considered the fact that these people existed right down the street from you and me. The only old people I know are my grandmas. And I don't think of them as being old; I think of them as being my grandmas. And all I see on Capitol Hill are young people—people crossing the street from the Comet to Neumos, people reading on the sidewalk outside of Vita, people who are healthy enough and spry enough to leave their apartments and get their own damn food. But this morning, I was introduced to another side of Seattle—other people's grandmas and grandpas, great uncles and great aunts. And they were wonderful.