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 catalog will appear in next week's paper, and we've got some wonderful, weird, one-of-a-kind items for you (start bidding Wednesday, December 8, at thestranger.com/strangercrombie). Two charities—Downtown Emergency Service Center and Childhaven—will split the Strangercrombie proceeds evenly. This week, we wanted to give you a chance to learn a little more about them.
There are six babies in this nursery, doing what babies do. The curly-haired 6-month-old boy in the high chair is getting bored with the cereal being spooned into his mouth, so he's exploring other options, including spitting it back into his hand and babbling with his mouth full. The 1-year-old in the light blue fleece is pulling herself to her feet using the child-sized table as support. Three women take turns making sure that everyone's safe and happy. A couple of babies are asleep. Another one is being fed. One is being changed. It's such a typical—and adorable—scene that a casual viewer would have no way of discerning that all six of these kids have a history of abuse and neglect. That's why they're here at the Capitol Hill Childhaven.
In four branches spread across Seattle and King County, Childhaven helps 400 preschool-age children every year. Each weekday, Childhaven sends its vans out to pick up the kids from their homes or foster homes and bring them here. Childhaven program director Todd George says that consistency is important: "Pickup is 8:00 to 9:00 a.m., drop-off is 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., five days a week. We go through the summer. We don't have the two-week-long break around Christmas." This consistency allows parents to find and keep regular jobs.
The first five years of life, George says, are "like a tape recorder that plays over and over" throughout our lives. Childhaven provides a safe, consistent environment for kids to learn and play in. The kids are supervised, given positive feedback, and educated in the proper, constructive responses to social interaction. It's easy to give a child a clean slate, George says: "All children want to be part of something bigger, and all children want to please."
In the nursery, two babies team up to pull open a book, and a care provider sits down with them and reads it aloud.
In many ways, the kids are the easy part. George and Childhaven's staff of educators and case managers also help the parents of these children—the vast majority of whom were abused as children themselves—learn how to leave the abuse behind. George says that his friends and family don't understand how he can work with people like this, people who have hurt children. He says to the doubters, "Parenting doesn't come naturally. It's learned." Abusive behavior is all that these parents know. "It's not the easiest thing in the world to teach a parent compassion," George says. "But it can be done."
Andrea Solomon, the vice president of resource development at Childhaven, tells a story about a young woman in her mid-20s who attended Childhaven when she was a baby. She came back to visit. "She didn't remember anything specific," Solomon says, "but she remembered feeling good here." That young woman's mother didn't manage to overcome her drug abuse—she relapsed, sending her daughter into permanent foster care—but that formative experience of kindness laid a foundation that changed the child's life forever. Childhaven is based on the belief that we all want that foundation in our lives. "Every child loves their parent, and every parent loves their child," George says. "There is no other way of being." Childhaven provides a vocabulary to express that love in helpful, nurturing ways.
The classic model for helping street people goes like this: A handful of do-gooders, usually abiding by some pious edict, will generously open their doors to provide shelter, meals, counseling, etc. to the downtrodden—on one condition. The downtrodden must shape up! They have to lay off the booze, say the prayer, take the meds, arrive on time, etc. If they falter, the doors of goodwill slam shut.
That classic model has some pretty obvious flaws.
If the neediest are hopelessly addicted to alcohol, have severe mental-health problems, or simply can't abide by the rigors of an institution—i.e., the reasons most of them are homeless and downtrodden in the first place—they're back out on the streets. No counseling. No meds. No beds.
These people routinely end up in the emergency room or in jail (which can delay a crisis but can't stop future crises). This perpetual lurching from streets to intervention leads to early deaths, more loose cannons living on the sidewalk, and exorbitant taxpayer bills for cops, jails, and hospitals. And yet Seattle shelters and service providers primarily operated under this model for a long time.
Then in 1979 came the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), first founded as a mental-health agency and shelter, and now the largest safety net in the city, built on an updated model. "Our clients don't have an obligation to comply with our treatment plans," says DESC's director of administrative services, Nicole Macri, "but we have an obligation to tailor our treatment plans in a way that is going to help them."
"If we provide the right kinds of support services, make staff available to help people at the pace they are willing to accept help, most people do well in housing—most people want to be in housing, and they want to be well," she says.
Take the fabled 1811 Eastlake, where DESC opened the doors five years ago to provide housing for chronic inebriates. "People who moved in cost the community $4 million more in the year before they moved in than the year after they moved in," Macri says. And more importantly: "They remained housed after they moved in, their health improved, and their drinking decreased."
The name of the organization is misleading: Downtown Emergency Service Center. It sounds like one place, one building, where only so much stuff can happen. In fact, DESC runs eight buildings with a total of 800 units of housing, maintains 300 shelter beds, provides 150 apartments, dishes out 380,000 meals a year, and serves 2,000 people a day, in one way or another. Since 2005, every new recruit at the Seattle Police Department has spent a day in a DESC shelter, and DESC has helped train 600 officers in crisis intervention.
"For quietly doing our work in the community, we are a pretty big organization," Macri says.
But now—in a recession, when more people than usual need help—the county and state are out of money. There is political pressure and a fiscal necessity to cut more next year. It costs DESC $1.50 to serve a meal and $30 to provide shelter for a night (complete with showers and referral services to counseling and clinics). There's no other organization doing this work.
What would Seattle be like if DESC stopped?
"I can't even imagine it," Macri says. "We are serving 2,000 people a day. If we weren't here, I don't know what those people would be doing. It would definitely be a different city."