For the city’s homeless people, storage programs help lighten the load
A plywood storage cubby made all the difference for David Morgan.
Morgan, 53, arrived in Seattle carrying his personal belongings on his back. When he got a sleeping mat alongside 200 other men at St. Martin de Porres, a Catholic Community Services shelter on Pier 36 on Alaskan Way, it lifted another burden.
The shelter provided Morgan, a Real Change vendor, with a small cubby where he stores a backpack with enough clean clothing to last him one week. He keeps his other belongings locked in a Tacoma storage unit he rents for $45 a month after he lost his apartment.
For Morgan, having the storage cubby, which is about 1 foot wide by 2 feet tall, means he doesn’t have to carry all his gear while he searches for work.
“How’re you going to find a job carrying two suitcases with you?” he said.
Storage is a hot commodity for homeless people in the Seattle area. Shelters often provide lockers, but they’re often full, with many other people clamoring for the space.
By providing city funding to create a locker program to expand existing storage for homeless people, Seattle City Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell hope to help.
Bagshaw and Harrell announced their plans in The Stranger in February, citing similar programs in other cities, such as Portland, Ore., Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis. They outlined several possibilities, such as creating freestanding lockers outside, providing space through a private storage company or working with local churches to build simple lockers across the city.
“Lockers are a powerful tool that can provide immediate assistance for an individual looking for housing and work,” Harrell said in an email to Real Change.
Local social service agencies that provide a limited amount of storage space say this goes beyond helping with a job search. By giving people a place to store their gear, homeless people can go about their day without the stigma that comes from toting two backpacks or a black garbage bag.
“People see someone with a backpack or more than one bag, and they’re instantly pegged as homeless,” said Isaac Pace, who volunteers at SHARE’s locker program in South Lake Union.
Pace said he’s dropped off job applications with a backpack on his shoulder and was told that he would not likely get an interview because he appeared homeless. Shouldering the load, he feels unwelcome at parks and libraries.
Pace has a locker at the Bunkhouse, a shelter SHARE operates in the Rainier Valley. “If I get a job interview or I need to go to a school to talk to a school advisor, I can leave my belongings at a locker at the Bunkhouse,” Pace said. “I can go in and be presentable and not look homeless.”
But Pace said he needs more space. He wants to use one of the 151 lockers that SHARE provides in a building behind the Guitar Center in South Lake Union.
The lockers were salvaged from the downtown Greyhound bus station. But demand is high. Most of the locker programs around Seattle do not keep a running waiting list because it’s too hard to track down people once their name is up. So whenever SHARE has an open locker, it’s made available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Pace has missed out on a locker more than once. “When I hear that they have an opening, I get down there and it’s already taken,” Pace said.
Pace’s persistence has paid off. He got access to a locker on March 1.
Years ago, when ministers at the Seattle Mennonite Church asked homeless people in the Lake City neighborhood what kind of help they needed, most people said bus tickets and storage. The church provided storage, a program that grew into God’s Little Acre, a drop-in center for homeless people in Lake City.
Clients are always looking for more storage space, said Jonathan Neufeld, a community minister for the church.
“What’s the alternative? The alternative is stashing your stuff outside, which somebody else may find and go through or find and throw away,” Neufeld said.
When they carry garbage bags, duffle bags and backpacks, homeless teens and young adults who hang out in Westlake Park get dirty looks, said Ruth Blaw, director of The Orion Center, a teen drop-in center and young adult shelter at the foot of Capitol Hill.
Most local storage programs, including God’s Little Acre, ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District, the Orion Center and the SHARE program, are full.
In cities that provide public funding for lockers, demand is high.
“There’s no such thing as enough space,” said Michael Raposa, executive director of The South Pinellas County St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg, Fla.
In 2007, the St. Petersburg City Council banned placement of personal property on public sidewalks and roads. To help the more than 2,000 people living outdoors and in shelters in St. Petersburg, the city council provided $35,000 for a storage program that can serve up to 275 people. The storage is accessible to users during set hours, 365 days a year.
“Our program has been hugely successful,” Raposa said. “We have essentially eradicated all of the shopping carts in the city.”
If Seattle is going to create a similar program, social service providers agreed that it needs to be staffed and located with other social services.
“I don’t even know how one would manage this system if it wasn’t embedded within a service provider,” Neufeld of God’s Little Acre said.
The locker programs often require supervision to ensure that people are not storing food or weapons, to screen for bed bugs and to figure out if anyone has abandoned gear.
But that shouldn’t stop the city from pursuing a locker program, Blaw of The Orion Center said: “The need for lockers outweighs some of the technical challenges.”
CommentsWell done, Aaron! Thanks for promoting the idea. --Sally Bagshaw
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