Why and when did you begin your work on homelessness?
I got out of college 29 years ago, and assumed I’d go to law school. But I was looking for something to do in the meantime and selected this region for a service year with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. They asked if I’d be interested in working at a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle. And I said, Sure, why not? I didn’t know anything about it. I came in and immediately fell in love with the work and never left.
How did you fall in love with it?
It was a fascinating cast of characters – those we were trying to help and those working here at DESC. It was a side of humanity I didn’t have a ton of familiarity with. People had really interesting stories, even if there was a lot of heartache.
Why did you choose to study at SPH?
I had been working here a long time and was dedicated to this as a career path. I had a leadership role and felt that I needed a graduate degree. When I saw the range of options at SPH, I was drawn to public health.
What was most useful from your MPH studies?
Research methodology, basic biostatistics and epidemiology. I use these tools to evaluate our own work here. I continue to work regularly with Principal Lecturer Emeritus Jack Thompson and Associate Professor Amy Hagopian (PhD ‘03, MHA ‘83).
How is the School involved with DESC?
We have collaborated with different faculty to bring students here. I also go to campus and talk to students. The Dean, Hilary Godwin, called a meeting to bring together professors, people from other schools, and community providers like me to talk about homelessness and what the School can do to engage. And I thought, Hey, that’s great. It was about the full range of things that this School can do.
What did you suggest?
That the School or actors within the School can use their status and credibility to shine light on certain aspects of the problem and dispel myths.
People often think an individual who has problems and becomes homeless, therefore needs to have their individual problems (whether a psychiatric condition or substance addiction or something else) addressed, fixed and cured in order to be in housing. In fact, when you house them, they do much better. If they need treatment or services for something, you have a much greater ability to deliver it to them in a way that’s going to be effective when they’re housed.
What do you think of Microsoft’s decision to provide $500 million to address affordable housing and homelessness?
It’s helpful to the overall need for more affordable housing in the community, especially for people with incomes above those of most people experiencing homelessness. To address homelessness, especially chronic homelessness affecting people with serious disabling conditions, a different type of investment will be needed, principally in a type of housing called permanent supportive housing.
The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) began in 1979 and provides integrated services including housing, emergency shelter, crisis intervention and health care. The emphasis is on those with complex conditions and high needs. Of the nearly 3,500 people served by DESC at any given moment, half are formerly homeless and receiving ongoing care from DESC in a combination of supportive housing and behavioral health services. The other half are currently homeless and receiving survival services, behavioral health care and crisis services from DESC while the agency seeks to create housing options for them.