Op-Ed: A tale of two brothers fighting homelessness

A common site in Seattle, where homelessness continues to rise, despite economic growth. (Photo from Flickr by <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/10216416@N00/">Bari Bookout</a>)
A common site in Seattle, where homelessness continues to rise, despite economic growth. (Photo from Flickr by Bari Bookout)

My older brother, my only brother was homeless. A few years ago he was bouncing around Seattle area shelters and hospital emergency rooms, struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

He was one of the thousands of people we see camping under the freeway, lining up in front of homeless shelters, and hanging out at the local library to stay warm.

He was one of the lucky ones who, through many different programs and services, was able to get off the streets and is now living in a stable and secure apartment operated by the Downtown Emergency Services Center.

I could say that he is success story — an example of how our homeless system can work.

I should know. I am the executive director for Neighborhood House, a large non-profit social service agency that serves the homeless. Everyday, my staff work with individuals and families facing eviction, living in their cars, moving from shelter to shelter. We help them find new housing as well as jobs and other social services to help them stay housed.

Homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color. Data from All Home King County shows that Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, African Americans, and Native Americans/Alaska Natives experience homelessness at rates that are three to seven times those of whites. And, in recent years, the number of immigrants and refugees in our area who are homeless has grown.

We can house the homeless. We know what works and we know what we need to do.

But we’re confronted with the “fierce urgency of now.” Families, children and the homeless can’t wait for society to finish planning and strategizing about what we’ll do to solve the crisis in the future. Tomorrow is too late for many. They need our help now.

Back to my brother’s story: Success did not come quickly or easily. In fact, despite all of my personal and professional resources, expertise, connections and knowledge of our homeless system, my brother’s journey was slow and agonizing with many, many set-backs. One step forward, five steps back.

He had trouble keeping appointments with the doctor to get the assessment needed to show he suffered from a mental illness, or with the bank to get documents needed to prove he had little money, and to the Social Security Office to sign up for disability benefits. When you are depressed, it’s hard to keep appointments. When you are homeless, you don’t have a place to store your financial records.

Six months later and after countless shelter and emergency room visits costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, my brother was lucky enough to get off the streets and into a place he can call home. My brother could have died on the streets but his life was saved.

We can house the homeless. We can save lives. But we need to stay focused on what works.

It will not be easy.  It will not be quick.  We will need more resources.  We will need more affordable housing options.  We will need more mental health services.  We will need more intensive case management.  We will need to be patient.  And we will need to stay committed.

It’s someone’s brother out there.

Mark Okazaki

Mark Okazaki has been the Executive Director for Neighborhood House for 16 years. He also serves on the coordinating board for All Home, the organization overseeing strategies and programs for the homeless in King County.