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How a friendship was forged on the front lines of the homelessness crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With tens of thousands of unhoused people here in the U.S., Seattle is on the front lines of the homelessness crisis. Reporter Katia Riddle has the story of how one community grappled with a nearby encampment and forged a friendship in the process.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: For Julie Tackett, making friends with people in her community is just a part of life.

JULIE TACKETT: I'm from Minnesota. You know, it all starts with the wave, you know? And you do several weeks of waving, and then you say hi.

RIDDLE: That's how she got to know a man living in a camp of homeless people. Tackett's a bus driver. She saw him in the same place every day on her route. Then, coincidentally, she moved into the retirement home across the street from his camp.

TACKETT: When I moved in, I saw him, and I pulled my car over. And I said, hey. Hi. Do you remember me? I'm that bus driver that waves at you all the time.

MARCUS HAY: I've had people be mean to me a lot. That was nice to have someone be nice just to be nice.

RIDDLE: Marcus Hay says, as a homeless person, you get used to being ignored.

HAY: You're dirty, and so I understand people don't want to mess with you. They don't know you.

RIDDLE: Hay used to work as a welder before his life fell apart.

HAY: And it just happened so fast. It didn't - I can't believe I've been homeless. I was homeless for 15 years.

RIDDLE: Fifteen years he lived in that homeless camp. After Tackett moved in across the street, she kept chatting with Hay, keeping an eye on him. He's in a wheelchair.

TACKETT: His wheelchair was caked with mud, and the tires were gone.

RIDDLE: A friend of hers had just got a new wheelchair.

TACKETT: And I was telling her about that. She goes, oh, he can have one of my old ones.

RIDDLE: They gave it to Hay. It was a small gesture helping one person, but it meant a lot. Nichole Alexander is an outreach worker in a program called CoLead. They worked a lot in this camp. She says, typically, people have the opposite reaction to homelessness.

NICHOLE ALEXANDER: They don't make eye contact with our participants. They will drive out of the way. They cross the street.

RIDDLE: Things were especially fraught at this site. The camp was cleared out a few months ago. But when people were still living there, their relationship with the broader Seattle community had become hostile.

ALEXANDER: You know, people, like, literally would pull up to this site and scream at people.

RIDDLE: The residents across the street had been trying to get rid of the camp for years. It attracted drugs, prostitution...

DIANE RADISCHAT: And then the gunshots.

RIDDLE: Diane Radischat witnessed all this. She's a longtime resident of the retirement community. She stands on the roof balcony of her building, gesturing to the place the camp used to be.

RADISCHAT: The number of vehicles and things that were over there were just unbelievable.

RIDDLE: Radischat says she didn't blame these problems on any one person who lived in the camp, but she didn't like living across the street from it.

RADISCHAT: We had bullets coming across, case - shell casings on people's patios, and that was very frightening.

RIDDLE: Bus driver Julie Tackett says she also understands this sentiment. Homelessness is scary. The camp was scary. But she has a unique perspective. Tackett's had bouts of homelessness herself before.

TACKETT: Being homeless is an emotional bandwidth problem. How can I - where am I going to go to the bathroom tonight if I park on the street here? You know, or, you know, food or my needs immediately today.

RIDDLE: It took others helping her to get out of her periods of homelessness. That's what she tried to do for Hay. After the wheelchair, she helped him get connected to the outreach program. One by one, the outreach workers did the same thing with the other people living in the camp until it was gone. Tackett says she tries to remember, in these situations, giving someone time and attention is the greatest gift.

TACKETT: You know, so it's just such a simple thing. It's like, I care about you. Your problem is my problem.

RIDDLE: Those who think they deserve love the least, she says, are often those who need it the most.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katia Riddle

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