SEATTLE — Will L. spent last summer on the streets of Seattle, doing heroin and meth to cope with being homeless, and stealing bikes to pay for drugs.
Now, here are three things that may surprise you.
1. Will L. spent this summer housed, sober and being paid by the city, working to maintain a network of rain gardens.
2. His experience is normal among participants in the Seattle Conservation Corps, a program that provides homeless people with wages, training and wraparound services for an entire year.
3. Despite decades of success at a relatively low cost to the city, the Corps currently has about the same budget as when Seattle declared a state of emergency over homelessness in 2015.
“It’s crazy that I had to catch charges to find out about this program,” said Will L., 31, who was referred to the Corps after he was arrested for burglary and who requested partial anonymity due to the stigmas associated with homelessness, addiction and criminal history.
Spreading wood chips in the Pinehurst neighborhood, where the city has installed a “green grid” of rain gardens to clean and convey stormwater in lieu of regular sewer drains, he added, “It’s giving me hope again.”
Established in 1986 and modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps (the New Deal program that put young men to work in parks and forests during the Great Depression), Seattle’s Corps has operated mostly under the radar, based in a dilapidated old military hangar in Magnuson Park.
The Parks Department manages the program, which seems tailor-made for Seattle today, where skyrocketing housing costs have spawned a street camping crisis, exacerbated by inadequate care for people struggling with mental health challenges, trauma and drugs. The Corps caters to a particularly marginalized group of people experiencing homelessness: those recovering from addiction or recently released from incarceration.
Participants get help with housing, health care and education, all while being paid and building skills. They start out at the minimum wage of $17.27 an hour, can earn more and leave for jobs at the city and with construction unions. The Corps normally serves about 50 participants at a time.
The program’s annual budget is currently $4.25 million, and the actual cost is much lower: 75% of the money comes from city departments that pay the Corps for work they would otherwise be paying someone else to do.
Yet the Corps has received scant attention during Seattle’s homelessness-focused elections. The program had to shrink when COVID-19 emerged and was allocated only about $130,000 more this year than in 2015.
The situation made no sense to City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who began talking last year about quickly doubling the Corps. But there are multiple reasons why the program can’t grow in a snap, it turns out.
For now, Strauss is backing a plan under development by Mayor Bruce Harrell and the council to boost Seattle Park District property taxes for various projects, including a modest expansion of the Corps.
For the Corps, every weekday starts with “roll call” at Building 2 in Magnuson Park. Bleary-eyed participants in sweatshirts, jeans and work boots sip coffee from thermoses and recline on battered chairs.
The program isn’t designed to accommodate every person, but the criteria are simple: You must be experiencing homelessness, employable and able to pass a physical examination that includes lifting 50 pounds. Participants are referred by homeless shelters and outreach workers, treatment centers, friends and King County Drug Diversion Court. The completion rate is about 70%, meaning a person has secured housing and is leaving for a full-time job with benefits, according to Ruth Blaw, the program’s manager.
“What’s the good news?” Blaw calls out, scanning the room until a man raises his hand. The Corps is paying his security deposit for an apartment. He’ll get the keys soon. The room breaks into applause.
Showing up at 7:30 a.m. every day isn’t easy, especially for participants who live nowhere near Magnuson Park. The roll calls are important, however, because they set a caring tone. Blaw notices when certain participants show up late, when they look strung out, when they sit alone.
Next, the participants break into crews, pile into pickups and roll out to Seattle neighborhoods. The Corps has contracts with Parks and other city agencies for certain jobs, like watering trees, installing signs, boarding up derelict houses and maintaining “green stormwater infrastructure,” like the rain gardens also known as bioswales.
Theresa Duckworth supervises the stormwater crew, which spent much of this summer working along Pinehurst’s verdant streets. The swales must be cleared of weeds and debris periodically, so water can flow through.
Before Seattle Public Utilities installed the rain gardens, in 2006, Pinehurst had flooding problems. The swales work well but “require a significant amount of maintenance” that many residents can’t handle on their own, so the Corps plays a crucial role, resident Lynette Rosenthal said.
Duckworth teaches her crew about the swales, like how they keep toxins out of Thornton Creek. She also talks about homelessness and addiction.
“That was me at one point,” she said.
Before she became a Corps supervisor, Duckworth, 48, was twice a participant. First, after drugs led her to prison and homelessness, sleeping at a bus stop in Federal Way. Second, after a relapse led her to prison again.
In between, Duckworth held a regular job with Parks, making a comfortable wage. She snared a warehouse job after her latest stint behind bars, but she was terminated when the company discovered her rap sheet.
“You get out of prison and it can be so hard” reentering society without a program like the Corps, she said, noting that when you Google her name, a headline from her lawbreaking past pops up.
Duckworth, now in the process of buying a house, has mentored Will L., who enrolled in the Corps through drug court, which allows defendants to get criminal charges dismissed by accessing services, including treatment for substance use disorder.
“Having somebody like Theresa to talk to, who understands what the beginning of recovery is like, is really motivating,” said Will L., explaining he sometimes misses how his adrenaline surged while he was living on the edge.
For every Corps opening, multiple drug court defendants apply. The program is popular because they get to contribute to the city in a positive way and are treated with respect, said Yuka Hayashi, a case manager for drug court.
There are other elements that make the Corps unique. The participants get case managers who they see daily at Building 2 and who connect them with services like mental health counseling, guide them into housing, find them furniture and help them with paperwork for driver’s licenses and child support.
“We get a chance to know them inside and out,” said John Taylor, a case manager with Corps for more than 20 years.
Initially, the participants receive supermarket vouchers and are allowed to handle appointments while on the clock, so they can reorganize their lives without going hungry or losing income. There are GED classes on-site, and a sobriety support group. Participants can earn certificates for skills like forklift operating. Though most are housed in a matter of weeks, with some moving into clean-and-sober houses, the program’s approximately 12-month duration (some leave earlier or stay longer) means they have extra time to find stability.
That’s the aim for Darrold Edwards, a member of Duckworth’s crew who’s spent most of his life “in the streets,” he said.
“I’ve never had a job with a paycheck before,” said Edwards, 28. “That’s why I’m taking this so seriously. This is the beginning of my journey.”
Strauss learned about the Corps when he struck up a conversation with a participant in Green Lake Park. The City Council member was impressed. “This is exactly what the city should be doing way more,” he said.
The Corps has an employment counselor who helps participants seek jobs, write résumés and practice interviews. Many go on to work for Parks in yearlong or seasonal jobs, or other city agencies. The Corps is state certified as a pre-apprenticeship program, so participants can also move directly into union construction jobs that pay almost $30 an hour, plus benefits.
Participants have become laborers, carpenters, electricians and ironworkers, who spend their days assembling skyscrapers.
Ryan Nendick was referred to the program by a shelter in 2017, having recently overdosed and almost died. He tested into Ironworkers Local 86 in 2018 with help from the Corps and today makes more than $50 an hour.
“They gave me that shot,” said Nendick, 35. “Now I build Seattle.”
Strauss thought expanding the Corps would be a no-brainer. The program always has a waitlist, and adding a base in the South End would improve accessibility. But there are barriers.
The program’s numbers were reduced in 2020, because COVID regulations limited each truck to one participant. Though enrollment has been ramping back up, securing the right work can be tricky, Blaw said.
Unskilled jobs like litter pickups are less than ideal, because they don’t involve career training. The Corps mostly avoids encampment cleanups, which can re-traumatize participants. Many other activities require special credentials and are reserved for the city’s regular employees.
Building a pipeline takes time, said Nancy Yamamoto, director of the Jobs and Housing Program that King County launched last year, hoping to serve 400 people. The new program is similar to the Corps, has a larger budget ($33 million in COVID relief funds) and has enrolled about 50 people to date.
Housing is a huge hurdle, with more options needed. Today, the Corps mostly succeeds not based on inside access to subsidized apartments, which are scarce, Blaw said, but because the program has staff who’ve spent a long time in their jobs, cultivating relationships and accumulating know-how.
Strauss has asked Parks to analyze expansion possibilities and expects to receive a report in September. Meanwhile, Harrell is scheduled Wednesday to propose a Park District plan that would, among other things, increase the Corps’ annual budget by $900,000 through 2028. That money, plus an additional $750,000 in contract work, could allow the program to rebound from COVID and serve 60 participants at a time, up from 50.
Will L. reunited with his mother earlier this year and moved into a new apartment by the Roosevelt light-rail station last month. He hopes to see the Corps grow, he said, because the program has brought a sense of purpose to his life and because, “Everybody needs a purpose.”