It’s winter, and a man is curled up in a street corner. The rain soaked the cardboard boxes he managed to grab for refuge. He’s cold. There were no blankets left in the shelters today, and the last one he got is a shredded mess now. Sleeping bags are the equivalent of three days’ meals, if you’re smart enough. He can’t afford warmth over food at this point. But off in the distance, a crowd of strangers are making their way to him. They have sleeping bags.
They’re volunteers from Sleepless in Seattle.
The program is UW class of 2013 alumni Eddie Wang’s brainchild. But this year, he’s struggling to establish funds for the program’s annual Big Give event that serves 4,000 homeless people.
The program is volunteer-based, and is currently busy collecting donations to serve homeless people in the broader King County area. They hope to raise $60,000 this year.
That’s $10,000 more than their previous goal, but Sleepless in Seattle received a lot of attention last year, thanks to the press. This year, Wang said the press hasn’t published stories on his organization.
The program began when Wang realized just how frequently he walked by homeless people on the Ave. He ended up talking to a man who was headed to a bar to honor the anniversary of his friend’s death. Wang spent hours with the man, who opened up about having various medical problems and only three months to live.
“That was the first time I encountered someone different from me in that way,” Wang said. “But it got me curious, so I kept on taking time to know people on the streets and inviting them to coffee or a meal.”
Eventually, Wang decided to take action, gather friends, and create Sleepless in Seattle. The funds it raises go toward care packages, sleeping bags, and tents for the homeless.
“It really comes down to people caring for people,” Wang said. “I realized there’s not a lot that separates me from them except for the background and the privilege I’ve come from.”
Initially, Sleepless in Seattle began by handing out items within the U-District, but the program grew. Now, volunteers show up by the hundreds to work in small groups. These groups meet up at different locations throughout Seattle. From there, they disperse into 50 mapped-out “zones,” using their own cars to get there and hand out supplies for the homeless. All of this happens over the course of one night.
UW undergraduate Andrew Lai has been a volunteer in the program since 2014. He had previous experience helping the homeless when he joined Sleepless in Seattle.
“Something that I was really looking forward to was the conversations you have with the people that are homeless,” Lai said. “A lot of the time, you just give out food or something like that. It’s not too big, you see it a lot. But something like sleeping bags are a lot more meaningful.”
Lai recounted a memorable scene where his group of volunteers walked down an alleyway, and about halfway down, the area opened up, filled with approximately 15 homeless people. One of those people was a woman with a sign that said she was mute.
“It was one of the times where I guess it really opened my eyes to just the amount of suffering and disparity between the rich and the poor,” Lai said. “When on top of the apartments, there’s people that are making, like, six digits, while downstairs it’s people that literally can’t find a job due to the disability they had.”
UW alumna Emily Bunch volunteered last year. She explained her passion about homeless people on the Ave, because they’re often the same age as University students. Bunch had also worked with the homeless prior to volunteering.
“A lot of people opened up and kind of shared where they were coming from,” she said. “They were thankful to just have someone who wanted to listen.”
This year, Sleepless in Seattle has the ability to accommodate 360 volunteers. Wang said most of his volunteers consist of high school students, and estimated that 20-30 volunteers were UW students last year.
Lai, Wang, and Bunch all expressed their attachment to Christianity while volunteering, but the program itself isn’t religiously based. They all also felt that homeless people are surrounded by false stereotypes.
“A lot of them were very hard-working people who just didn’t end up being lucky in the world,” Lai said. “Not everyone out there is just lazy and chooses to be homeless. A lot of them don’t have a choice.”
Wang said everyone can at least acknowledge homeless people who they see every day. Shake their hand. Make eye contact.
“A lot of times, people on the streets will talk about how they feel invisible,” Wang said, “like there’s a plexiglass wall in front of them.”
But how is it that a real, tangible person in front of another is ignored the moment they become homeless, they asked.
“I think a lot of it honestly is because we’ve just been so accustomed to it,” Lai said. “You see it so often that when homeless people try to talk to you, you just don’t even notice them anymore.”
As of Thursday night, Sleepless in Seattle has raised over $13,000 through the website Generosity.
Reach reporter Kelsey Hamlin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ItsKelseyHamlin