I have spent this sunny Seattle summer interning under Whitman (sociology!) alumnus Mark Putnam ’91 at the Committee to End Homelessness in King County. The committee (CEH) is a coalition-based entity hosted by King County that leads and coordinates the strategic planning, coalition building, and program coordination and implementation that addresses and works to eliminate homelessness across the 38 cities of the County, including Seattle and Bellevue.
Led by our small staff of 8-10, CEH represents the interests of non-profit housing providers, elected officials, business leaders, faith communities, concerned neighbors, and people experiencing homelessness and takes very seriously the importance and necessity of involving all these stakeholders in the solutions to ending homelessness (more than 500 people contributed to the new Strategic Plan!) This summer was an exciting time of transition and new energy at CEH, as the end of June brought with it the end of the 10-year plan to end homelessness, which CEH was created in 2005 to oversee, to the new strategic plan and an overhaul of CEH’s mission, strategies, and governing structure. And anyone living in Seattle currently probably knows that housing affordability is a hot topic these days, adding another level of politics and strong public opinions to the work of addressing homelessness.
As the intern, and the unofficial administrative and communications specialist following a job vacancy a couple weeks after I started, I have been kept busy during this transition organizing and prepping for meetings, handling the majority of emails and phone calls coming into CEH, running the application process for the new Board, and writing our weekly and monthly newsletters. I planned the Annual Conference in June, which had more than 150 people in attendance, including Seattle Mayor Ed Murray who co-chairs the Board and assisted at last weeks’ campaign launch to end Veteran homelessness by the end of 2015, where Senator Patty Murray, Mayor Murray, and other public figures spoke. I have also interacted with the consumer council, comprised of people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness, organizing focus groups, meetings, and social activities.
Mark spoke on campus while I was abroad last year, but the brief blurb about him and CEH in the email stuck with me, so I reached out and shadowed him over spring break after which he agreed to work with me this summer. Mark is a brilliant leader, negotiator, and advocate and I’m learning a lot about what it takes to be a well-respected and effective community organizer and homeless advocate. Like the rest of the team, he is patient and diplomatic, essential in trying to bring hugely diverse stakeholders to the same table on a complicated issue. Yet he has a deep understanding of the reality of obstacles in his work and carries a sense of urgency for addressing homelessness efficiently and effectively, as every day we’re at our desks, there are thousands of adults, families, and youth suffering on the streets (many right outside the office in Pioneer Square). Though he is away from the office frequently, I never felt lost or abandoned, but empowered by having enough information and guidance to then take off on an independent project. Through this job, I have developed connections with a number of other Whitman alums doing similar work in the Department of Community and Human Services, which has been fun, inspiring, and somewhat calming as I go into my senior year, knowing that there are people out there who would want to help me on the ‘other side’!
My colleagues and supervisors have done a remarkable job of inviting me to meetings and opportunities they think will be good for me, from meetings with City Council members, to training for case managers working with people who have experienced trauma, to a day-long poverty simulation workshop, etc. The whole team at CEH has been an amazing resource for me this summer. During my first few weeks, I set up 30-60 minute meetings, walks, lunches with each of them and would recommend this to ANY intern anywhere, given that is within the culture of their workplace. Having developed friendly relationships, CEH staffs always make themselves available to answer my questions, include me in social gatherings, ask for my assistance on their projects, and have been more than willing to discuss their career paths and give me advice. I worked a full 12 weeks, longer than this grant required, simply because I loved going to work every day knowing I’d be welcomed, feel a sense of responsibility for the work I was doing, and would probably laugh often!
There are plenty of careers I will consider (I’m a sociology major at a liberal arts college, ‘choosing’ isn’t really my style). However, spending a summer working in what seems like the ‘cutting edge’ of social and human services (if there is a such a thing) has made me realize that it is possible, and perhaps not even so difficult, to find a career where I can use my skills as a leader, bridge-builder, and problem solver while doing work that positively impacts the lives of people who (like any of us could) have just hit hard times and need access to resources and compassion from others. As they say around here, ‘just say hello!’