MONROE — In the parking lot of Al Borlin Park on June 5, Robert Smiley unloaded supplies from his car and divided them into seven or eight backpacks: canned food, Ramen noodles, flashlights, cigarettes, toiletries such as toothpaste, razors and deodorant. He handed the backpacks to the small group of volunteers.
Then it was into the woods, Smiley raising a bullhorn to his mouth: “Good afternoon! Who wants a free backpack? And we’ve got free cigarettes, too!”
Smiley’s plan on that Friday afternoon was to visit the homeless encampments in the heavily wooded park.
Ideally, he wanted to connect anyone living in the park with social services, from housing to detox or other needs. If nothing else, it was to warn them that the police were coming through to remove all the encampments.
A week earlier, Smiley had helped organize a free barbecue for the homeless at Take the Next Step, a referral service and drop-in center close to the park. He did the same thing there with the homeless people who came by: passed out his card, told people about the coming sweep, and said he was there to help.
The police came that following Monday. The word apparently had gotten out at the barbecue, because Smiley later heard from the police that there were no arrests or citations that day.
Even on the Friday when Smiley went through, there were signs of recent encampments in the park, such as matted grass in the hollow of a tree and a few food wrappers, but none of them appeared to be occupied.
Near the bathrooms at the park’s southern parking lot, a homeless veteran told Smiley that he’d heard most people had moved near a store along U.S. 2. The vet and his female companion took packs of supplies and moved on.
At the store, two more backpacks were given out, and more were handed out at the Eagles Aerie across the street, near where several more people were now camping.
At the end of the day, all the backpacks were gone, the last two donated to Esther’s Place, a women’s and children’s drop-in center in Everett.
He’s willing to help people if they’re willing to accept it, and he’s willing to do what it takes to make sure the homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts can get the services they need.
Whether it’s ferrying people to various offices and agencies around town, helping them fill out numerous forms, or keeping track of meetings, Smiley is a one-man outreach program to the most destitute in society, a legwork guy for people who can’t do it on their own, even if they wanted to.
“Robert is kind of the tow truck for the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics,” said Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, and one of the HandUp Project’s advisers.
“He’ll go pull them in and help them through the process,” Slack said.
Judy Hoff, who runs the Hoff Foundation and will be Smiley’s new boss, is a former pastor who provides services to homeless women through Esther’s Place, the New Day Cafe culinary job training program, and “Queen: It’s a New Day,” which provides image and spiritual makeovers to homeless women.
Hoff said she and Smiley share the same desire to see the homeless recovered and restored as productive members of society.
The new affiliation means Hoff’s strengths: organization and funding, will provide structure in which Smiley can do what he does best, meeting people one-on-one.
“Instead of just Robert running around helping the homeless, it’s putting some legs to their change,” Hoff said. “His passion is fabulous, he just really needs a group to support him.”
It is difficult for homeless people to ask for help, not just because of the indignity of being on the streets in the first place. There are assessments to take, appointments to keep, and often it involves getting onto a schedule for something that is days or weeks away.
“The process is so overwhelming that they give up. That’s when they go to the bottle, or drugs, or suicide,” Smiley said.
He knows this because he’s been in that world before.
On the Friday Smiley went out into Al Borlin Park, he had been sober for two years, eight months and five days.
Before then, he said, he had been a “liar, cheat and thief in every sense of the word.” He spent most of his life in boy’s homes and jails, and has served several stints in prison for armed robbery, burglary and other crimes. He’s been homeless and had to work the social services network for himself. It puts him in a position to meet the homeless on their level, whereas they might steer clear of someone in uniform.
“He can talk the talk and walk the walk,” Slack said.
Smiley can connect and know who among the homeless community is sincere about changing and who isn’t. “He knows when someone is trying to con somebody, and he cuts them off,” Slack said.
Smiley also knows that scraping together bus fare for a trip into town is hard enough.
When someone finds out that, for example, they need to get an ID card before they can receive services, that’s a separate trip to the state Department of Licensing, and more bus fare. Add more bus trips if they need an assessment from the county’s Health and Human Services department, or need to detox, or if they’re a veteran, or have mental health problems, and so on.
For someone without means, multiple trips on city buses take a toll, and it’s easy to just give up when the money or energy runs out.
“They don’t know what they need to do,” Smiley said, and one bureaucratic hurdle can derail their entire plan.
They think they’ll get to it tomorrow, but for addicts, “tomorrow never comes,” Smiley said.
So when one of Smiley’s people calls, he drops everything. On June 9, he got the call from a woman he met outside the Monroe store the previous week. He went and picked her up, and took her to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett for her medical evaluation. While volunteers sat with her in the hospital, he went about arranging the next steps: finding a detox center, a case manager, and getting her into the social services system.
Smiley’s own past provides the fuel for his fire. He realized years ago he had problems but it wasn’t until nearly three years ago that he found a program with Alcoholics Anonymous that worked for him.
He still visits AA meetings, sometimes a dozen different meetings per week. But it’s not just about him any more.
“I started caring more about people more than I care about myself,” he said. “On the day that I got sober, I told myself I would not harm another person again.”
When he’s helping someone get into treatment, he’s hoping that person will eventually join him in reaching out.
One of the volunteers with Smiley that day in Al Borlin Park was Doug Vickroy, 62, who said he was 19 months sober.
Vickroy works a booth in the Star Center Antique Mall in Snohomish, but had been his parents’ live-in caretaker until their death. He remains philosophical about his now uncertain housing situation.
“If Robert calls me, I’m willing to help,” Vickroy said. “I’m trying to be part of the solution.”
Slack likened Smiley’s pay-it-forward ethos to Loren Eiseley’s classic “Star-Thrower” essay, which uses an image of throwing starfish back into the sea to illustrate the ripple effect of people’s actions.
“In a way, Robert Smiley is one of my starfish,” Slack said. “I think that him surviving will create other people who survive.”