University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Matthew Fox (Director of Operations, ROOTS)

  • Posted 3/26/2010
  • Essay 9345
See Additional Media

Matthew Fox is the director of operations for the ROOTS (Rising Out of the Shadows) young-adult shelter in Seattle's University District.  In this oral history transcript he describes how ROOTS works in conjunction with other groups, churches, and businesses to provide services for the many homeless young adults drawn to the area. Fox was interviewed by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009.  The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories. 

Rising Out of the Shadows

ROOTS is an acronym for Rising Out of the Shadows. It was founded about 10 years ago. Initially the shelters in the U District sort of went from church to church -- over a period of a week it would be at three different churches. Somewhere a couple years ago before I started there they'd consolidated it down to seven nights in one shelter, which is in the ROOTS shelter in the University Temple Methodist Church.

What ROOTS does is, the main program of ROOTS is a shelter for homeless young adults ages 18 to 25, men and women. Our capacity's 25, we fill up most every night, we're open 365 days a year. It's just an emergency overnight shelter -- it's basically a mat on the floor. You're in at 9, out at 8 a.m. We also run a Friday night meal program for about 150 people, that's an all-ages program, it's called Friday Feast. My boss, Sinan Demirel, founded that 13 years ago and hasn't missed a meal in the over 500 weeks since then. And then our other programs, we try to do sort of civic-engagement stuff and building partnerships with other social-service agencies, the faith community, the education community, the nonprofit community, to try to build a full continuum of care in the U District and to make sure that everyone's talking to each other and not duplicating efforts, and just to expand the services available to the homeless people in the District and throughout the area.

Last year we turned away people over a thousand times, so that's a night when we've got 25 beds and 30 people show up, so that's five people we have to turn away. Every year our turnaway numbers grow. We served 434 different kids last year, and every year that number grows. We served 150 meals every Friday and we're usually pretty full -- we send a lot of people home with food. So it seems to be the need is growing, and that was even before the economy took the latest nosedive that it took. We've been seeing a steady growth and need for our kind of services even before this current recession hit. And as much as people like to talk about ending homelessness, it doesn't seem like that's going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, we really need services like us, even from the standpoint of if you want to be kind of hard-hearted, you'd rather have these people sleeping in the church basement than in your doorway if you're a business owner.

Business Support 

The business community in the U District has really been a great supporter of ours. The current head of the Chamber of Commerce was on our board for quite a while, we have a lot of partnerships with businesses, and generally our relationship with the business community is good. I think that's in part due to the fact that our former board member did a lot of community building in the business community, and we make an effort to talk to our business neighbors and find out what their concerns are, people loitering or anything like that, and try and address that to the extent we can. But I think businesspeople understand that people need a place to go and you can't really repress this problem into nonexistence, so it's better to just deal with it. 

By pretty much any major college you will find that because there are young people, that's where homeless young people will gravitate. And in the case of a city like Seattle, if you come out at 16 and get kicked out of your house in, you know, Olalla or something, you'll probably wind up going to the city and then you're going to wind up probably either on Broadway or in the U District. At the risk of generalizing a little bit, I think Broadway is known as maybe a somewhat tougher neighborhood -- fewer services and less of a sense of community for people who live on the streets. So folks do gravitate towards the District, but they would be somewhere, they've done these homeless encampment sweeps and all that's done is pushed people underground. It's not that they've addressed the problem, it's that they've moved it out of sight. 

I think Seattle does pretty well as cities go. I guess I'm probably known for being something of a gadfly at City Hall on land-use stuff, but I will say that I think the mayor and the council, perhaps more the council, have their hearts -- I mean, the council aren't advocating sweeping people's belongings and throwing them away, so, maybe that's a broad statement, but I think, in general, we fund services pretty well in this city. Our program is about half-funded by the City of Seattle, and the rest is private grant writing, businesses, and individuals' contributions. And by and large I think people's hearts are in the right places, for the most part. I think this 10-year plan to end homelessness has given people an excuse to turn the screws on these services a little bit, since they say, "Oh, we're gonna end homelessness, we don't need an emergency shelter," and we're just not there yet. You need thousands and thousands of housings units to do that and we just don't have the money to do that. So in the meantime, we are just a band-aid providing an emergency shelter, but it beats the heck out of having people dying on the street.

Perennial Problems

I just think that these are perennial problems, timeless problems that have been with mankind for about as long as there's been mankind, or at least organizable batches of us not living off the land directly. It's a combination of permanent housing and low-barrier housing. If you require these people to be sober, many of them will never get into housing. You need the kind of services that -- really serious case management services, on-site services. Many people who are homeless are very mentally ill, very substance-addicted, and a lot of folks were in the foster-care system. About a quarter of our guests were in the foster-care system at some time or another, and many of them shuffled through foster-care placements and never really learned to live independently. Think how you were at 18 -- were you ready to live on your own at 18? Really ready? I mean I did, but fortunately I had Mom and Dad to fall back on when I screwed up. If you're 18 and you have no parents, you never learned how to balance a checkbook, let alone a whole host of other more complicated things than that, and you combine that with problems with substance abuse, mental illness -- it's not an easy thing to do. I think the main thing is to have a lot of supportive housing with services on-site to really help people move into self-sufficiency, and to understand that for some people who are really mentally challenged or have mental illness, they may never be fully self-sufficient -- and you're just going to have to accept that it will always cost money to take care of them. And in a society as wealthy as we are, you ought to find the resources to do that.

I've been up and down the Ave for years and I'm always blown away when people say they don't feel safe on the Ave, because to me the Ave is just not threatening. I just don't find the people on the Ave threatening. I've been to dangerous cities, and Seattle is not a dangerous city by any stretch of the imagination compared to a place like New Orleans or bad parts of L.A. or whatever. I just like the mix of retail on the Ave. I like record stores, I like bookstores, I like being able to eat at a different place every day of the month practically, not just the week. And just the energy, particularly fall is just so fun, you get this new batch of thousands and thousands of kids and there's just this whole energy that surrounds the Ave because you have this mixing of these populations. 

The Pendulum Swings

There was a fair amount of activism around the campus in the eighties, like Students Against the U.S. Intervention in El Salvador, I marched with a number of times. There was a big move at the UW campus in the eighties to get the UW to divest from South Africa, a lot of protest on campus about that, and they did eventually, in fact, pull all their assets out of South Africa. I guess there is less activism now -- at the risk of sounding like an "oh, those kids today" old person, it seems to me that they're more careerist on campus. And there are a lot of people doing social-justice activism and a lot of people are there because they wanted a real paycheck, and you don't hear much about student marches anymore. Even in the eighties and even the nineties there was a lot of that activity. So I guess we're in more of a conservative, I would say, period now. It seems to me that if you read the Daily today, the campus has gotten a lot more conservative. Surprisingly so, to me.

But this pendulum swings, what's the expression -- "it has been ever thus," and I think the U District and the University of Washington isn't going anywhere and it will always be -- and we haven't even touched on the UW, the UW has a huge, huge impact, and it gets at the protests and stuff you're talking about too, in that it always will be this sort of intellectual hub, this energy hub for young people who are coming from all over the state, the world, the country, and kind of land here. It's always going to be like that and always going to be the dynamo that drives the U District. There's a reason they call it the University District, and 40,000 students and another 10,000 faculty and staff have always had a huge effect on the local life here. It's a really positive effect.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You