Friday, January 30, 2015

What Lee Left Us

Hello all. I hope everyone has had at least marginally successful weeks (or at least been able to give failure a couple slaps in the face).

Well, in a break from my normal more jovial posts, this week I wish to honor a life lived truly in the service of others. Spokane, and the world at large, lost a man this past week who was dedicated to social justice, an ardent advocate for homeless rights and a truly wonderful soul: Lee Nelson.

Lee worked for many years as a homeless outreach worker, traveling under bridges, in train yards, through make-shift tent cities and wherever the homeless could be found to help connect them to vital supplies and services. I got the opportunity to work with him during my time as a homeless and at-risk youth outreach worker and then in the following years on various homeless advocacy projects.

Whether his name goes down in the history books or not is irrelevant, because he touched the lives of so many. Even the meanest, most hardened, train-hopping homeless man had respect and words of kindness for Lee.

This past week we had the Homeless Connect event here in Spokane (the pictures included in this post are from the event). In one day over 40 service providers came together for a one-stop-shop for homeless services, greatly diminishing one of the major barriers to receiving help: distance. This year the event, which helped 250 to 300 homeless in five hours time, was held in honor of Lee.

Lee saw my strange career from the beginning, he met me one month after I had graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in my hot little hands. So in honor of a man that I looked up to as a mentor and someone I saw as a friend, I want to impart some of the wisdom to you all that he imparted to me.

1. Treat everyone as fairly as you can.

Lee didn't care what your skin color was, what your sexual orientation was, how long your rap sheet took to print out, when you last shot up or what gang tattoo was on the back of your hand. He was going to treat you with the same amount of respect as the person sitting on the bench next to you. This meant that if he offered socks to one person, then even if the person sitting next to that person was a loud-mouthed jerk, he would offer them socks too.

Food Bank at the Spokane Homeless Connect

2. Call people out on their bullshit, but don't ever make them feel like bullshit.

I cannot count the number of times when I would be at the same homeless meal site when Lee was there and would watch as someone would be coming down from meth, or detoxing from an alcohol binge or suffering the side-effects that come from not taking their medication.

Over 40 Service Providers Gathered to Help the Homeless
 He would calmly sit there and talk to them, whether he'd known them for years or known them for minutes in the same jovial tone, "So you used again? Well, how's it feeling? Not great? You ready for treatment yet? No? Well, when you are, just let me know, we'll get someone down here to do an assessment. Here's some hand warmers your fingers look frozen man." 

It was never, "Go to treatment," or "I can't believe you used again!"

With Lee it was always, "You ready for treatment? No? Well, tell me when you want to stop feeling like crap and we'll make it happen."

That was it, no guilt trip, just a hard look at the facts. Your actions are hurting you, here's an out. You want it, it's yours. You don't, that's your choice.

3. Nothing changes without people willing to get their boots on the ground and their clothes a little dirty.

Providing Hope One Pair of Socks at a Time
Working street outreach meant that us workers had to go into some pretty decrepit places. I can remember one bridge in particular where we all knew to stay on the path provided, because everywhere outside of the path was fair game for toilet use.

While none of us found it pleasant, we didn't complain about it much either. After all, we didn't have to live there, we were just there temporarily to give out aid.

In social work you end up going to a lot of meetings (which is the true test of whether you'll make it in social work or not, can you stay awake and not kill anyone during endless meetings?).

In one such meeting there was a politician-administrator type who was pontificating about his plan to end homelessness (which was a load of absolute tripe). About halfway through his little speech, Lee put up a hand. The guy speaking ignored him. After a minute Lee calmly and quietly said, "Excuse me."

The speaker gave him an annoyed glance from behind his two-hundred dollar glasses and said, "What?"

Lee just shrugged and evenly asked, "You ever been homeless?"

"Well, no."

"How long you worked with homeless people?"

"Well I volunteer in a soup kitchen once a year..."

"So, you don't work with homeless people and you were never homeless."


Lee let out a laugh, "So what makes you think you know how to end homelessness? This is the same crap-plan we've been hearing for decades, and guess what, it doesn't work. You're in a room full of homelessness experts, why don't you sit down and listen to some ideas instead?"

Lee knew the value of going out and having the experience to make actual attainable progress with people and the homeless population at large, even if that meant ruining a few pairs of shoes. There was no other way to understand the population and no other way to find ways to actually help them.

It saddens me that the world has lost another great advocate and person of purpose. However, I do know that the lives he touched across the country will be forever changed by his sense of humor, compassion and immense patience.

As always I can be found Facebook, Twitter (@AllisonHawn) and Goodreads!


  1. May this beautiful man rest in peace. The world has lost a great man. My prayers go out to all his family and friends. I'm absolutly sure he is terribly missed. This brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart knowing he was so helpful to those in need.

  2. What a journey he experienced