A new outreach team focuses on relieving disorder on Third Avenue

By now, people on Third Avenue recognize We Deliver Care’s community safety ambassadors. They label their clothes with a red “WDC,” carry backpacks full of snacks and water bottles, and often wear masks to mitigate the smell of fentanyl smoke that’s prevalent on the streets. 

So when a man walked into Ross Dress for Less with a pair of shoes that were falling apart and no money, a security guard flagged Derwayne Trahan.

Trahan entered the store, purchased a pair of black boots and handed them to the man.

“We care about you,” Trahan said. “Anything we can do practical for you, whether it be water, conversation, somebody to help you, you’re having a bad day, we’re always here.”

Trahan leads the evening shift for We Deliver Care, an organization that forms the backbone of the Third Avenue Project, a city initiative to bring order to the core of downtown’s commercial zone, which has been mired in crime, drug use, violence and disorder for decades. 

They are a near-constant presence on the streets, hoping that translates to trust when they offer services and when they ask people to knock off behavior that’s harmful to businesses and visitors to the area.

Stakeholders are optimistic about the approach, but businesses and residents in the area say they haven’t noticed a difference yet. The effort is only a few months underway, and few people have been brought indoors so far.

Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell called the project a “great example of an alternative to policing” especially at a time when the city has a shortage of police officers. Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety & Human Services Committee, also said she has consistently emphasized the need for law enforcement alternatives like the Third Avenue Project.

We Deliver Care is trying to balance serving business interests and human service interests, priorities that have sometimes been at odds, and wants to show it can do both without compromise.  

Snacks, water and cigarettes

Trahan and his team hadn’t seen the man with the broken shoe on Third Avenue before, who identified himself as “Solo.” They asked him if he was homeless. Like the overwhelming majority of people they engage with on Third Avenue, he was. He said he needed housing and a job.

That information along with the person’s name, birth date and where they’re staying goes into a database of all the people they work with on Third Avenue. Since they began work a few months ago, they’ve collected more than 460 people’s information in their “by-name list.”

So far, they’re popular.

As Trahan and his team walk along Third Avenue, people who occupy those streets, business owners who operate storefronts there, security guards and police all greet them with a smile. 

“They want to help us make sure that we eat food, make sure we’ve got something to drink. Every once in a while they’ll pop out with cigarettes,” said Juan Islas, a 27-year-old homeless man who said he often spends time at and sleeps on Third Avenue. 

Islas is one of the few people We Deliver Care has connected with a shelter so far. But he left before spending a full night there to return to Third Avenue. Islas, who has experienced multiple deaths in his family in the last few years, including his brother and his mom, spends most of his evenings in this area to find and use drugs.

“My addiction leads me to just stay out here,” Islas said. 

As Trahan passed a group of people loitering outside a restaurant’s doorway, he asked them to clear the area. The group got up and moved, presumably around the corner, Trahan said. 

If the police had asked them, he said they might not have moved.

“They know us. We’ve developed a relationship with them. Because we’re not the police and we’re not security. We’re here for them.” Trahan said.

Who is We Deliver Care?

In 2020, Dominique Davis co-founded We Deliver Care with Stephenie Wheeler-Smith, initially working with JustCARE, a pandemic-era coalition of homelessness service providers that helped move people living in encampments into hotel-based shelters. We Deliver Care’s role was to provide “de-escalation” services in those hotels, which is like security without the use of force.

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in 2020 and amid public clamor to defund the police, Davis started thinking about alternatives to traditional policing. He already had experience with the legal system as founder of Community Passageways, a jail diversion and prevention program for youth based in Seattle.

“What does it look like for us to come up with a way for us to do public safety in our own neighborhoods, in our own community?” Davis said.

As the organization pivoted to work on Third Avenue, Davis selected staff who have life experience that allows them to relate to the people who live and hang out in the area. Some have been homeless, others have been involved in gangs. 

For example, Shawn Pimpleton, one of the community safety ambassadors, was sentenced in 2008 to 10 years in jail for drug and gun charges. 

“We come from this. It’s nothing new to us,” Pimpleton said. “Now I’m out here giving back to my community to fix this problem.”

All of We Deliver Care’s staff is Black, and the lived experience of being Black in society provides them with “an understanding of how one must reduce or de-escalate issues,” co-founder Stephenie Wheeler-Smith says.

Connection to services 

We Deliver Care’s long-term goal is to connect everyone on Third Avenue with services and pathways off the street. In their first few months, they’ve made little progress toward that.

At the end of March, less than a third of the 463 people We Deliver Care had connected with on Third Avenue had been referred to other organizations for services, and ever fewer had received them.

Some of the challenges are due to the fact that they can’t directly provide services like getting a person an ID card, signing them up for health care or putting them on a housing list. 

In those cases, We Deliver Care staff members give a nonprofit social service organization a name, a description of what the person looks like and where they can often be found. But by the time the service providers arrive, sometimes days later, the person has often moved on.  

And although more than 90% of people We Deliver Care engage with lack housing or shelter, they have only been able to offer it to six people as of the end of March. Organization leaders say they need access to more housing.

However, much of that housing is being used by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority for its effort to reduce homelessness in the downtown core. Leaders of both projects are figuring out how to make room for the Third Avenue Project, which was started a year into the homelessness authority’s initiative.

We Deliver Care is also working to set up employment opportunities for people who are able and willing to work but may have marks on their record that prevent them from getting a job. Some of these people now end up selling drugs or stolen goods. 

That effort has been slow to develop, but the organization has found its first company, LAZ Parking, that has committed to employing people from Third Avenue who are engaged in illicit commercial activity or have behavioral health challenges. We Deliver Care expects the first person could be hired through this program as early as the end of April.

Starting to get noticed

Businesses and residents around Third Avenue are starting to notice We Deliver Care’s presence in isolated incidents.

In early March, Bobby Evans was standing outside of his boutique suit shop, Selfmade Couture, when he saw a man lying on the ground across the street, unresponsive. We Deliver Care staff happened to be patrolling through the area and sprung into action. 

They called 911, administered Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal medication, and performed CPR. Evans said he watched them pump the man’s chest for long enough that he had lost hope.

“And then he just popped up,” Evans said. “That was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

We Deliver Care says they’ve administered Narcan more than 20 times to people who have overdosed around Third Avenue.

“That probably doesn’t matter to some people that we save people’s lives that are on drugs,” Davis said. “But they’re human beings. That’s somebody’s daughter, son, cousin, uncle, dad, mom.”

Last month, two men began fighting outside of International Cigar and Tobacco on Third Avenue in what appeared to be a life or death situation, said Umed Laghari, co-owner of the store. By the time he made his way outside, We Deliver Care had already convinced one of the men to leave.

We Deliver Care staff say they can break up a fight simply by asking a person to walk away or smoke a cigarette with them because they know the people involved from seeing them so often.

“I think they’re responding better to these guys than actual police,” Laghari said. 

The Third Avenue Project has launched a website portal for business owners and residents in the area to report non-urgent incidents involving a person with mental illness or substance use concern that We Deliver Care community safety ambassadors will respond to when possible.

Despite his support for the group, Laghari said the shoplifting, public drug use and sales, and feel of Third Avenue has not changed.

Leslie Buker, who lives in an apartment on Third Avenue, said she is excited to have an option to call other than police or an ambulance for instances like when she recently walked outside her home and saw a man exposing himself on the street. But like Laghari, she said she hasn’t noticed a difference in the area yet.

Correction: a previous version of this story referred to Dominique Davis, who is a man, as a she.

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