What can we do for people like ‘Charlie’?

I want you to meet someone; someone you’d probably never see as you move around Edmonds.

He is autistic. He is homeless. He has been a civic headache for Edmonds. His situation has left the city baffled; one social service worker admitting we “don’t know what to do for ‘Charlie’.”

The city’s dilemma has involved the mayor’s office, police, the city attorney, social workers, the parks department and Edmonds’ fledgling human services office. Edmonds has spent dozens of hours across all those departments to try to resolve the problem of “Charlie.” And he is just one of a number in this area who are homeless, or living in poverty, or with mental health, drug or substance abuse issues.

Charlie is not his real name. We changed his name — he didn’t like that idea at all! But we want to do as much as we can to protect Charlie’s identity. We also are not publishing any photos that would identify him.

Before we meet Charlie, here is what this story is not.

It is not an indictment of the city, or the social service programs Edmonds now has. It is not an indictment of the Edmonds Police Department and the men and women who serve this community. It is not an indictment of Charlie.

Charlie’s story, at heart, is about us — about issues that resonate through many communities: mental health, homelessness, equity, the need for more human services. That is something we all have a stake in; we, as a society, don’t know what to do for the Charlies of our communities.

Arresting Charlie

It was late night, in mid-May. Edmonds police had come to arrest Charlie because he was sleeping where he shouldn’t; tucked into a corner of the Edmonds Library Plaza. Police had been there a few days earlier to tell Charlie he could not sleep there; that it violated a city ordinance to be in a park after dark. To get him away from the library, police even paid for a room for a couple nights at a motel, so he could sort out what to do. But a day or so later, Charlie was back; so were the cops. This time, they cited him for violating the city ordinance. He tore up the ticket. Officers warned him if they found him there again, they would arrest him.

A day later, he came back. So did the police; this time, five officers. My Edmonds News has seen police videos of the arrest. Charlie was asleep. They handcuffed him as he was waking. There was no use of force. He did not resist. He did yell and curse at them. He worried he would lose all his things.

They helped pack up his belongings, helped him into his shoes and took Charlie to Snohomish County Jail. As they left, he told them, “I’ll be out in the morning…”  And he was.

A call from an Edmonds couple who have befriended him and tried to get him help alerted me to Charlie’s story. Don and Sandy Kinney are long-time Edmonds residents. Don has been an Edmonds police officer for 25 years; Sandy is a veteran social worker with the State Department of Social and Health Services.

Sandy and Don Kinney

The Kinneys are blunt about the way they feel Charlie has been treated. “Edmonds doesn’t want to admit to having homeless,” said Sandy. “Criminalizing people by arresting them is not the way.”

Don even emailed his boss, Acting Police Chief Michelle Bennett: “Our city/society has clearly stated that they want us to handle things in a different manner, and not make a mental health issue a criminal matter,” he said.

Acting Chief Michelle Bennett

Chief Bennett told us: “It’s not being heartless, or we don’t care; the services are there.” Charlie, she said, is a person who “doesn’t want them.”

That is true; it is a big part of the problem of finding help for him and others like him.

Charlie is autistic. He told me he’s also been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Drugs? Alcohol? “I was not a drug addict or an alcoholic,” Charlie emphasized. “Drugs were the devil.” Police interactions with him confirm that.

Charlie didn’t come from somewhere else. He was born in Snohomish County. His mother, he said, couldn’t take care of him; as a toddler, he went to live with an aunt and uncle in Lynnwood. What followed, he said, were some juvenile scrapes, a first job and a bank account at 14, dropping out of high school. On June 8, 2001, at age 15, he remembers he was sent to his first group home, where he was “supposed to learn to know yourself better and love yourself.” He would run away; the cops always brought him back.  “On the other side of the mirror,” Charlie told me, “it’s not always a pretty picture.”

Conversation over dinner.

Charlie, Don, Sandy and I talked more about that over dinner in a local restaurant. His autism makes him wary of many people. He said he wants to live on his own, alone, in a place that is his. Social workers have tried to find housing, but he refuses to go back to a group home; he won’t go to a shelter; and with no drug or alcohol issues he doesn’t fit in “clean and sober” housing. When Don asked why he didn’t want to share a place with someone, Charlie put it this way: “When I get amped up, I drive my music as loud as I want it. Nobody else could handle it.” His hands made restless jabs, reinforcing the passion in his words.

Charlie tucked one backpack protectively by his feet.

Charlie has a new Chrome book that the Kinneys bought him. He mixes music tracks, his passion. He proudly showed me one of countless notebooks, crammed with what Charlie said was “coding for websites I carry in my head.”

“I have a lot of energy,” he added. “I have a lot of drive.”

And he sounded off about the “system” — social workers, group homes and rules that he says limit his freedom: “You know between the 19 years I was put away I was never listened to,” he said. “They tried to own me.”

“There’s really no freedom in the entire system,” he added.

But Charlie’s idea of freedom sometimes does not mix well with others. At the library, Charlie startled caterers who were showing the site to a couple who wanted to get married on the plaza. He frightened some Frances Anderson Center workers when he asked for a broom to tidy up his “place.” He said he got “frustrated.”Police and others say that’s when Charlie yells, curses and can be intimidating.

In an email, one officer described Charlie: “His behavior is bizarre to people he encounters, but rarely criminal or truly threatening.” But, that note was written before Charlie verbally threatened his social worker, saying that if he had a gun, he’d come after her. That, said Chief Bennett, is a felony threat, but the social worker did not want to press charges. The social worker asked police to take Charlie to Swedish Edmonds Hospital to involuntarily commit him. Officers refused, saying Charlie does not fit the criteria for commitment. She then urged that they get him to agree to stay voluntarily; they warned he would walk right out.

“When there is someone that is homeless and wants help,” Bennett said, “we will do everything to help them… take money out of our own pocket…to help.” But, Charlie has refused to accept housing that the system offers. And, so, he is homeless. “It’s not illegal to be homeless,” said Bennett, “but the balance is you can’t harm other people in your choices.”

Lisa Edwards, Verdant Health Superintendent

What do we do for Charlie and others with similar disabilities? Lisa Edward, superintendent of South Snohomish County’s Verdant Health Commission, warned “there’s more than one Charlie” in our community. “These are individuals with complex needs that cannot be addressed in traditional health care or social services,” she said.

Verdant is seeking social work partner agencies to work with people like Charlie, who put extra stress on the police, fire and hospitals time after time. “We’re asking the question — what is the most innovative and creative way to work with these people,” Edwards said. They do not have the answer to that — yet. “All we can do,” added Edwards, “is extend the invitation, we can’t force them.” Verdant does help fund two crisis social workers with South County fire medics, and Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace share another health care professional to respond on mental health calls.

In another email exchange, Edmonds Assistant Chief Alan Hardwick defined Charlie’s behavior this way: “The truth is that (Charlie) knows the boundary and has learned to exploit it. Any housing assistance must be coupled with the requirements of treatment, otherwise we are creating a dependency that will only get worse, since he consistently demonstrates escalation in his behavior when he is told no.”

In May, Verdant social worker Nancy Budd, in an email to the city, suggested that if Charlie were arrested and ended up at the Snohomish County Jail, “I work closely with the public defender’s office, and could get him started with various programs while he is an inmate.”

That is exactly what Don and Sandy Kinney don’t want. Don Kinney sent this email to his chief, Michelle Bennett: “We need to develop a game plan to deal with (Charlie) in our community, without throwing him back into a system. He will just get out and have more distrust of that system.”

Bennett responded: “I hope we will all take this disheartening situation and turn that energy into action that can assist (Charlie) without negatively impacting other members of the community, violating park code, or breaking the law. Thank you again for the care you demonstrate consistently for (Charlie) It does not go unnoticed.”

Charlie now

Charlie has stayed away from the library. Edmonds police report no new contacts with him. However, Don and Sandy told me that, until recently, Charlie still had been living “somewhere in Edmonds” in his tent.

Some other things have changed. In May, in municipal court, Charlie pleaded not guilty to his arrest charges. A week ago, the city asked to dismiss the charges, saying that Officer Kinney had assured them that Charlie was now in housing and receiving services he needs.

The housing is only temporary, in a motel. Don and a social worker helped get Charlie some Supplemental Social Security payments he was owed. Charlie is paying for the motel while his money lasts. He donated some of his money to the facility where he showers; he donated money so another homeless man could recharge his bus transit card, and he donated clothes he no longer needed. He even fulfilled one of his dreams and took Amtrak to Wenatchee to visit.

But when he gets back, there is still no long-term solution about “what to do for Charlie.” He still does not fit into the usual social services programs. “We expect one size fits all,” Sandy said. “He’s somebody that’s a throw away, a throw away in our system.”

Bennett called it “an unwinnable solution… if their part is voluntary, and they refuse, there’s nothing that can be done.”

Lisa Edwards’ words echo loudest: “There’s more than one Charlie in our community.”

What do we do for them?

— By Bob Throndsen

21 Replies to “What can we do for people like ‘Charlie’?”

  1. Good for Charlie for not wanting help from the “system”. Everyone wants both freedom *and* dignity. He needs a job and some really cheap housing. My friend’s brother sleeps in a shed and is content with that so long as he has control over the situation. Anything is better than the library and it needs to be on his and the property owner’s terms. Anyone have a job and quarters for him?

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  2. Also note, there are two regular homeless people right on Main Street living in cars that I know of. I gave one man my wifi password to my business even. He is a good person who keeps an eye on things. He sleeps downtown at night, and packs it up by day. Homeless half the time is chosen and doesn’t involve mental illness.

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    1. If he isn’t mentally ill, why is he sleeping on the street. This must stop Edmonds. Remember the Tuba Man at the Sonics games. That could happen to any of these folks. Charlie too.

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    2. The guy I’m referring to sleeps in a truck. Super nice guy too. More well adjusted than most. More freedom than most.. The people wearing masks outside seem mentally ill to me.

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  3. Thank you Bob for giving a name and a life to the Charlies in the homeless world. It does bring the real human aspect of this into the light. Thanks also for all of those, especially the Kinneys for helping him with such compassion. May we all learn to be more compassionate.

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  4. A number of years ago I asked the same question, since I was working closely with the homeless community in Everett. I had started to wonder what I could do personally to help and to think outside the box. I had heard of a town on Belgium that houses folks with mental health issues in people’s homes- the community personally cares for these people. So over 5 years ago our family started housing homeless families in our studio apartment in relationship with the Interfaith Family Shelter in Everett. We’ve hosted close to 20 families anywhere from a couple of weeks to 8 months. It’s been a really great experience and really successful as the majority of families move directly into their own apartment. I’d love to encourage others to consider this as a real practical way of helping people in need. It’s certainly been our answer to “what can we do?”

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    1. That is very nice. I do have a question. WE have shelter for people. People refuse to use these shelters. SO it sounds as if you are speaking of families not the Heroine users in tents like all thru Seattle etc right? Does your org also allow the homeless currently using drugs also live there with these families. How do you work it? I am not being critical I am just curious of how it worked. IT doesn’t sound like you are talking about people using drugs etc etc or leaving needles around like in Seattle and here I imagine. I would love to here your answer. Very nice too that it worked out maybe with some answers more would be interested? Thank You. Also could this have been accomplished without the Church? Again just curious.

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      1. The Interfaith Association of the NW is not a church, it’s a non-profit association of people and groups of a variety of faiths. They have a family shelter that is always full and has a wait list of people needing housing. The shelter operates differently than our home, they cannot keep people out who struggle with drug and alcohol use. Their case manager interviews the families before they move in, decides if they’d be a good fit and provides the needed case management necessary to get housing. We’ve been doing this for over 5 years and it has gone amazingly well- we’ve made friends for life. I hope this answers your questions.

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        1. It was helpful. Thank-you. I have many more questions but I won’t bother you with those here.

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    2. Charlie is a good guy and highly intelligent. I see him a lot at my work and we talk a lot. He is boisterous no doubt and sometimes can be intimidating but he has a good heart. I suffer from Adhd and bi polar myseld so i can kinda relate. People act that he is scum of the city because they don’t know him. He i seen as a homeless transients and ask if he is so intelligent why doesn’t he get a job. If you really looked at his coding you would know that those who asked why could never afford to pay him the amount his knowledge deserves. Look past how awkward his outward appearance and truthfully strike up conversation with him. Not why is he homeless or not have a job, but about him or other things. He is human like us and if it wasn’t for eccentric thinking like his the WW2 battle of midway would have turned out differently. Men like charlie don’t fit our so called norms but just who are we to judge him for that. I am honored to call him friend and this so called we can’t help him because he doesn’t fit in a category is just another way both local and federal government had failed men like him. His story is one i have seen to many times in my line of work. I hope this article resonates with people to FIND a way to help people like charlie then just giving up on him because you don’t understand him.

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    3. Do you get paid by the state or county or city for housing, feeding and clothing these families? Please tell us about that. Very nice of you. Everything helps I agree.

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  5. Charlies story resonates for me. I appreciated Bob’s statements- what this article is not about. A saying within the community, “If you know one person with autism, then you know just one person.” The autistic spectrum is very wide and encompasses individuals who appear self-centric and have poor social skills to the non-verbal, physically challenged. All human beings are unique. This includes people with autism. The square peg can’t be shoved into a round hole. Yet this is often what our social services systems attempt, usually in desperation as they have limited resources to treat clients as individuals. The system is based on averages. Group homes work for many, so a viable solution for all? Certainly not. My own son is autistic, and he’s blind. The agency that served him fairly well through school years dropped the proverbial ball when he hit age 21. A visit from his adult services for the blind provider, offered two choices -A position as a file clerk in the county courthouse, or working in light assembly, a euphemism for the “broom factory”. A successful musician, he’d produced his first CD of original songs, yet no choice offered from the agency supported a career in music. We didn’t give up, and here’s the key- advocates are necessary to obtain support services. Not patting myself on the back here- I do have much experience and education in this field. I had knowledge of tools needed and the ability to reach out. Not all parents are able, as in Charlie’s situation. Thanks to supportive staff at a local community college, and later a few individuals at a different adult service agency, who were able to “think outside the box” my son is able to pursue work as a musician. Funding for agencies to attend to their clients as individuals is sorely lacking. Mentors are another possibility, similar to the Big Brother/Sister volunteers. My point- there are no “one size fits all” solutions.

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  6. Homelessness is about mental health issues, addictions, and simple poverty caused by either an inability to cope with the modern employment requirements or, in a few cases, just plain laziness or an irrational sense of entitlement. In short, a very complicated bunch of problems all lumped into one big pile with people shouting out simplistic answers that have never worked. If you don’t have some humane and well thought out place to take someone like Charlie to live when he decides to homestead the public library entrance you can expect to keep finding him at the public library entrance. What is needed is no and low cost government housing required for all the people who can’t or won’t cope with taking care of themselves for whatever reason or reasons. Of course we label that idea as socialism and the taking of personal freedom, therefore unacceptable on those basis’. We’d rather have people camping in the park than spend the actual money and effort it would take to really solve the problem.

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  7. The guy I’m referring to, today, informed us that someone was defecating and shooting up outside our business. One of the business owners went out and run them off. Like I said, there are people who live differently, yet are really solid people to have around. Individuals are capable of gauging individuals individually. A program made by a government can’t.

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  8. Government programs well thought out, generally well administered and adequately funded tend to work quite well. I don’t see very many people saying “get rid of my social security and don’t make me take that damn Medicare.” Indeed, people who don’t even need Social Security are happy to take it.

    What doesn’t work is people running government that don’t believe in government. Charlie will have a home at the Library as long as we indulge him. Frankly, he isn’t bothering me a bit, but I’d like to see him get some kind of competant help, whether he wants it or not. Someone would have to pay for it and I’d rather see my tax dollars spent on him than on stupid never ending searches for police chiefs and tree codes that don’t work.

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  9. I agree with this Clint: “Government programs well thought out, generally well administered and adequately funded tend to work quite well. ” Just can’t think of any that fit that description. SS is a program all of us on a payroll pay into. I’m not “taking it”. I’m just getting it back. Cheers.

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    1. Yes Darrell, you pay into it and so does the federal Government. You are not only “taking” what you paid in you are also “taking” what Government required taxes on your employers have paid in. Unless you die very young you will likely get way more out than you personally paid in. FDR originally wanted the program means tested but was led to understand that would be Socialism, so everyone who qualifies gets it, whether they need it or not. The anti government crowd has been trying to dismantle or privatize Social Security since it’s inception but it is just too popular and the third rail of politics. This program just about ended old age poverty that was pretty much the norm prior to it’s inception. Cheers.

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  10. This has the beginnings of a ‘Broken Window Theory’ written all over it. Once we begin tolerating vagrancy, next stop is the disaster that Seattle has become.

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  11. A good first step by this journalist – we are autistic. We don’t “have autism.” We aren’t broken. Most of us aren’t “Rain Man status” or even close.

    For most of us being autistic is like living with a sensory dial that goes past “10” (anyone that has watched Spinal Tap may get the reference).

    So I’m willing to bet that Charlie, like myself, prefers to live as far from the sensory overload as he can. This means the last place we want to be is in a crammed environment with too much stimulation (e.g. light, sounds, movement). How much is too much? Personally, I have to turn my phone on airplane mode just to be able to sleep.

    It sounds like Edmonds might be slightly ahead of the curve – moreso than where I reside just “across the pond” on Whidbey.

    Until society understands what being autistic is really about and becomes willing to accommodate – we will remain underserved in our communities and vice versa, we will remain unable to serve our communities at our full potential.

    For those of you that would like to learn more, a good start is to search under #actuallyautistic.

    Have a nice day.

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