The holidays often bring extra presents and messages from loved ones. But to receive those messages, you have to have an address.
Anyone who needs a mailing address can have the mail sent to 77 South Washington St. in Seattle's Pioneer Square. That’s the post office run by the Compass Housing Alliance. Most of the 3,500 people in Seattle who use that address are homeless or in temporary housing.
Compass program manager Teresa Dillard points to a pile of packages in the mail room as a sign of the holidays. One says, “Do not open this box until Christmas!”
“Typically we wouldn’t have quite that many,” she said. “We would have maybe a quarter of that number of packages.” Some packages say “perishable” so she hustles them to a refrigerator.
Compass offers banking and mail services at one counter, so clients line up at two tellers’ windows to access their savings accounts and get their mail.
One client, Ernest Pitre, looks excited when he’s handed a sizable box from Walmart. “I got my Christmas present,” he said. “I got my 9-inch digital portable TV so I can watch the games and stuff.”
Games for Pitre mean one thing: his beloved 49ers football team. He said he can’t wait to open his package in the men’s dorm upstairs where he stays. He said he already sent off gifts to his kids and has no intention of waiting until Christmas to open his own. “I’m going to open it now!” he said.
Compass director of development Cindy Jackson said the organization has held mail for people since it started as a church mission in 1920. “It started off as a reading room, a place where loggers or sailors or people that were down on their luck could come get a meal, receive their mail, spend some time. And then it’s evolved over the years to what we have today.”
This is the most mail they’ve ever dealt with – right now they’re adding about a dozen names a day.
Nathaniel Bergstein works with clients at the tellers’ window. He does a job that’s part banking, part mail clerk and part social worker. He said the hardest part of the job is the sheer volume of mail they receive. “I would say that’s difficult because everyone here is committed and wants to process things as quickly as possible,” Bergstein said. “But that gets harder and harder the more clients we add to the system.”
They log all the mail they receive into a computer, especially since about half the recipients get benefits from state agencies. There were also 800 King County ballots sent to their mailroom this year.
Some other homeless shelters also hold mail for clients, or people can have mail sent “general delivery” to the downtown post office. But once someone who’s homeless picks up mail, there’s the question of how to keep it safe and dry. Stephen Emory said he sleeps at a shelter in the University District. He’s been homeless in Seattle for over a year. “All I have right now is what’s in my tote,” Emory said. “Because at our shelter you’re allowed to keep one plastic tote with a lid on it.”
Emory also has access to a locker in another location downtown. He travels between those places, a job in South Park, the public library to check email, and Compass to pick up his regular mail, like some boots that his brother sent him. "[Someone my brother works with] ordered some boots for me on Amazon, had them delivered right here. I get all my mail, obviously there it is right there. So it’s pretty important.”
Emory said he’s dealing with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. But he juggles the logistics that allow him to find meals, medication and a place to stay. He said getting his mail here helps him stay connected and get things done. “I’ve lost everything, many times over,” he said. “But what are you going to do today? That’s my question. What are you going to do right now.”
A lot of the people who get their mail here are waiting for something – for a job offer, to get off a housing waitlist, or for a question about their benefits to be resolved. But like everyone else, they say the mail they look forward to most is a personal letter.