There are thousands of social workers in the Seattle area. They perform one of the most thankless tasks in American society—working with the poor, the downtrodden, and the cast-offs, trying to help them find a foothold or keeping them from dying on our doorsteps. None of them does it better than Karyn Boerger, manager of the emergency shelter operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center. Located in the old Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue, the shelter houses 200 people—all of them homeless, many of them with severe mental illnesses. At times, the shelter turns away 100 people a night.
To an outsider, the once-fancy hotel ballroom that houses the shelter feels like a psych ward. Somehow, Boerger and her staff manage the shelter in a calm, respectful, and humane manner, despite working with a population that, after years on the streets, can be highly unmanageable. It's hard to describe how that works except to say that it's a matter of presence and personality and stopping small problems before they become big ones. And yet people who come through do improve and find housing and jobs and move on to better lives. Boerger, too humble by half, calls it a process of "small victories." Downtown Emergency Service Center, 517 Third Ave., 206-464-1570, www.desc.org.