'A weakness for the hardest cases'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For nearly three years, Sarah Lippek has worked the heart of Seattle's University District, staying in touch with the area's homeless street youths. Day after day, hour after hour, she walks up and down "The Ave," the main commercial drag a block from the University of Washington campus. As an outreach worker, her job is to provide a human face for the 45th Street Clinic, where homeless young people can receive free health care.

Generally, teens must contact agencies to access social services. Ms. Lippek's presence on the street, however, makes it easier for runaways to get help when they need it.

She and a fellow worker make it a point to talk to the kids, to get to know them, and to express interest in their well-being without prying or being meddlesome.

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She knows what it's like to be on the street, having spent nearly four years there herself, much of it right on The Ave. She's worldly, sharp, and compassionate, and knows the importance of building trust, little by little. "We try to meet everyone before they have a chance to need the clinic, instead of pressing in their faces and saying, 'You need the clinic,' " she explains. "We ask every day, 'How you doing? How are you feeling? Do you need anything? Are you OK?' "

As a constant, friendly presence, in good weather and bad, Lippek sends the message that her interest is sincere. "After 30 days of seeing us, we're pretty familiar," she says. "So when someone is sick, they feel a lot more comfortable saying, 'Hey, what about your clinic?' "

She's prepared to dispense Band-Aids, toothbrushes, soap, and bus tickets, as well as to refer teens to any of the social-service providers that make up the U District-University Partnership for Youth. Basically, she assesses individual needs and responds accordingly.

One of Lippek's greatest assets in making connections is persistence, even in the face of repeated rejection. She acknowledges having "a weakness for the hardest cases," the kids who are so hostile that even the shelters may turn them away.

One of her most gratifying breakthroughs came with a young man who rebuffed her for about a year. Finally he began uttering, "What's up?" before turning away. She recalls what happened next:

"One day I was walking down the street and no one was around, and he came up to me and said, 'Sarah, may I have a hug?' I gave him a hug and the tears started coming down his face. It broke my heart.

"He said, 'Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person who is really homeless out here. Sometimes I feel like I'm really the only one who doesn't have anywhere to go.'

"He's so good at alienating everyone, he's so good at pushing everyone away and not having connections. All I had to do was keep coming back. After a while it was like, 'Wait a minute, I have rejected her and rejected her and she never rejected me.' I think that's what happened."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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