Every time I think about Joe Martin, I want to smile. The sturdy Irishman, known for his tweed cap and wispy silver beard, retired from active service at the Pike Market Medical Clinic just over a year ago. But you’ll still find him around, maybe down at the Market, perhaps volunteering his services or having a pint at Kell’s Restaurant and Pub and breaking into Irish ballads during lulls in the conversation.
Martin arrived in Seattle, then a red-bearded dynamo, nearly half a century ago. After graduation from Northeastern University, he joined Vista and taught school in Ogden, Utah. It gave him his first taste of the West and he wanted to see more. His wanderlust brought him to Seattle where he began work at the First Avenue Service Center, helping those in need of care.
The unmet medical needs of Seattle’s low-income and elderly prompted Martin and Christine Hurley, a young grad student, to co-found the Pike Market Medical Clinic in 1979. Along with a group of ragtag volunteers, they renovated the abandoned Motherload Tavern at the Pike Place Market, patching the tile floor, turning the dingy old booths into exam rooms and the restroom into a lab. Later they moved the medical clinic and pharmacy to more modern digs at 1930 Post Alley. In 2020, the Pike Market Medical was able to serve 4,025 patients.
From the first, the clinic has treated low-income, elderly and homeless clients regardless of income or insurance, operating through Neighbor Care and with financial help from the non-profit Pike Place Market Foundation. Martin was front and center, assisting with social service needs: locating housing, navigating bureaucracy, steering clients – some of whom couldn’t read or write – into a better place.
Once a few years ago, I happened to be following Martin at the Pike Place Public Market, a place where everyone knows his name. I couldn’t help seeing him hand out a $20 bill to a man who was obviously down on his luck. He explained that he maintained “a small slush fund,” lending money to the penniless for a cab ride or a meal. He always asked recipients to “pay back the loan” when they were able. Many of them did.
Asked why today there are thousands of homeless in Seattle, Martin, who is also credited with founding the Downtown Emergency Service Center, partly blames the city’s years of tearing down SROs, the old single-occupancy hotels. Seattle cleared them away after the disastrous Ozark Hotel fire, but cheap affordable housing units — the flophouses and flea bags — were never replaced. Martin points out the irony that today Seattle and King County have been buying up hotels to house the homeless, going back half a century. He confesses he feels like he’s come full circle.
In his serious moments, the customarily sunny Martin, rails against what he considers the outrage of Congress handing over billions to the Pentagon, “more even than they ask for.” He says that instead they should be funding childcare and health needs. Along with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he’d like to see billionaires paying their fair share of taxes.
Martin has been repeatedly honored for his tireless lifetime of work. Operation Nightwatch named him “the hero of the homeless.” The Low Income Housing Institute honored him with the naming of Martin Court Apartments. Seattle Times’ columnist Danny Westneat once dubbed him “Seattle’s Chief Proletarian.” Martin said he’d take these honors any day instead of having earned a big salary. He always contends that “if you want to know what God thinks of money, look who he gives it to.”