When I was Homeless in Seattle

In 2013, I was homeless.

It was 5 months, August through December.

I was lucky, because I never had to sleep outside.

I put all my things in storage, and I slept on some friends’ couch or my then-boyfriend’s couch.

I had a small selection of clothes and I went everywhere with my laptop (borrowed from a friend who had an extra one).

I was working, but couldn’t afford a place by myself. Honestly, I still can’t.

The uncertainty, the stress of applying for food assistance, the strain on my friends’ lives who helped me, the daily anxiety, it was awful. Thinking back on it, I can’t imagine what I was thinking starting a relationship while I was in that situation. I didn’t tell my boyfriend I was on food assistance, but he knew I was homeless—even half joked once about how I was dating him for his money. All of this reminds me of how classist this particular boyfriend was and all the reasons why it’s really good things didn’t work out.

During this time, I also read an article on poverty by Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth. If you haven’t read either, I encourage you to do so.

My parents kept telling me to move back to Minnesota. My therapist and I agreed that I should keep trying as long as I was working. Moving back would have meant giving up at the time.

I almost moved to the eastside to rent a room from a friend of a friend. She wanted $500 per month (which today sounds like a dream). I was making about $1500 per month after taxes and I wanted to save up for a deposit on an actual apartment. I couldn’t afford a third of my monthly income for temporary housing. I could only afford $300 per month. She didn’t seem to understand and kept offering the room at $500, like I could somehow just be flexible. Also, I was off food assistance now, because if I worked a full 40 hours per week, my gross earnings put me $20 over the cutoff. So, I had to pay for food, a bus pass, my cell phone (still a dumb phone), my storage unit, student loan payments, and still have enough money in three months to put a deposit down on an apartment—three months was the length of my contract for the job I was working at the time.

Then help arrived: my cousin was moving from California to Seattle. His parents were financing him until he got on his feet, and they offered to rent a 2-bedroom apartment so that I could stop being homeless.

They covered most of my rent and utilities for 2 years. I floated my cousin $300 for rent when I was working (which was only sometimes).

By the time I moved out, I had a full-time job with benefits. While I still can’t afford Seattle rents, I can afford to live here with a roommate. But it took 2 years and a lot of money from my aunt and uncle. I lived somewhere nice with in-unit washer and dryer. I basically won the lottery.

It’s important to understand some things when you are talking about helping homeless people.

 

  • People need what I got—2 years of housing—but sometimes, most of the time, they need it from the state, because their family doesn’t have the kind of resources my aunt and uncle do. Being able not to worry where I was sleeping changed my life. I overcame the worst of my depression and anxiety. I kept my room clean—like for the first time in my life. I bounced back from injuries caused by an accident on a bus. These are things that people in ultra-tiny houses and temporary shelter don’t have space to do—literally or metaphorically. I’m not saying we need to give every homeless person in-unit washers and dryers, but our standard for getting people off the streets needs to be better than a roof and four walls. It needs to be better than a dormitory filled with strangers. People need breathing room. They need keys and doors with locks to keep their stuff safe—even shabby stuff. And they need enough security where they aren’t constantly worried that tonight is their last night indoors. That includes people suffering from mental illness and addiction.

Seattle, huge swaths of it, has forgotten this—and perhaps never bothered to know in the first place. They think it’s ok to dehumanize and demonize people on the streets. These are not lazy people. They are people who started out without a lot and got less and less, even as the people who started out with enough got more than they knew what to do with.

I continue to be in favor of the employee head tax that the city council just repealed. I am in favor of a state income tax and capital gains tax. There is no imaginable reason why we should have two of the richest people in the world living in King County while we have more homeless people than New York City (a city with 11x our population).

The way we treat our most vulnerable matters. It doesn’t matter if we protect big businesses. They have so much going for them, because they already have enough. We need to take care of the people who don’t have enough. Those people, you’ll find, will most often be people of color, neural a-typical, LGBTQIA+. They will be the people whose families have neglected them, whose generational wealth has been stymied over centuries of oppression, who don’t have affluent aunts and uncles. If we’re going to be a progressive city, we need to do this and do it right.

Risk Management and Homelessness

My company is moving to a new HQ in Seattle’s downtown core. Crime rates are higher as is the concentration of homelessness (not that either is nonexistent just 1.7 miles north) . This is a risk in terms of employee safety, but another risk is employees being skittish about being in an urban environment–because of pearl clutching, which could affect employee retention or adoption of the changes. You can’t do a lot to mitigate genuine safety risks when people are outside of the building–because they are a) rare, b) random/unlucky, c) in the open air.

Nonetheless, we’ve taken security risks seriously and planned substantive security processes to reasonably address them.

BUT what we haven’t done is account for perceived threats: AKA homeless people. A large chunk of my coworkers don’t like homeless people and don’t want to be around them. This is because they incorrectly believe their safety is threatened by the existence of homeless people. It’s a weird risk. It’s an extremely common risk.We risk a mutiny as soon as the safety police start sharing articles about crime rates in the neighborhood on our community message boards.

How do you get your employees to treat their homeless neighbors as people? After all, we’re moving into their neighborhood. They were there first. Aren’t homeless people only a “problem” when we treat them poorly? Isn’t that why they are homeless in the first place?

Mitigation: have a volunteer day. Wear our company t-shirts. Introduce ourselves. Hand out food or clothes or toiletries or bus passes. Do something for our neighbors. Then they’ll be people to us, and we’ll be people to them, and those safety alarmists won’t get nearly the amount of traction they would otherwise.

Sometimes the best way to mitigate a risk is to act like a human being. Also, safety and security trainings just make people never want to leave their homes. Anything could happen and has happened, and there is no realistic way to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

I haven’t seen my boss’s risk log on this project, but I would be willing to bet a lot of money that at no point did he think that our employees might be a risk to our homeless neighbors.

 

Edit: a previous version of this piece included specifics about the security steps my company is taking to keep employees safe. This was meant to provide a robust account of how seriously we take employee safety.  I agreed to edit those details when a former coworker took umbridge with some adjacent but unrelated interactions and reported this piece to my HR department in the hopes that I would be disciplined or fired. I agreed to pair down the security details, in the interest of security, but I was not required to edit this piece as a condition of further employment or as a form of discipline.