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You asked, we answered: What our unhoused neighbors want us to know about homelessness

In July, hundreds of you submitted questions about homelessness in our city — some voicing frustrations, others compassionate. We handed you the reins to tell us which questions you wanted answered most — and you voted for us to dig into this question from reader Brian Hsi: “How do the unhoused think we should address our housing challenges? What would they tell homeowners? Renters? Politicians? Businesses?”

We talked with 13 people dealing with homelessness in total, mostly face-to-face. Among them are women, men, people of color, veterans, people of different abilities, and queer and trans folks. While some were able to find housing, others were living in their cars, couch-surfing, or staying in shelters, tents, or tiny house villages.

Today, we’re sharing some of their stories, and their voices…

Amanda “Manda” Richer, homeless advocate
Lived outside for nearly two years before getting housing in February 2018

Manda came to Seattle in 2016 looking for her son, but couldn’t make ends meet due to a traumatic brain injury that left her unable to work. She eventually lived in a tent beneath the Eastlake bridge with her dog, Rowan, and started Being Camp Mom, a Facebook page where she’d record live videos about her life. After being “swept” from Eastlake, she moved under I-5 ramp in a homeless encampment called “The Jungle.” After a group called Invisible People shot a video about her that went viral, she started a GoFundMe and raised more than $22,000, which helped her pay bills, get a new ID, and support herself and some of her neighbors. She moved into an apartment in West Seattle in February.

Today, while seeking vocational therapy and mental health treatment, Manda is a fierce homeless advocate and works to support her friends and adopted family she met while she slept outside.

What she’d tell homeowners and renters: When someone living unsheltered is given housing, “people have a hard time because they look at it as ‘free’ instead of a human right. What I hear a lot is ‘I have to pay for … housing, food, shelter. Why does someone else get it free?’ What we forget is that everyone has a right to those baseline commodities. If you want more than that, work for it, but we’re at a point in human history where we can provide those things for people.”

What she’d tell businesses: “When you see garbage in the streets and you see needles or you see waste, it’s because those needs are being unmet. … When you clean up an area such as a wealthy area [or downtown] and you leave the impoverished areas with half the receptacles, half the sanitation care, and a quarter of the hygiene, of course public perception is going to get turned against the demographic that’s not being served.”

What she’d tell politicians:
When a sweep will come through, it’ll come down the line that [those leading the sweeps] offered people housing, services, and they will come out with, ‘People turned it down.’ The problem with this is that, many times, the services that are offered are in a worse spot than the person was to begin with. …They’re being offered services that are already taken knowing that they’re going to turn them down because they’re not an option for these people.”

 

D.j. Martinez, comedian and community activist
Couch-surfed for more than a year after a break-up and being laid off

D.j. said that mental health support can play a big role in helping anyone struggling find stable housing. “I think as QTPOC [queer and trans people of color] folks, we grow up in a lot of toxicity,” D.j. told us. “When you are living on the street, it’s impossible to sort of do that healing work that you need to do. Being able to couch surf and actually have shelter allowed me to do a lot of that.”

Not being able to heal “perpetuates the whole cycle [of homelessness] again,” he said.

What he’d tell homeowners and renters: “Homeowners are still affected by unjust policies,” he said. “[But] if you have the space, open up your home or your backyard or your front yard [to neighbors struggling]. Obviously you want to be smart about it and not be a ‘savior’ … really assessing what you can provide, even if it’s showers or meals.”

What he’d tell business owners:If you don’t want to see syringes and if you don’t want to see that kind of stuff then you don’t want to see what’s happening in the world. So I mean if you don’t want to see that stuff, then you should be actively doing something about it and it’s not hiding it under the rug or sweeping it — literally sweeping it — away. … Come up with some solutions that help rather than ignore.”

Mindy Woods, veteran and homeless advocate
Lost her housing twice while living in Lynnwood and Edmonds

After a black mold problem in their Lynnwood apartment left her and her son without a home, Mindy picked up house-sitting gigs so they could have a roof over their heads and she could properly refrigerate her son’s diabetes medication. While her son was at school, she would make dozens of phone calls from her car searching for housing.

“My son never knew that I sat in that parking lot every day,” she told us. “Sometimes I would drive to get to the library and I would use the computer looking for resources. But I had to stay local. The teachers didn’t know, nobody knew. I didn’t tell anybody.”

They eventually found an apartment through YWCA’s housing program, but three years later, the management company ended their contract with the service provider. After having to move out, Mindy said her family were “broken” when they had to separate so he could move in with a friend while she struggled to find an apartment that would accept her Section 8 housing voucher.

As a homeless advocate who had spoken out about housing discrimination in Olympia, Mindy said she “was now facing the very discrimination that I was fighting against.” She couch-surfed for eight months before she found her current apartment in Edmonds.

What she’d tell homeowners and renters: “There is nobody who truly does not want to be in a safe, stable housing situation and be clean and sober. There isn’t. There’s just so much pain heaped upon society throwing you away and literally ignoring your existence and treating you like a piece of garbage. Then you believe it. You’ve heard it so much, you’ve lived it, that you just take ownership of that persona and so you’ve just given up.”

What she’d tell business owners: When Mindy hears concerns about trash, she says, “I understand and I don’t like it either. My mindset [was], ‘I’m going to be as inconspicuous as possible,'” Mindy said. “One of the things that I have seen other cities do is actually hire the homeless people to clean up, so now they’ve got some income they can help pay for some of their services.”

What she’d tell politicians: “We need to find better ways of having sustainable sources to fund affordable housing and low-income housing projects,” she said. Local leaders also need to educate landlords that Section 8 housing voucher recipients don’t have the same “bad rap” that they used to. Leaders need to make sure landlords understand that “one incident, one job loss, one death, one illness, one accident, one missed auto payment, or one computer screw up in your auto-payments can lead [to homelessness]. Really let people know, look, nobody is immune to homelessness or housing insecurity.”

 

Mark, veteran
Currently living in his truck and has been homeless for “decades”

Mark said he understands why homeowners and businesses are frustrated with campers and vans leaving trash outside. The solution he’d suggest to city leaders to help? Hire people who are sleeping outside to help clean up.

“People need [jobs] to feel good about themselves. It’s nice having a paycheck in your wallet. It’s nice knowing you could walk into a store, buy you something to eat,” he said.

What he’d tell homeowners and renters: “Me and you we’re so much, we’re more alike than we are not alike, so why don’t we celebrate these likenesses? Why do we gotta keep this up and be [in] a fight?”

What he’d tell business owners:Once you’ve been thrown away, why do you care? …When you start tossing people — multi-generations tossed away — and they have no care for this country. I mean [someone living on the street will]v eat a thing, they throw it right down. They have no care. You give them something, it’s good for 10 minutes and then they walk away and leave it because was just a piece of garbage. They’re just garbage. They know you look at them like garbage and they don’t really give a shit.”

ayom ament, therapy intern
Stayed in shelters in Chicago from 2009-2010 and Seattle in 2014.

After the economy crashed in 2008, ayom lost their job and eventually found themselves staying at a Chicago homeless shelter where they once worked as a crisis worker. ayom said their old coworkers were shocked.

“Who I was, didn’t match the concept of what a homeless person look like,” ayom said. “The conversation would veer to, ‘I can’t believe someone like you is homeless.’ And it’s a very maddening experience to be told that, because you’re intelligent, because you have light skin, or because you don’t look like what a homeless person appears to be, that you shouldn’t be homeless.”

After their housing fell through upon moving to Seattle, ayom said they stayed at local shelters like Mary’s Place. The thing that helped them out of homelessness? Getting into the University of Washington.

“I got four grand every couple of months through student loans. That is what got me out of homelessness,” they said. “Luck is probably the best resource a homeless person can utilize.”

What they’d tell homeowners and renters: “I was a medic. I understand how scary it is to see a needle and what the needle represents. It represents so much. It represents an infectious disease. It represents people who are using. … To your complaint, how much time do you have to listen to why that needle’s in the street, why that trash is in the street? … Look at the social conditions and what is happening — it’s forcing people to confront the deeper meaning of why the trash is there.”

What they’d tell business owners: “You’re not alone in this community and homeless people exist and are allowed to exist and sometimes are going to be existing near you. And maybe that’s, you know, a call to action for you, finding a way that you can interact with this. If you’re cool with people, people are going to be cool with you.”

What they’d tell politicians: “I would advocate that people need to understand that being homeless is a trauma. It’s an ongoing, complex trauma. … When the world is not built for you, when the world is not built for people of color who are disabled, who are homeless, who don’t have the ability to get by day to day, we need to be included in the conversation with the understanding that it’s probably be uncomfortable for people wearing suits. It’s probably going to be uncomfortable to have these conversations because it is hard to hear about the trauma of our experiences.”

Panda, father and artist
Currently living in a tent and tiny house village

“Home is a feeling of being accepted into the greater community, as part of a community and understood by neighbors that are of the same community,” said Panda, who lost his housing voucher after his kids moved out and is unable to work because of mobility issues. After road-tripping his way through the western U.S. and staying with friends, he moved into Tent City 5 in Interbay last summer.

“This is home in a way because we understand one another, we’re peer-to-peer in our operations and I have told so many folks in the past who I have learned the most from [is] the brother or sister sitting right next to me in line,” he said. “They care because they don’t want to see somebody else make the same mistakes they made in life.”

What he’d tell business owners: When asked about businesses’ complaints about waste left behind by campers and people living in their cars, Panda said everyone is guilty of being part of the problem. “I’ve seen not only people that are homeless leaving that trash. I’ve seen people that are housed leaving that trash. So who’s to say is really leaving the trash?” he said. “It’s a human thing that somehow we get it in her mind and thinking that, ‘Oh, my little bit doesn’t matter.’ But it does because you see how it piles up when we all get that idea.”

What he’d tell politicians: When Panda first arrived at the tent city and tiny home village, he said looking for housing was basically a full-time job. “It was three to four days a week … riding the train, riding the bus, go into [the housing office] and sitting down, filling out the applications,” he said. “Two years is a basic waiting period for a lot of standard housing in the [Seattle] Housing Authority market because the high turnover. The waiting list takes forever.”

Badb Morrigan, 26, musician
Has been couch-surfing for more than 10 years

Badb says they’ve lived in some strange housing situations since they were a teen, including couch-surfing with an ex-girlfriend who was staying at a fancy hotel. They’ve also had support from friends who’ve given them food and places to sleep. When they have food stamps they won’t be able to use up, Badb said they give them out to other folks living outside.

“This woman was waiting outside of the Trader Joe’s this last year. … People in their yoga pants and their man buns are walking past or not seeing her at all. I’m the only one that stopped and I’m homeless,” Badb said. “Why does it fall to the other homeless person to have compassion?”

What they’d tell homeowners and renters: “We’re not all drug addicts and those of us that are generally using a substance to cope with the trauma they experienced in homelessness. … It’s someone trying to handle how awful everything is.” they said. “It shows up in rich people, it shows up in poor people. [Everyone seems to think] homeless people are choosing drugs over housing. No. You can’t get a house if you don’t have a job and you can’t get a job if you don’t have an address and somewhere to put your clothes and somewhere to take a shower. … You need the job to have the house basically barred from being a participating member of society.”

What they’d tell businesses: Badb said that it’s critical for Seattleites with homes to acknowledge how privileged they are when they talk about housing insecurity and homelessness. “If they don’t like a ‘dirty person,’ they need to acknowledge that person does not have access to a shower or laundry or a [public] bathroom that isn’t locked.” When business owners complain about trash in the streets, what they don’t realize, Badb says, is “there’s not enough places to throw garbage away or the garbage cans are in stores and buildings that you don’t get welcomed into because you don’t look nice. So a lot of the times this, this trash issue is like literally we don’t have access to where we could properly throw it away.”

 

Ryan, volunteer at the Downtown Emergency Service Center
Has lived without housing, on and off, for about 20 years and recently moved into a van

As a recovering drug-user, Ryan said he opted to sleep on the streets rather than in local shelters because he didn’t want to be around others using drugs or alcohol. Beyond separating himself to prevent a relapse, Ryan said shelter beds are often torn up and have bedbugs, despite being sprayed.

“The one [shelter] downtown, it’s so bad they don’t even have enough beds for people,” he claimed. “Seattle needs to give us a place for the ones that … want to get a job or stable housing. They need to set up a program or a building for people like that. They need to have someone manage it to where if you get drunk, this isn’t the spot for you. This is a spot for people that want to stay clean and want to get back onto the streets and do what they used to do.”

What he’d tell homeowners: “For a person to know what we go through, come to DESC for a week. Then they would see people, people that have used to have real jobs and for whatever reason they lost, you know, and then they lost all [hope]. I’m trying to get another job. If you get fired … it’s hard to get another job because they look at that. So then [people struggling] all get stuck up in here and then eventually they get mental health issues that they didn’t know about. It gets thrown onto ’em. Then they get case managers and then they get you back into housing, but it takes two, five, six months. So you’re stuck in here.”

What he’d tell politicians: “They keep making empty promises. Stop making empty promises to us, to something for once that people can believe homeless-wise that you’re on our side and not on the people that put your money in your pocket. … Give us our housing. With our housing, we’ll be better people. Maybe if we’re better people, people are happier and maybe they want to help clean the place.”

 

Rellik, 33, artist
Moved to Seattle from Kentucky’s Appalachia region in 2003.

Rellik said the biggest misconception about homelessness is that it’s easy to live on the streets.

“A lot of people don’t understand the fact that the streets will kill you. They’ll teach you, but they will kill you. They are unforgiving. They don’t give a damn,” he said. “I’ve seen too many people die. They’ve frozen to death, they OD-ed, they’ve committed suicide and then some.”

What he’d tell homeowners and renters: “The only thing anyone’s entitled to do is live and die. No one else is entitled to anything else. You want some? Earn it,” Rellik said. If someone notices someone camping near where they live, “talk to them. Don’t yell at them, don’t call them names, don’t threaten them, because that’s not gonna help.” 

What he’d tell politicians: “Try and get housing yourself through to 2-1-1. Say you’re homeless or that you have a record or that you’re an addict. … You just speak to a operating voice machine, not a person, and then they tell you to call again,” he said. “You jumped through all these hoops to help you get housing and then if your record has any type of charge, you don’t get housing. … How the hell am I supposed to be housed? If I can’t get a job because of my background or because of mental health, but I don’t want to live in a shelter because it’s unclean or I’m trying not to relapse … what am I supposed to do if I’ve done everything that they are asking, but I still can’t get it?”

We just happened to meet some of these folks; others, you introduced us to. Thanks, Peggy Holman, Egg Lady,” and Annalee Schafranek for introducing us to some of our neighbors — and thank you all for asking great questions.

Want to read more of our answers to reader-submitted questions about homelessness? Check out our previous story about whether people living homeless are coming to Seattle to access services.