by Kelsey Hamlin
Preface: Before I begin this piece, it should be noted that the faces of homelessness are many, and remarkably different. They can range from five months old to 80 years old; they can be completely sober or battling addiction; they can be escaping abuse or unable to pay rent. The ways in which a person becomes homeless vary, and there is no one way to look at homelessness nor cover everybody it impacts. Homelessness is simply too broad, and there are too many who suffer from it.
With that, I present but one story of a homeless, single mother: Ronda Althaus.
“I’m not from here, so it was a lot scarier for me,” Ronda said, recalling her first official night out on the streets of Seattle with no place to stay. Her lips quivered and her voice shook as tears gathered in her eyes. “I felt in danger and at risk. I walked for hours in the rain, left my things. People are looking at you like you don’t belong.”
The tears finally poured down, and her voice cracked under their salty weight.
A 2009 study by Eleanor Lyon and Shannon Lane found that 85 percent of those entering shelters had identified “safety for myself” as their reason for being there. Moreover, domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape often either prompts homelessness or occurs while someone is experiencing it, as reported by The Seattle Weekly.
Currently, Ronda and her four-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, live in micro-housing at a Rainier Valley encampment called Othello Village. They moved in just over a week ago and are still adjusting.
“I didn’t picture myself here,” Ronda said. “No one does.”
When I first walked into the camp to meet Ronda, I was told she was doing her make-up for the interview — understand, my job typically makes people nervous, but especially those who have already been through so much and are also socially stigmatized. Periodically throughout our interview, I would hear Ronda scoff at herself again about getting Brooklyn cleaned up and hair brushed. She reminded me about three times that the girl had a bath just the night before. In fact, over the course of the day, Brooklyn went through three different outfits as a consequence of my presence, and then also our photographer’s.
And it’s funny, because I took these physical attributes of having some stuff on your face and tons of dirt under your fingernails as just a part of being a four-year-old. Lord knows how messy I was in family pictures at that age. My hair was even worse than Brooklyn’s. But because Ronda is so trained in being negatively aware of the interpretation of her appearance — namely, of uncleanliness — she can’t handle any indicator of homelessness, even if it’s not an indication at all.
The repercussions of the way people treat you when you’re homeless last for years, if not a lifetime. Topple that with Ronda’s anxiety, and you’ve got one hell of a self-image. This is something that resonates with so many in the homeless population; regardless of if they can upkeep that ‘cleanly’ image or not, the effects of how people treat them remain deeply embedded.
Originally, Ronda was in Snohomish County. She stayed there with her immediate family.
“I didn’t make much,” she said, “he was the provider.”
For the sake of Ronda’s privacy and security, details won’t be brought up regarding her immediate family. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated — like most families — and the support comes and goes.
Ronda ended up leaving her home in Snohomish County because she sensed a transcendental ultimatum: Stay or go. She felt King County was the one place where her chances at making it were best, and so that’s where she went.
She experienced homelessness for the first time just a couple months ago, in February. Ronda came to Seattle seeking refuge and opportunity, but ended up at a loss with nowhere to go and no funds to support her.
The life-changing pivot, however, was when Ronda was back home. She came down with arthritis and her workplace subsequently had her quit because of the pain she experienced, inhibiting her from being able to do her job. The loss of employment severely impacted Ronda financially, induced her anxiety, and triggered depression. Ronda said she couldn’t go outside, go to the grocery store or dress herself.
“It got hard pretty quick,” she said. “We just really, within all of that, lost ourselves. I’ve been all along crying out for help and support, and kind of got less.”
But the truly traumatic points of Ronda’s life were the moments where she couldn’t be with her daughter. Any time Ronda recounted those moments while speaking to me, she had to take a moment to gather herself before continuing.
Remarkably, it was only when Ronda knew her and Brooklyn wouldn’t be able to find a place to sleep at night that the two were separated. Ronda took it upon herself to call a family member and arrange for them to pick up Brooklyn, making sure at least she wouldn’t be sleeping outside.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services released a report — in 2013 — that put Washington’s count for homeless children under six years old at 31,220.
Even still, there’s another daughter — one Ronda doesn’t get to see — who is 13 years old. Ronda hates having to be apart from her other girl, but noted the daughter’s strength and remarkable personhood.
Given the context, Ronda’s situation is what most Americans would call understandable, and would sympathize with. But not every homeless person’s situation is so “Americanly sympathizable”.
Sometimes, they’re homeless because they just got out of prison, and can’t function in the modern world that changed so quickly outside of static prison walls. Sometimes they’re homeless because they couldn’t shake a drug addiction. Sometimes they’re homeless because of the way a mental health issue designates their perceptions of life or even stigmatizes them from keeping housing. It can be related to race, class, disability, the affordable housing crisis, medical bills, you name it.
But what I’m trying to say here is that it doesn’t necessarily matter how a person got to be homeless, the fact is that they are, and therein lies the problem. It’s as simple as that.
“I’m so judged and so criticized,” she said. “It makes me feel so worthless.”
More salty, liquid weight was released from Ronda’s body, making the very air we breathed feel heavy and raw.
At this point, little blonde-haired Brooklyn came up to our table and said she wanted milk — which she later splashed all over a toy and also claimed tasted funny even though it wasn’t at all expired. Just watching the two, I could tell Ronda’s highest life priority was taking care of her baby girl.
While Ronda admitted to making one or two mistakes in her life, she made it clear that it wasn’t a trait of hers: “I don’t feel that should define who we are.” She’s worked since she was 16.
“It got so hard to get back out in the workforce,” Ronda said. “A single mother of two without even an income…”
Sometimes, the struggle of homelessness is as simple as addressing basic human necessities. At night, Ronda noted, public restrooms are locked and so there’s no place to go to the bathroom. Other aspects of homelessness include qualifications and limitations. At one point, Ronda was denied housing because she was just $100 over the income limit. Later, Ronda had put Brooklyn on the waitlist for Early Head Start — a federal program for qualified, at-risk children from birth to five years old— but had missed the chance by just one kid.
Being homeless even while in an encampment oftentimes means chaos. As someone with no permanent place, and no true means of transportation, things can get difficult (to say the least).
Some shelters have specific times where you can sign up for the night, but if you miss that time frame, you’re out of luck. There’s certain times to get showers. Other places have specific times when a person can get food, and there’s also some chores and other offhand things residents are expected to do. Combining all of this, along with the constant battle to get on lists for housing and apply for jobs, a homeless person can be at as many as fifteen different locations in one day, and on an alarmingly tight schedule.
And these tight schedules play out in very real, everyday situations. Ronda said she’ll always remember when she had to choose between losing the opportunity to grab shelter for the night or bringing her little girl to a recital in which Brooklyn specifically asked to partake. It broke her mother’s heart, and Brooklyn rarely asks for these types of things. Her mother chose the recital.
Ronda, in summary, didn’t know how to process her homelessness. It was too much. It happened too fast. She was treated so poorly, and had no idea where anything physically was, much less what resources were even available.
“It’s hard to accept it, and to admit it,” she said of her situation.
Again, the Othello neighborhood, and even Seattle, is new for Ronda, and so she is trying to locate necessary resources: laundromats, where to get food stamps, places she can find a regular doctor for her and her daughter, daycare.
“It felt good to be acknowledged and appreciated,” she said of the encampment. “I came here as a person off the street. I didn’t have a comb or a brush — I just got blankets a couple of days ago.”
Now, she’s inundated with resources and support, something Ronda called “overwhelming.” Regardless, she is even arranging to meet with a mental health counselor to address her traumas.
“It was hard for it to sink in and really know until I got here,” she said. “Once I did that, a weight was lifted.”
Othello Village is self-run. Residents take turns doing three hours shifts to keep watch of the encampment. Those same residents also uphold rules typically unheard at other sites helping the homeless: sobriety is required, you can leave for as long as three days, and you must do your share of shifts (to name a few). Every single person there has an incredible, jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching story, but they’re also able to crack about ten jokes a minute.
The residents even garden. Their make-shift, outdoor kitchen is organized and labeled. None of the micro-houses have running water, so kitchens and bathrooms are outside, and shared. Children who were previously homeless now run around the area playing with each other. Just yesterday, someone was in the process of leaving the community to finally obtain permanent, low-income housing.
Ronda, in the meantime, plans on pulling together all of the resources she can.
“It’s going to be difficult and challenging,” she said, “but I’m going to tackle these obstacles.”
While her story currently appears to lead toward a hopeful ending, it should be noted that an overwhelming amount of people who are homeless aren’t so fortunate. Some die. Some feel unimaginably lost like Ronda once did, and the barriers to help can feel — and are indeed oftentimes — insurmountable.
Postscript: I hope, if nothing else, the simple heartbreak of how people are treated and how hard it is to get back into the system and into society make all of us look at the homeless population not as a burden, but as people. The people you walk by on the sidewalk every day are doing so much behind the scenes to make it, if only you’d remove your lens and open up your consciousness to the harsh realities of life. And, honestly, whatever you designate as ‘trying hard’ is completely irrelevant to their situation. People shouldn’t be shamed for asking for help, and people also shouldn’t have to fit into extraordinarily narrow boxes of what “trying” looks like.
Yesterday, I watched a mother cry as she told me her story, and I watched her take the time to tend to every single one of her little girl’s needs. Ronda even read Brooklyn two books during our interview, get a bandaid, and fetch food and drinks. I watched Ronda overcome some terrible anxiety in order to put her story out there for the masses. Please, let this be a testament to create real-time action for societal and systemic change in the way we treat homelessness — and whatever may come along with it.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with South Seattle Emerald this summer, and has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists, and will be starting an internship with KCTS 9 in July. She finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is a journalism major at the University of Washington, planning to double-major in Law, Societies & Justice (currently her minor). See her other work here, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.
Featured image by Alex Garland