BREMERTON, Wash. – Renee Thomas doesn’t see herself as lucky for finding a way out of homelessness for herself and her 9-year-old granddaughter.
“If it was luck, I would still be living the middle-class American dream,” Thomas, 57, said from inside the two-bedroom East Bremerton apartment she rents for herself, her granddaughter Da-Mira and her dog Gizmo. “I don’t think it was luck, but I was lucky I met the right people.”
She had been a stay-at-home mom to four kids with a house in Silverdale, but an acrimonious divorce and then a dispute over the house left her on the streets for about a month last summer.
“I don’t know how we survived, but we did,” she said. They lived in a shelter until Thomas grew fed up with what she saw as abuse from a shelter employee, and then they lived in Thomas’ car.
Thomas’ story and the stories of two other Kitsap County women who lost their homes and worked to find homes again show the narrow path back to having a place to call home. They credit hope, hard work and their children and grandchild for motivating them. Public and non-profit services and assistance – and some fortunate turns of events – were instrumental as well.
Those who work with people experiencing homelessness say Thomas’ case falls on one end of the spectrum: she does she not suffer from mental illness or addiction, she has a steady stream of income from Social Security and her divorce settlement, and she has a car. Thomas is also sharp-minded, sociable, persistent and is driven to do right for Da-Mira, whose mother – Thomas’ daughter – died of complications from sickle cell anemia.
That isn’t to say it was easy. Thomas had to repeatedly set herself straight between daily phone calls to landlords. Living in a car required a vigilance that ground her down and planted in her an insecurity that lingers and to this day, affecting her sleep.
“I’m still in it,” she said of the stress that comes from being homeless.
The women’s’ experiences also call into question the usefulness of the term “homeless,” which groups people who need varying levels of help getting back on their feet with people who may never be equipped to hold down a job, such as the elderly, the disabled, and those suffering from severe mental illness.
Sheryl Piercy, social services director for the Salvation Army in Bremerton, prefers the term “people experiencing homelessness.”
She said it recognizes both the humanity of the person, as well as the unique circumstances of each person’s situation.
“The old drunk guy begging for change for a beer is not the case anymore,” she said.
Thomas called landlords every day searching for an apartment she could afford, using help from the Housing Solutions Center, a division of Kitsap Community Resources, and was ultimately successful when somebody else failed to get in touch with an apartment manager. Thomas happened to call at the right time. When she heard about a possible opening, she jumped in her car and was there in 15 minutes.
“She’s fierce,” Piercy said of Thomas, who also received assistance from Kitsap Legal Aid. “Not everybody has that.”
Piercy relayed an anecdote about an elderly man who suffers from dementia and uses Salvation Army services. He doesn’t have any family to speak of and wears a card around his neck with a phone number for people to call when he is found wandering.
“There is this assumption that they can just go get a job,” Monica Bernhard, director of housing and community support services at Kitsap Community Resources, said of those on the far end of the spectrum from Thomas. “These folks, in many cases, have so many overlapping issues in place that have to get addressed before we can begin to have the employment conversation, even if they are employable.”
If that man occupies an extreme end, Miranda May, 22, might have been close to the middle.
About a year ago, she was living in tents and shelters, deep into a meth and heroin addiction, when she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter when she was 13, and was living with her mother in subsidized housing, but since then wasn’t welcome at home when she was using.
“I didn’t want to go home and be around my kids doing it, so I didn’t go home,” said May, who has been clean and sober for 18 months and lives with her mother again with her daughter and 1-year-old son.
The positive pregnancy test served as a wakeup call. With help from the Salvation Army, she secured a bed in a Seattle treatment program for pregnant women, and to get there, social workers gave her the money for the bus.
May did the hard work, but without the assistance she received, she can’t imagine where she would be. She also knows others who continue to struggle.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant, and they hadn’t helped me get treatment, I wouldn’t be where I am at,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to help myself get treatment, they pushed me toward that.”
When Travis Fish was murdered in January 2016 by a man in the throes of meth-induced paranoia, he left behind Keshia Bradley and their three boys. The grief leveled Bradley, 31, sending her into a fog that exacerbated problems she was having with her landlord.
“It changed everything in that moment,” she said.
That fog that didn’t lift until last December when a sheriff’s deputy showed up at her door to evict her.
“It made it real,” Bradley said. But without a car to search for a new home, and after overstaying their welcome with friends, the family lost all of their belongings except for what they could carry. They wound up in a shelter.
The one thing they had going for them was a Section 8 housing voucher Bradley’s mother had transferred to her. It had been wrongfully seized from Bradley but was eventually returned to her.
“Section 8 vouchers are like gold,” said Piercy, referring to one of the most useful forms of assistance one can have.
Although Bradley couldn’t find a house searching the open market, a local landlord heard about her case and found a residence for her.
In June, Bradley and her three sons – ages 13, 9 and 7 – moved into a duplex in Bremerton. They still mourn Fish and cope with the pain of a loss that will never go away. But they have a home again.
She credits her boys for keeping her motivated, the help she received from Salvation Army and the people she met there. She also credits that voucher.
If she had lost it, “I would still be homeless,” she said.
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