Arrow-right Camera
News >  Washington

No place for a daughter: Spokane parents of homeless woman who died in RV speak out about Seattle ‘safe zone’

UPDATED: Sun., April 15, 2018, 9:17 p.m.

Spokane residents Tommi Tate and Kellie Sevier stood outside the rusting RV where their youngest daughter had spent the past year. As with much of her life and the secrets she kept, they weren’t sure how to get inside.

Someone had scrawled two messages on the door in black marker. One was to let her know they’d stopped by. The other was a rudimentary epitaph to their daughter:

“RIP Sabrina.”

Sabrina Tate died inside her RV on April 5, three weeks before her 28th birthday. A week later, the RV remained in the dirty, industrial lot that the city of Seattle had set aside for people like her, people who live in their vehicles and need a place to park them safely.

To her parents, there was nothing safe about this.

“This is not a place anyone should want their daughter or son,” said Tommi Tate as he and his ex-wife stood outside the Dodge camper. “Although it was called a safe lot or a safe zone, it was another place to put people so they are out of the way.”

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet determined what caused Sabrina’s death but told her parents she was suffering from an infection of the legs related to chronic drug use.

She is one of three people — the other two were older men with health conditions — who have died in the lot since the start of the year.

Despite the millions of dollars spent annually to combat homelessness, there remain thousands of people like Sabrina, who struggle to find housing, to kick addiction or to disentangle themselves from the knotty thorn bush of the streets. They are people who may have family and friends who want to help them but don’t know how.

Though they had occasional contact with Sabrina over the past eight years, including an encouraging visit in February, it was only after her death that her parents truly understood the conditions in which she had lived.

“I’m furious,” said Tate of the city-sanctioned safe zone. “This kind of stuff shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t need to happen, and it’s only going to stop if people quit looking the other way and if our governments really, truly care.”

“Shame on Seattle,” he said.

Fighting an addiction

In the video, the young woman stands beneath the Ballard Bridge. She often looks down but sometimes stares straight at the camera with her bright eyes, hazel like her mother’s and father’s.

Her name is Sabrina, she says to the camera. She was from Spokane but she wanted to try her luck in a bigger city. But with that, “came the curiosity to try new things,” she says.

“I’m a heroin addict.”

Mark Horvath spoke to Sabrina in 2013, as part of his “Invisible People” YouTube series, in which he interviews homeless people across the country. Even five years later, Sabrina stood out in his memory.

“I so respected her for having the courage to be honest about her heroin addiction,” Horvath said.

Her death, which he learned about from a reporter, was a frustrating reminder of how homeless services are often disjointed, and how hard it is to remain sober on the streets because there’s no other way to deal with the pain.

“Sabrina’s story is very typical of why we need to get people who are on drugs or under a bridge out of homelessness into their own housing and then provide services,” Horvath said.

Her family learned about the video after her grandmother saw it and emailed a link to Sabrina’s oldest sister, Jennifer Tate. In the video, Sabrina was only 23 but to Jennifer she looked thin and worn. It made her sister sick to her stomach to see.

“I just wanted to shake her, knock some sense in her,” Jennifer said. But she wasn’t even sure how to reach her at the time.

Going home to Spokane

Growing up, Sabrina was sweet and shy. She loved animals, played the violin.

She started struggling after her parents’ divorce when she was a young teenager. Soon she was hanging with the wrong crowd, experimenting with drugs.

“I think before anyone realized how much she was hurting, it was too late … to stop the beginning of what would then become her lifelong addiction,” said one of her sisters, Amber Tate, 32.

For years, Sabrina’s family tried to help her. Sevier made it clear that Sabrina could live with her only if she agreed to treatment, particularly because Sevier had three other young children at home from her second marriage. Always, Sabrina said she could handle it herself.

Recently, Sabrina entered an outpatient treatment program for heroin addiction at Harborview Medical Center, according to a GoFundMe page she launched last summer. On the website, she said she’d been living in an RV the past six months.

In the safe zone, Sabrina was one of the clients receiving the most consistent services, said Jackie St. Louis, who has been coordinating services for residents at the lot since January.

Then, in February, Sabrina returned to Spokane for her paternal grandmother’s funeral. She hadn’t seen many relatives, including her father, since 2010.

It was a good visit, her sister Amber said. Sabrina talked about wanting to return to school to become a video-game designer. She wanted to be an “auntie” again to her nieces and nephews.

But Jennifer knew something was wrong. Sabrina was complaining about pain in her legs and she didn’t look well.

Again, her mother asked her about treatment.

“I said, ‘Honey what would happen if I just took you to the hospital right now and you told them you wanted to detox?’ ” Sevier said. “And she talked about how she wanted to stay in Seattle, that there was more opportunities for her here, that she had friends and she was worried about her RV, that that was her home. She didn’t want the chance of ending up on the street again.”

Jennifer begged Sabrina not to return to Seattle and told her she’d pay for a doctor. Sabrina promised her family she would be back.

Remembering Sabrina

Back in Seattle, Sabrina seemed in better spirits, St. Louis said. The trip home went well, she told him, and she realized she needed her family in her life. She was on a list to get a tiny house in one of Seattle’s authorized tent encampments.

But she also started telling friends that she wasn’t feeling well. According to her parents, she refused at least one friend’s plea to call 911. Her sister Jennifer texted her and sent her messages on Facebook, but Sabrina wouldn’t respond.

After her death, her parents drove to see the safe zone. They came upon two men who said they’d known Sabrina. She was a sweetheart, they said, loving and good.

“Don’t feel bad,” said a man who identified himself only as Jesse. “You did everything you could. She really loved you guys.”

Tate hugged Jesse and told him he was grateful for the compassion that people in the lot had shown his daughter.

Jesse led them to Sabrina’s RV.

Years before, when Sabrina was living in a different camper, her mother and siblings had come to visit her. At the time, Sabrina refused to let them inside.

This time, they were finally let in. Another resident of the lot helped them open the RV door.

The place was trashed. Flies buzzed around rotted food. There was hardly any room on the floor, though investigators told them that’s where her body was found. Much of the floor was covered with wet clothes, possibly the result of a leak in the roof. This looked nothing like the picture she had painted for them.

Her parents may never know if this was how Sabrina lived. They were told by police that the RV was quickly ransacked after her death.

Now they are left with questions, about why she didn’t accept help at the end, about what might have been had she never returned here or whether they handled her addiction the appropriate way.

Her parents are also determined to create some kind of legacy for Sabrina, though they don’t know what that will be. They don’t want people to forget her death or to forget the other people like her.

“I saw a side of Seattle in the past 48 hours that I’ve never seen before,” her father said. “I needed to see it, because it took my baby.”

Project Homeless is a Seattle Times initiative that explores the causes of homelessness, explains what the Seattle region is doing about it and spotlights potential solutions. It is funded by the the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, and Starbucks. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Project Homeless content.