RENTON — Brittney Turner slept in her car for a year. A 2005 Kia.
She’d take night shifts at work so that she’d feel just a little more comfortable, a little more secure, in her car during the daytime.
She parked where she could. In a Fred Meyer parking lot. Outside an apartment complex in Everett. That was near her job. She worked at Kettle Cuisine, a frozen soup company with a factory in Everett.
But her kids were staying part time with her mother in Puyallup. Between the night shifts and the distance — the drive could easily be two hours with traffic — she’d sometimes go three days without seeing them. That, she couldn’t bear.
So she got a new job, at the Westin in downtown Seattle. She started parking in South King County — Renton, Federal Way — splitting the difference between work and her mother’s.
She lost track long ago of the agencies she reached out to, looking for housing, for help. King County Housing Authority, Pierce County Housing Authority, she called 2-1-1 “a million times.”
“I’ve called every single place I could think to call,” she said. “And no one’s helping me, they’re just putting me on these lists.”
One auspicious day in March 2020 — she’d just found out she was pregnant with her third child, a global pandemic would be declared in a couple days — a friend of a friend gave Turner, 28, a business card.
Tina Lewis, the card said.
Her title was a mouthful: Outreach & Community Engagement Program Manager.
“I was like, ‘Yeah right,'” Turner said.
But sometimes help comes from unexpected places.
Sometimes it comes from a mother of seven, who’s been to jail, who’s been homeless herself and who knows how to unlock the obstacles of a seemingly intractable housing bureaucracy.
Within two weeks of calling Lewis, who works for The Salvation Army’s Street Level program, Turner and her kids had moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Renton. The Salvation Army covered the security deposit, rent for March and April and filled the apartment with furniture and dishes.
The Salvation Army, one of 13 agencies benefiting from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For Those in Need, provides food, shelter, rehab and emergency services to more than 100,000 people each year in King County.
Even two years into a pandemic, the need for the services they provide keeps increasing, said Lt. Col. Cindy Foley, The Salvation Army’s Northwest Divisional Commander.
“We had expected after almost two years of pandemic impact upon housing, food insufficiency, utility assistance and other programs we offer, that at Christmas this year we might be back to our typical levels, but that’s not the case,” Foley said.
At Christmastime last year, they provided help — toys for kids, grocery cards for families — to about 6,000 children at their annual Toy & Joy giveaway at the Lumen Field event center. This year, it’s nearly 9,000, Foley said.
In 2020, they provided nearly 750 shelter beds in King County and helped nearly 4,000 King County families with rental assistance to keep them from being evicted, according to their annual report.
And they helped move 541 King County families into permanent housing, including Brittney Turner’s.
When Turner called, Lewis asked the same questions she always asks when a new client calls.
What are the barriers that are keeping you from finding housing right now? Have you been evicted? Do you have a job? Do you owe anything in collections? Any criminal convictions?
Turner had been evicted, in May 2019, after a breakup. She owed money on that, but it wasn’t that much.
Lewis gave her the number of an apartment complex in Renton and told her to call.
“They were willing to work with me because I said I work with her,” Turner said, gesturing at Lewis. She moved in two weeks later. “I was just kind of jaw-dropped. I was like, no way, this isn’t real. It was, like, amazing.”
Lewis has anywhere from 50 to 80 clients at a time, people she’s working with to try to get them housing.
Some come to her, like Turner did. But more often than not, she goes to them.
She drives a mobile office, a Ford Transit van equipped with a laptop, internet and copy machine, but also food, blankets, socks and other emergency items.
She has a regular circuit of parking lots — grocery stores, libraries, park and rides — in South King County where she finds people sleeping in cars. She’ll knock on their window, say hello, introduce herself, ask if they need some help.
“You can spot those vehicles you’re pretty sure you know,” she said. It’s become a habit she can’t turn off. “No matter where I go, even when I’m out of state, I am looking. I can’t stop myself.”
Lewis went to college on a volleyball scholarship, but developed a drug addiction. She ended up homeless, went to prison and lost her kids to Child Protective Services.
She ended up in transitional housing, got her kids back and has been sober for 21 years. She began working for The Salvation Army three years ago.
“I know on all levels what it’s like to be homeless, addicted, incarceration, horrible background, loss of my children to the state, it’s a lot,” Lewis said. “If I can come through it, anyone can.”
The Salvation Army just announced an expansion of the Street Level program that Lewis works on. For the past two years, it’s been just Lewis and a co-worker and their one van. By mid-2022, the program will have four vans and will expand beyond South King County, first to West Seattle and then to other parts of the county.
“There is housing in town,” Foley said. “But you need people like Tina, organizations like The Salvation Army, that cannot only help you navigate services that you need, but you need people who walk along that journey with you.”
“There are some folks that will have an income, they just don’t know how to access the housing,” Lewis said.
Earlier this month, Turner was at work, on a break. She’s a waitress now at Red Robin. She overheard a co-worker, emotional, talking on the phone to her mom.
“I kind of was like, ‘Are you OK, what’s wrong?’ And she just opened up and told me,” Turner said. She was living in her car, with her two daughters. “And I was like, ‘Oh my fricking goodness.’
“And literally I was like ‘I have someone that can help you right now.'”
And she got out the card. And she called Tina.