It was the last day Becca Uhlrich, 58, would ever spend homeless in Seattle, and all she could talk about was the future.
Becca has big plans: She wants to go back to school to study information technology. She wants to start a garden with pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, zucchini and garlic.
“And then, political office maybe,” Becca said.
But first, she was taking the train 1,500 miles to Arizona to reconnect with her family, see her kids for the first time in decades, and her grandkids for the first time ever. She was nervous that day in April, and giddy, and hadn’t slept much — she was “in a euphoria,” she said. “A mojo.”
“Have a wonderful life,” her friend Debbie Monda said as Becca stepped off the platform and into the train, waving with a hand clutching her neck pillow.
Becca has appeared in The Seattle Times before, in 2019, in a story I wrote. At the time, she had just befriended Monda, was in the midst of a decades-long meth addiction and had just taken a step from living on the street to more stable shelter.
Becca hated that story. When she read it, she was so overcome with embarrassment and shame that she couldn’t finish.
She wanted to be seen as more than the worst parts of her life. And so she reached out right before she left Seattle to talk and to see her off at the station.
When you write about homelessness, people call from all over the country hoping you can find their loved one.
A dad in Rochester, New York, so sick with worry he’d had a dream he went to a shelter and found his son standing inside with a sheet over his head. He went for a hug but suddenly woke up.
A mom in Greeley, Colorado, who a couple of times a week goes to Carl’s Jr., buys two sausage and egg biscuits for $3.50, and gives them to the first homeless person she sees, saying, “My son is homeless in Seattle, and so I’m giving you this and I hope God’ll feed him.”
A daughter in Portland, Oregon, who’s been trying to find a man she thinks is her dad for decades. In 2019, she heard he was staying at The Salvation Army’s William Booth center and she rushed there, only to find she’d missed him by a few minutes and no one would say where he went.
But many homeless people don’t want to be found — they are afraid or ashamed or unable to care amid trying to survive.
Even if they do, most shelters won’t disclose the identity of residents and submitting a missing persons’ report is often fruitless.
So when Clark Heisler got a call from his mother a few years ago, he was surprised. Heisler only spent his first five or six years with Becca, he said. Becca and his dad split up after that, and she started using meth. Heisler went to live with his dad. The only other time he saw her was for a week when he was 13.
But now, Becca had double pneumonia, and she felt like she was dying. Debbie Monda was driving Becca to the emergency room.
Heisler didn’t think twice about insisting she come stay.
“I just kind of had something pulling inside of me, to say ‘Get her out here,’” Heisler said. “I just think if you wouldn’t do this for your mom, then you’re a piece of [expletive].”
Heisler didn’t read my first story, but what I described was the first chapter of their reunion.
It started under a tarp in Georgetown, propped up by a soggy patio umbrella. This is where Damian and Debbie Monda, a couple who’ve spent their retirement tramping around Seattle’s homeless camps, found Becca in 2017.
I wrote about the Mondas’ volunteerism and how they managed to get Becca to leave that tarp, where she used a hard-hat as a toilet and woke up in the night fighting off rats. She moved into a tiny house village in Georgetown, but with her health issues, the Mondas knew she needed somewhere more permanent than an 8-by-10-foot tiny house.
Years passed. Debbie Monda eventually persuaded Becca to friend-request her son in Arizona on Facebook — Becca had always maintained her children hated her and would never talk — and he accepted.
Earlier this year, Monda called me with three big pieces of news. First, the bad: the doctors had diagnosed Becca with lung cancer. Second, as a result, Becca finally agreed to go stay with Heisler. She had an Amtrak ticket for that Saturday.
“One of the worst things someone could feel is feeling that they’re gonna die alone,” Becca said.
Third, she wanted to talk to me.
The day before she left in April, Becca was all smiles when she came out of her tiny home in the Georgetown village, a freckled brunette wearing sunglasses, a mask Monda made, a billowy ruffled white shirt, and white high-top Air Force 1s.
Monda said the last few days, since Becca made the decision to leave, she’s been a totally different person.
Becca explained why she had been upset with her portrayal in the newspaper two years ago. That story described her as a 25-year veteran of homelessness who won the Mondas over with jokes, “South Park” impressions, a soft spot for Frappucinos and Philly cheesesteaks
, and the peculiar way she talked about her life (“My life’s been so funked. I’m in a funk. I’m in several funks. I’ve been in a funk all my life”). The piece included a picture of her laughing and holding a painting she made out of nail polish and markers.
I also mentioned her meth addiction, and how she kept returning to Mike, her ex-boyfriend who lives in a disgusting, overflowing RV in Georgetown.
It was true — the criminal record, the history of substance use. But she had also changed and grown since moving into a tiny house, she said. Her meth use had gone down a lot, and she hadn’t used in more than a month. She has dreams and aspirations, and she pushed that those are important too.
“Would you be willing to write a little, like — make me look like the freaking Kid Dynamo I am now?” she said.
Aspirations tend to appear as filler copy in newspaper stories about high school graduates, not homeless women. Pasts are solid, and futures are squishy.
Heisler did not read the newspaper story about Becca before offering to take her in. Even if he had, he said he wouldn’t care: Heisler has as much reason to judge Becca by her past as anyone, and he didn’t see his mom as just a meth addict or a homeless loser. After all, she hadn’t had an easy childhood either: Her mom was a product of the foster care system, and had Becca with her pimp.
“I believe everyone deserves a second chance, and in reality, without that woman my kids would not exist,” Heisler said. “I would not exist. How can you be mad at that?”
Nearly 10 weeks in, Becca said she has stopped doing meth, and even stopped smoking cigarettes. It’s too late in the season to plant the garden she talked about, but she’s been helping water the apple, plum, pear and peachcot trees in Heisler’s orchard.
She’s been getting radiation treatments for her lung cancer, and last week during a doctor’s office visit, a scan didn’t pick up anything malignant, Becca said.
“I feel like God has given me a second chance, to be a mom and a grandma,” Becca said. “That’s what I’m doing — I came up here to get well.”