Early into the coronavirus crisis, as stay-at-home orders were issued and businesses closed their doors, Project Homeless wanted to understand the unique challenges that COVID-19 placed on the nearly 4,000 people living unsheltered in Seattle. How do you stay at home if you don’t have one? And what does a global pandemic mean for someone already facing immense daily challenges to survive? 

For Joe Bernstein, 53, COVID-19 forced him to spend nearly every hour of the day outside, after years spent between public buildings. That change inspired him to write about some of his new challenges in a blog chronicling the availability and conditions of public bathrooms throughout the city. 

For many like Bernstein, it’s a hard life made harder. 

“We have so few [places] now,” said Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, a homeless outreach provider in Seattle. “Because we can’t congregate, and so a lot of our public space has evaporated except for what’s out in parks.”

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

At the onset of the crisis, the city of Seattle spent more than $15 million to open 339 shelter beds at five locations — many of which are now closed and moving to new, permanent locations — to help thin out crowded, overnight shelters. Nearly 1,000 people have used those shelter beds so far. King County has spent close to $2 million every month since April to lease nearly 450 hotel rooms at four hotels around the region to house homeless people. 

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Even so, the supply is dwarfed by the demand, leaving Bernstein and thousands more outside.

Over the last six months, we’ve worked closely with Bernstein to produce a video chronicling his adaptation as a homeless man in a global pandemic. And here, in his own words, Bernstein shares his perspective, how he became homeless and how COVID-19 has shaped his life. 

Missing the rut

By Joe Bernstein

In 2014, I found a way to spend every day inside despite being homeless. In 2020, COVID-19 took that away from me. 

I’d lived in an single-room occupancy on Capitol Hill for six years, so when I lost my housing, I stayed in that neighborhood two more years. By day, I had to hike too much there. And by night, I suffered too many thefts.

I wanted to move north and was familiar with some buildings at the University of Washington. Then I found out about Savery Hall, a classroom building that stayed open to the public evenings and weekends.

I was able to access three UW buildings, including Savery, that offered warm and dry shelter every day of the week. I only had to go outside to sleep at night. I found two more buildings, eventually, to cover summer weekends and major holidays.

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I’d fallen into a rut, you see, a comfortable life; I’d adapt to anything rather than give that up. I job hunted less and less, and stopped writing for publication. I paid less attention to hygiene, learning to “socially distance” years before the phrase was invented. I used my free time and the library to research things nobody I knew cared about, primarily Korean TV dramas and their music.

Before I came to Seattle, I worked as a temporary office worker for most of my career, starting out in data entry but slowly moving toward accounting-related work. I started to see how such work could be made more efficient or reliable, got interested in databases and took some classes. Meanwhile, I also began writing for publications, but that rarely paid the rent.

The temp business fades in bad times, while in good ones the companies prefer people temping just once compared to repeats like me. It didn’t make much sense for me to come to Seattle in 2006, because boom towns attract lots of temp workers, but this is where a database course I’d been trying to take for years was, so I came with the last of my inheritance. By the time I finished the course in 2009, the Great Recession had closed the only temp agency office that had given me much work, and when the unemployment checks ran out in 2012, I became homeless.

I learned to adapt during those years. When COVID-19 hit, I had to adapt a great deal more.  

In 2018, I made a friend who worked in the sociology department and had an office in Savery Hall, where I spent a great deal of my time. When COVID-19 started closing UW’s buildings, my new friend put me up in hotels, and I took one more brief stab at the job market. When that failed, I became for the first time the more common kind of unsheltered homeless man, one who spends most of his time outside. I had to adapt quite a lot. Admittedly that has been helped by free money, from the government but also from strangers on an amazing scale. And at first, transitioning outside was easier in Seattle’s famously benign summer weather.

Now, though, there’s plenty to fear. The thieves of the UW — balked of their usual prey: the students — have tried to make their quotas anyway by stealing from me. So far, COVID-19 has not touched me directly. I’ve lost one friend this year, but not of that disease. It’s no longer summer; I’m hardly young and the months of rain scare me deeply. And I panic over every early hint that, post-COVID, the places I’ve spent my days, even at the UW, might never reopen to the general public. 

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Still, I see my COVID story as one of reawakening. I’ve used the time without a library computer to take notes mostly by hand on major projects — catching up on the immense “Assiti Shards” fiction series — mostly comfort reading — and exploring my old record collections via YouTube to see what light they cast on my present tastes in Korean music. 

I’ve also resumed writing through a public blog, My Seattle Parks Diary, about a big part of my adaptation to outside life — trying to replace public buildings’ running water with the unreliable park restrooms and water fountains. Although the blog has been little read, it’s at least in the public interest.

For years I’ve thought about what I value partly by planning, but never actually building, a website about my interests. Now, the parks of North Seattle, the books I’m reading and revisiting my favorite English-language music are demanding vast spaces in that website. My UW friend and I have discussed another long-delayed aspiration: finishing my college degree.

These past nine months have provided both fears and hopes, then — what any part of life offers — just not a rut. But I miss the rut, too, and when, if, all this ends, I’ll want to get inside, wherever I can. I’ll want to watch a few more Korean dramas, research one or two more musicians — rest a bit, first.