A few blocks from Cal Anderson Park, a homeless man stumbled past me, coughing and rubbing his eyes as a cloud of police tear gas descended. It was a sunny day in July during a large protest for Black lives, and I was trying to get home.
My vision blurred with tears and my throat burned as I coughed through my mask. I didn’t know if I would be hurt by police during the chaos. The last time I felt this frightened in Seattle, I was a homeless teenager, wandering Capitol Hill in search of a warm, dry doorway to sleep in.
Seattle has never been an easy place to be homeless, but 2020 likely made it harder than ever as those on the street have had to contend with COVID-19, wildfire smoke and crowd-control weapons during protests. This is not only based on what I’ve experienced while homeless but what some of my friends, who became homeless in the last year, have shared.
It’s strange to feel lucky for the timing of your bad luck.
Twenty years ago, my mother kicked me out at 14 because my brother told her I was gay. I couldn’t ask for help or stay at a shelter because I couldn’t risk being arrested as a runaway. I also didn’t want to get my mom in trouble.
When you are homeless, the barriers to survive stack like a precarious Jenga tower, threatening to bury you beneath it. Many nights, I wandered up and down the city’s steep hills until dawn to keep myself awake. I would busk at Pike Place Market to earn money, singing Broadway show tunes for tourists. Sometimes I’d try to pass as a college student on the University of Washington campus so the library’s security guards would let me in. I was privileged to be a white teenage girl who looked like a stressed out freshman studying for her finals.
I lived in UW’s undergrad library for days, hiding behind a vending machine whenever the security guards did their rounds. The hot electric breath of the machine would blow on my face as I stood very still and listened to their footsteps.
Nearly two decades and a college degree later, I would work for the same university where I hid to sleep as a teenager. When I worked as an administrative specialist at UW Medical Center, I took notes for meetings. There, I listened to executives discuss how to handle homelessness issues on campus and tried to hold my tongue.
I was instructed to call campus security if I found someone sleeping in the public areas of the university, but how could I do that when that person used to be me?
I know firsthand that the stress of homelessness impairs your cognitive function in a multitude of ways — like not being able to sleep without fear of being attacked, no restroom access, the inability to keep your body dry and needing to structure your day around the meal schedule of soup kitchens scattered across the city.
Most of the ways that I survived homelessness in the 2000s no longer exist during today’s coronavirus crisis. Couch surfing has become more dangerous. Universities have locked their doors to the public, closing off my old hiding places.
There are no longer cruise-ship tourists to busk for, and I would be too scared to dumpster dive for pandemic pizza and discarded bagels now. Most of the retail or service-industry jobs I relied on for work have disappeared, and libraries where I once read to stay out of the rain have been closed since March.
Decades after I moved inside, I still experience the haunting traumas of sleeping on the street. I will probably always have debilitating insomnia, irrational worries of being evicted when I need my landlord to fix the sink, and persistent workaholism to stave off fears of ever being so helpless again.
Before the pandemic, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed homelessness in Seattle and predicted that homelessness was likely to grow worse. In 2018, a study by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association called homelessness a death sentence. Both studies concluded that Seattle’s housing crisis was dire.
As the pandemic drags on, I am reminded that there is never a good time to be homeless in Seattle, but that’s especially true now. I’m just hopeful that this pandemic has shown us how connected we all are, regardless of whether there are four walls around your bed.