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The SUV that Melody Clark’s mother called home.
Courtesy of Melody Clark

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This is what homelessness looks like for my mom

Thousands of people are experiencing housing instability in Seattle—including those staying on couches and in cars

“She doesn’t look homeless,” said a woman I’ll call Jenny.

Flustered, I searched for a diplomatic reply to my apparently brutally honest new acquaintance. After all, I had to spend at least one evening a week with Jenny for the next several months. I wanted to ask her what homeless people are supposed to look like, but instead I blurted out that a lot of people don’t “look homeless” and scurried away as quickly as possible with an unpleasant mix of shame and fury.

I’m sure she saw it as a compliment; the woman in question was beautiful, clean, and well-put-together. But Jenny’s words still sting, even several months later. We were in a group together at our church that I’d joined to feel supported and less alone. A few weeks earlier I had shared, with immense trepidation and vulnerability, about a problem my family and I were facing. I explained to a dozen semi-strangers how scared I was, how helpless I felt, and how utterly unequipped I found myself to deal with this crisis I was facing. Instead of helping me find the faith and hope I craved, Jenny’s words left me feeling ashamed and judged, largely regretful that I had shared something so intimate to begin with.

While she wasn’t talking about me, it was still just as personal. She was talking about my mom.

Whether or not my mom “looks homeless” depends on your idea of what someone without an address should look like. If you live in or around Seattle and haven’t encountered someone experiencing homelessness or bumped up against issues of affordable housing and those it affects, I’m curious to know how. The Seattle Times even has a whole section devoted to it. The issue of homelessness sparks intense debate at all levels, from heated Nextdoor discussions to election promises. People without homes fill our libraries; their tents line our freeways and hide in our parks. Parking lots are dotted with vehicles serving as both transportation and housing.

Some homelessness is less visible. People live on the couches of loved ones, out of bags and suitcases full of tangible evidence of their once stable life, feed off of warm deli food while they charge their phones at Safeway and Starbucks, and shower and dress at the gym before heading to work. Contrary to Jenny’s idea of what homeless looks like, many people experiencing homelessness don’t fit common stereotypes.

My mom holds a master’s degree. She’s owned and operated her own thriving counseling practice. She’s been a teacher of all levels from special education preschool to college. She drives a Mercedes SUV.

She just also happened to live in it.

The “Silver Sled” packed with belongings.
Courtesy of Melody Clark

The “Silver Sled,” as she calls it, is filled to the brim with her belongings that used to line the built-in shelves and fill the walk-in closet of her cheery bungalow a block from the beach. The tinted windows keep thieves at bay and help filter out street lights at night, assisted by curtains fashioned out of sun reflector shades.

While she was lucky to have the extra room an SUV provides, living out of a vehicle is difficult. While staying in the parking lot of a Walmart, one of very few places that let vehicles stay in their parking lots overnight and for multiple days, she learned from a community of people who lived in and out of their cars much longer than she had. From a kind but road-weary woman my mom learned how to best organize her pared-down belongings so she wouldn’t have to rearrange everything every night when she tried to make a bed out of a backseat.

Through trial and error, she learned which foods were harder to prepare in the car. It’s difficult to eat affordably and healthily when your pantry is a Rubbermaid bin in your backseat and your kitchen the microwave at the Safeway deli. Even foods that don’t usually require much preparation—like even a simple can of tuna—can pose challenges without counters and running water nearby. Parking near a 24-hour establishment with accessible bathrooms is a must.

Ever the faithful optimist, though, my mom put on her rose-colored glasses and viewed it as an adventure. This attitude was easier for her in the summer, when the rainy days were few and the warmth of the sun stayed long past sunset.

I, on the other hand, was constantly stressed out that my mom didn’t have shelter. She assured me she was safe, texting me each night when she went to bed and each morning when she woke up, but I still tossed and turned, imagining the worst. I asked her to come stay with me many times, but she said she didn’t want to be a burden to me. As summer turned to fall and temperatures dropped, I was able to convince her it was more of a burden on me and my mental health if she didn’t come stay with me. So she finally did. And we both got some sleep.

It hasn’t always been this way. We only moved twice when I was younger, our housing far from unstable. My mom is the hardest worker I know. “If you can walk, you can work,” was something I heard over and over again while growing up. A single mom for much of my life, she often worked two or three jobs to make sure I never went without.

Just a decade ago, she was serving as a counselor for a public high school comprised largely of immigrant, undocumented, and at-risk youth in central California. My mom loved her work, so much so that she even agreed to work in a makeshift space: a janitorial closet that became a windowless office with no ventilation.

When she started, they assured her it was temporary. A year later, she was still there, working long days in a space never meant for humans to work in, all the while being unknowingly exposed to a variety of chemicals and toxic mold. She began to develop health problems she never had experienced before. Her previously healthy lungs began to hurt so badly she could barely walk up a flight of stairs, let alone take her nightly long walks on the beach with her dog. Her brilliant brain and almost photographic memory began failing her—she even forgot my name and her birthdate at times. The doctors could not figure out what was going on. She worked as long as she could, but her symptoms and illnesses became way too much and eventually she was ruled disabled and unable to work, lungs and heart compromised, brain injured, and immune system shot.

Of course there are programs designed to help her. She even prepared for this possibility, purchasing private disability insurance that helped sustain her for a year. After her Aflac insurance and savings ran out, she cashed in her retirement accounts to stay afloat. She fought and fought appeal after appeal to finally obtain the Social Security disability benefits and Medicare insurance that she’s paid into her entire life, but it’s not enough. It should be—she’s certainly worked hard enough for long enough to have a real safety net—but it’s not. She gets something like $1,300 a month, which is much less than the cost of renting in Seattle. However, with her “you can do anything you set your mind to” attitude and some financial support from her best friend and me over the years, she found a way to make it work, to make ends meet.

Things were actually going well for her for the first time in several years. She was healing, her health challenges dissipating. She started volunteering, seeing if she could work again. Facebook helped my mom rekindle an old flame from high school, and they soon moved in together. Her boyfriend seemed perfect for her at the beginning; I remember thinking how alike they were, even in looks. I felt relieved, so happy for her.

A few months in, though, his charm devolved into physical and emotional abuse, death threats, and all of the chaotic elements of domestic violence. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and was awarded a restraining order.

With that new safety came another problem: She could no longer afford to pay their rent by herself. She had no savings; those reserves depleted long ago due to her inability to work long term and full time. She had applied for and had been on low-income housing waiting lists for years, and after a notice requesting her housing status got lost in the mail, she bumped down to the bottom of a waiting list from number 18 to number 357.

A few strokes of bad luck, and my mom ended up homeless. She’s not alone. At last count, there were 11,643 people experiencing homelessness in King County on one night. A recent report ranks King County third in the nation with our increasing homeless population, behind only New York City and Los Angeles.

These numbers only count those who are staying in shelters, on streets, in tents, and outdoors. Given what I know about people experiencing homelessness now, I’m sure many aren’t counted, because how do you count the invisible homeless? How do you measure my mom, since she’s currently sleeping on my couch? How do you count my friend’s mom who is currently in the hospital, but will be homeless once discharged?

Clark’s mother has since moved from the SUV to her daughter’s couch.
Courtesy of Melody Clark

I learned a long time ago that even though I had a supportive family, I could become homeless too. For years, I always gave a smile, said “hello,” and handed a few bucks to people visibly experiencing homelessness, because I knew that could be me someday. Of course, I still greet and help those who ask for it, but the difference is today I also see signs of the invisible homeless, the former counselors and close-to-retirees with long-ago cashed-out retirement accounts. The packed cars in retail parking lots, the phones charging at the gym and at Starbucks, the heavy bags carried into stores, waiting rooms, and libraries. I see my mom.

We recently put together kits for people who are currently experiencing housing instability—her idea. Nothing fancy or big: a pair of socks, some warm gloves, Wet Wipes, lip balm, and protein-packed food, all in a reusable, plastic Ziploc bag, so the people we offer them to can see through it to see if they even want it. Most homeless people already have to make decisions every day about what to keep and carry versus what to toss and hope to buy again. Her experience has proven very useful in deciding what to include, where to distribute, and when it’s appropriate to offer.

As housing gets more and more expensive, our safety nets reveal more and more holes. Increasing numbers of us will either experience some sort of housing instability ourselves or see it in our families. Expensive emergencies crop up in pairs and trios, because when they rain, they pour. Savings drain faster than they can be refilled. As I write this, at least four of my friends—that I know of—have family members that are either currently homeless or close to it.

Our lives and outlooks on things have changed in lasting, unsettling ways. It’s scary, to say the least, to know homelessness isn’t that far from us. While my mom technically has safe shelter with me right now, she still isn’t in her own place; if she thinks about it too much, which she tries not to, it’s easy to be racked with fear and worry that she could be back in her SUV at a moment’s notice.

Just as it hasn’t always been like this, it won’t always be like this. While worries about the future can overwhelm us if we let them, overall my mom and I are grateful for where she is today. She’s safe, staying with me, able to help others as she rebuilds her life. Almost ten years after she was ruled disabled, she’s found she is now able to work again, something she didn’t think was possible even a year ago. Though her staying on my couch is not ideal by any means, a safe and stable place to stay means that my mom’s life is able to stabilize a bit as well. She is working on healing from the trauma from that abusive relationship, along with her physical limitations. She’s saving up money while deciding what to do and where to go next. It’s hard to do any of those things without housing first.

To see your parent go through these things is hard. I often felt like my foundation was being pulled out from under me and I’m still scared that the cement hasn’t quite dried from the repairs. But we’re healing.

Volunteers with the Block Project build a backyard cottage.
Courtesy of King County

As Seattle works to solve its homelessness crisis, we’re encouraged by innovative solutions like the Block Project coming out of private sector industries. That project not only offers a concrete housing solution, but also humanizes the issue in ways we don’t see often. I’m hopeful that if we can see ourselves in those faces—both visible and not—even if we can’t offer housing to someone, we can offer those people we see a smile, and a dollar or two, and remember them when we cast our votes.

Homelessness is a complex challenge, one that can’t be solved overnight or by public policy alone. One thing you can do: Be kind and compassionate. Fight that part of you that separates “them” from “us,” and silence that inner judgmental voice that says it’s their fault, that it’s their choice they are homeless, that if they just worked hard enough or pulled their bootstraps up far enough they wouldn’t be in that situation. It’s often not true, and it’s never productive.

My mom surely does not want to be homeless, and is beyond embarrassed by her situation. It took a lot to convince her to let me tell this story publicly. I’m hoping that by doing so, I can humanize and nuance the issue. Many people experiencing homelessness “don’t look homeless”—but everyone deserves a safe place to stay.