This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by The Seattle Times.
The social safety net in the U.S. can sometimes feel like more gaps than threads.
Last fall, a Seattle Times reporter and photographer followed Grandma and Gonzo, two longtime campers who hoped to be caught in it. They moved from tents in an encampment near Bitter Lake to temporary housing in a hotel, as a step — they hoped — toward a permanent home.
They share a life spent mostly outside, conflicted relationships with their addictions, personalities roughened by the realities of survival and an ability to build and foster community on the streets.
One made it to housing, one didn’t.
During the months of reporting, the city was testing a slow-and-steady approach of clearing encampments, focused on helping people who are often left out of the homelessness system because their challenges are so complex. Since then, a new mayor has accelerated the pace of rousting encampments.
As Seattle wrestles to find the best approach, these two show how tenuous the path to a stable home can be for each person walking it.
It’s Nov. 4, 2021 — the birthday of Kanen Walker, who goes by “Gonzo.”
It’s also move-out day for Gonzo and 15 other campers on the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, which borders a K-8 school and a playfield.
Gonzo was reluctant to give up his freedom on the streets for the rules of the hotel shelter opening nearby — a former Holiday Inn now called the Mary Pilgrim Inn. But the school district is clearing the encampment’s residents and he thinks he is ready to be inside.
The odds to get a home for Gonzo and the rest leaving this camp are not very good. In 2020, only 1 in 4 people left a homelessness program in King County for long-term housing. Two-thirds were unaccounted for.
In the past, Gonzo would shuffle from one encampment to the next until he sought shelter himself.
Then, it was just a mat to sleep on next to dozens of others and he had to be out early the next morning.
The homeless system has never offered Gonzo much. Better to simply go it alone outside.
But this time, he decided to take a chance on something new.
Gonzo’s tents are in the far corner of the encampment at Bitter Lake — one he sleeps in, and one he keeps his prodigious amount of belongings in. They abut a fence hung with tarps that hide them from the Broadview-Thomson playground on the other side, where just feet away, he can hear students playing at recess.
A canvas print, bungeed to the tree next to his sleeping tent, reads, “BE HAPPY; LIVE LIFE ON PURPOSE; DREAM BIG; ENJOY EVERY MOMENT.”
He’s the kind of person few used to try to help.
Gonzo, who was born in Marysville and has family in Moses Lake, has been homeless off and on since he was 18. He has three assaults on his record from more than 15 years ago. He says he wants to get a job welding, his former trade.
He values his privacy and autonomy, and has been through rehab about four times but never been able to get housing, so each time he left the treatment center and returned to the street.
“The one thing you don’t want is to go back around the people in the area that you were,” Gonzo says. “But you don’t have another option.”
When the offer for shelter came at Bitter Lake, Gonzo mulled whether to say yes because of all the rules, which seemed to him like a leash.
He knew several campers who’d gotten rooms and some level of privacy at a nearby shelter, but they were still coming back to their tents because they were “unrestricted.” After all, the Bitter Lake camp has actually been pretty calm compared with other encampments.
But things there have been deteriorating, like they always did. As longtime campers would move into shelters or tiny houses, random campers from elsewhere moved into the empty tents.
Gonzo began to see more theft, which made him livid.
Gonzo is a powder keg of righteous fury, rising in just seconds to such volatility that sometimes he has to ride away on his bike. He speaks boldly of violence for anyone who steals from him, but he is generous with his friends.
On move-in day, Gonzo is feeling Zen in the busy lobby of the Mary Pilgrim. He has a cup of coffee in his hand and bags under his eyes as a woman explains to him the rules of his new temporary home. The coffee is really good, he says, or maybe he just hasn’t had coffee in a long time.
It’s obvious this hotel was rushed into a shelter. When the county got the keys, its fridges were still stocked with sausage and biscuits for continental breakfasts. Wrapped furniture from upstairs rooms fills the breakfast area.
Each day of its first week has seen a new group of people move in, whether from a camp like Bitter Lake or from a hotel shelter elsewhere.
New intakes come into what used to be the hotel gym, now a doctors’ office. A “hot box” for cooking people’s clothes replaces the exercise machines, and staff encourage new residents to use that and the gym shower before entering their rooms. Bedbugs were a plague at a previous hotel.
Baggies contain harm reduction kits of needles and straps. Over the next few months a tremendous amount of methamphetamine and fentanyl will circulate through this hotel, killing two residents.
The gym windows look out on the hallway, which doctors and staff can now use to “prescreen” someone who’s not psychiatrically stable before they enter.
Rates of assault on the staff at the nonprofit’s shelters are high, and have risen since the pandemic tightened access to crisis mental health beds. The last quarter of 2021 had 56 assaults on staff, up from 39 the quarter before.
So there are rules.
The rules strike Gonzo as strict, and the woman explaining them, severe: No outside visitors or cooking food in the rooms, check in with staff every 24 hours and a case manager once a week, and no calling 911 from the room phone.
The check-ins let staff know you’re OK, said the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s housing director Noah Fay, and police and emergency responders are already called to the hotel frequently. If every resident could call 911 from their room phone, the neighborhood would complain more.
One key final rule: You can’t turn down your third offer of a lease.
Gonzo is fine with that one.
Move-in day feels like a miracle to Gonzo, but it starts like a bad dream: Someone is already in his room.
Most people in the hotel are going to have a roommate, case manager Jon Pacher explains to him, and there’s probably not a single open.
This is not what Gonzo was told when he agreed to move in.
“I have too many valuable things,” Gonzo says. “I do not steal and everyone steals from me so this is not going to work.”
Pacher says he’ll check if there’s a single available. Irate, Gonzo waxes grandiose about how unchurched and “evil” Seattle is.
“A bunch of Amer-I-Can’ts in this state, in Seattle. Not Americans,” Gonzo says. “The centrifuge of evil and bad and negativity is Seattle. In the world. It’s the largest crossroads on Earth.”
At the front desk, Pacher tells Gonzo he can have a room with two beds and they’ll put another Bitter Lake camper in the bed next to him, which Gonzo could accept because he trusts most of his former neighbors.
Pacher gets a key card for the new room, 225. They go up the stairs and open the door.
“Whoa,” Pacher says, surprised. “225 is a single.”
Gonzo’s demeanor changes instantly.
“It’s all the Lord,” Gonzo says, whooping. “You cannot explain this. You can’t. It says downstairs this is a double, but we come up here and it’s a what? Uh huh? That’s a little bit of magic.”
Gonzo looks out his new window at Aurora Avenue — at the pawnshop, used car dealerships and sewer repair shop across the street.
Half a block up, next to an O’Reilly’s, an abandoned Taco Time has a paint-spattered drive-thru sign and smashed windows.
In four months, Gonzo would be sleeping in its walk-in freezer.
He met a girl sleeping down the hall at the Mary Pilgrim Inn who had a roommate she didn’t like, and he invited her over, repeatedly. It would have been a simple kindness and the start of a romance when he was living on his own, but here, broken rules.
Fay wouldn’t comment on Gonzo’s situation, but he said it’s not the nonprofit’s practice to kick people out just for breaking rules like that — there must have also been an “acute safety issue.”
“Bull[expletive],” Gonzo said.
Gonzo maintains that his experience at the Mary Pilgrim Inn was the worst he’s had in shelter. He is resentful of the way the promise it offered was taken away.
And yet, if he were offered another shot?
He would take it.
“Grandma” Monet Corona bursts out of the elevator playing “Rap God” by Eminem on a portable speaker balanced on a packed suitcase, wearing pink velour heels, a burnt-orange dress and a Valentine’s Day headband with two hearts bouncing like cat ears out the top.
It’s Jan. 31, 88 days after move-in day, and Grandma believes she’s minutes from being kicked out of the Mary Pilgrim.
Gonzo and Grandma both came from Bitter Lake and share similarities. Gonzo first experienced homelessness as a teen; Grandma turned 13 in a homeless shelter and she’s been homeless on and off for nearly 40 years since. They both use drugs, but say they are functional.
She moved into the Mary Pilgrim the same day as Gonzo and lives one floor above his.
And like Gonzo, Grandma’s odds of making a break with the streets don’t look good at first glance.
Early statistics for these hotel shelters show better results at keeping people from returning to the street than much of the shelter system. While the model works for the majority of people, those who’ve been outside the longest pose the toughest challenges.
Once, when she got housing after a long time on the street, Grandma put her tent on top of her bed so she could sleep. She was in a hotel leased by the city of Seattle earlier in 2021, she says, but when it closed last year, she went to the Navigation Center, and then got kicked out of there.
But Grandma has a few advantages over Gonzo when it comes to another shot at housing. The more vulnerable someone is to danger or death on the streets, the easier it is to get a bed. Grandma is 52, a decade older than Gonzo, and says she has six different mental diagnoses, including bipolar disorder and PTSD.
Perhaps most important, years of living outside are catching up to Grandma. She’s got pneumonia. Going back to a tent could kill her.
“I lost my composure last night,” Grandma says, smoking on the sidewalk of Aurora Avenue.
Last night, a staff member tried to open the door for a room inspection and Grandma “slammed the door back on her.” According to Grandma, that escalated to staff telling her she has to move out today.
Her hotel room is full of odds and ends. Troll dolls. Two stuffed Baby Groots. Flowers in wineglasses. Clothes everywhere. On one wall hangs a pair of boxing gloves, because she’s a fighter, she says.
On the door, a note tells Grandma she needs to check in at the front desk or she’s in danger of losing her bed.
She says she does not have hoarding disorder — something that afflicts nearly 1 out of 5 homeless people, according to a 2020 study — but staff have told her several times to consolidate. She’s hidden clothes under her mattress as a result.
“We’ve had enough taken from us. You have no right to sit there and tell me I need to get rid of half my wardrobe — that’s the only thing I own,” Grandma says.
That’s not the only rule she has clashed with staff on. They have key cards to her room, but she blocks the door with electrical tape and a propped-up umbrella every time she enters; she says she’s been raped too many times to allow anyone unfettered access.
A laundry list of trauma spills out of her if you talk to her for mere minutes. She weeps suddenly and might be laughing a minute later.
Although Grandma is angry about the threat of eviction hanging over her head, this has happened to her before, and it happens to a lot of people.
In 2021, a quarter of the people who got shelter or housing in King County had already been in shelter before and lost it.
Grandma thought this shelter would be different.
The county spent $17.5 million to buy the 99-room Mary Pilgrim to create a shelter that’s not full of mats on the ground. Grandma can’t stay forever, but gets her own space while a case manager works to find more permanent housing.
The shelter operator is famous nationwide for working with the toughest people to house, pioneering the “housing first” approach of getting someone stable housing and then working to treat things like sickness, mental disorders or addictions.
“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out onto the street,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said last year of the effort.
While that’s not true, it’s more true than for the average shelter. In roughly the first six months after the Mary Pilgrim Inn opened last year, it served 139 people and asked 10 people to leave. Five others left to go back to encampments, 11 went to an institution such as a hospital, nursing home or jail, and 19 just left at some point and haven’t returned.
That is the nature of running a “low-barrier” shelter for people who have lived outside, according to Fay, and the results at the Mary Pilgrim Inn, so far, are promising. Housing placements are roughly on par with other emergency shelters — almost a quarter.
“Even though ‘housing first,’ I think, is the right approach, housing is not a panacea,” said Dr. Russell Berg, the hotel doctor. “It doesn’t fix every problem. And a lot of the challenges that folks have that have contributed towards their homelessness will still be there when they’re housed.”
In the first month Grandma was at the Mary Pilgrim, a friend was beaten by another resident until he was unrecognizable, according to Grandma and others. A spokesperson for the Inn said that resident was transferred, although he would not say where.
Berg said he’s seen people from encampments, like Grandma, struggle more in the hotel than people who came from old-fashioned shelters.
“All the Bitter Lake ones, we’re strong-willed,” Grandma said. “Strong-minded. We’re not sheep.”
This is why some people may not be able to get housed in the system. Mistreated and traumatized by a life of constant struggle, some may need advanced mental health care, and a rare few may just not be able to get along with the staff and with fellow residents, who also have traumas and disorders.
Dennis Culhane, a national expert on homelessness program design, said the housing-first model is great for a majority of people. It is backed up by research that shows its effectiveness. But Culhane said some people need more supervision.
“We know there are a few people for whom repeated attempts to be placed in housing lead to failure,” Culhane said.
Thankfully, Grandma isn’t one of them.
Grandma didn’t get kicked out in January.
She had called The Seattle Times in her panic and thinks that helped her be allowed to stay.
But it could be because Grandma has been making progress in her journey to stability: She’s reconnected with her husband, who is also homeless, after years of separation in a swirl of encampments and mental episodes. She really likes her case manager, Natalie Zemaitis, who got her a replacement driver’s license and was working on getting her stimulus money from the government.
Zemaitis assessed whether Grandma qualified to be at the top of the housing waitlist, and Grandma said she got the highest score possible.
In March — one month after Gonzo ended up back on the street — she got a spot in a permanent supportive housing complex in South Lake Union, also run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center.
By now, a quarter of the 16 Bitter Lake campers have returned to the street, either voluntarily, kicked out or both, depending on who tells it.
Grandma truly never has to leave her new program if she doesn’t want to — of the 5,670 who got permanent supportive housing in King County in 2021, only six returned to the streets in the following six months.
And she has more autonomy here. Her husband can stay three nights a week, she can cook for herself, and she’s working on accessing mental health treatment.
She walks into the middle of the kitchen, takes a look at the donated plates and silverware, and starts crying.
“Ten years of waiting for this — 10 years,” she says to Zemaitis, sniffling.
“Now it’s your own place,” Zemaitis replies. Days like these are her favorite part of the job.
Grandma’s husband brings the first of her bags in from the elevator. He’s currently sleeping outside and trying to see if he can get into an open room at the Mary Pilgrim.
“You’ll take good care of my husband, won’t you?” Grandma says.
Zemaitis’ face is hard to read behind her mask. “We’ll work on that referral, OK?” she says.