By Jane Farstrider
So much can change when we treat people like they matter
Life leaves its marks on all of us, and breaking generational cycles is never an easy thing. For Katie, there were times it seemed nearly impossible. “I’ve dealt with homelessness pretty much my entire life,” she says, “so that was kind of a constant.” Her childhood was tumultuous, and whenever her family was forced to move, Katie’s world would be turned upside down all over again.
Katie says she spent most of her childhood moving from place to place in Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota, fighting for stability and often staying with her grandmother while she was in school. “We were always kind of running from something,” she says.
When she grew up, Katie did her best to put that behind her, building a life with a family of her own. It was when she was pregnant with her third child that she faced homelessness for the first time as an adult, but Katie says that she and her significant other were able to rebound pretty quickly.
They still struggled to make ends meet, but they managed. “It became something that was just normal,” Katie says. “Even when things were stable, as soon as we got to the end of a lease, it was like ‘time to look for somewhere new.’ I just had no concept of stability or structure and what that looks like.”
A few years later, Katie and her family were living in Spokane and she was expecting her fifth child. There were complications, though, and Katie would need a cesarean section to deliver. Afterward, Katie knew something was wrong, but was told that the swelling from her C-section was normal and that it would go away. As it turned out, her bowels had been herniated during the procedure and she would need extensive surgeries to repair the damage.
“I had done everything I could to stay as stable as I possibly could and then I ended up in the hospital for 9 weeks,” Katie says. “During that time we lost our home ― we lost everything we owned and we were discharged. Two, homeless with five kids. They were like ‘We don’t think you’re going to make it, but enjoy the time you have left.’ I had a hole in my stomach bigger than my head ― just gaping. And it had to heal from being inside out.”
That was in August of 2017. With nowhere to stay, an open wound that would take eight months to heal, four kids, and a newborn baby, the family had no easy choices. “Some nights we slept in bus stops or we’d walk around with the kids all night because there was nowhere safe to go,” says Katie.
In the meantime, Katie still needed medical attention. “We had to do GoFundMe’s just to get enough money for motel rooms on the days I needed to do dressing changes; so I’d have a place for the nurse to come meet us.” Those dressing changes needed to happen three times every week. “They’d stuff this thick sponge stuff in [the wound] and put a vacuum over it to suck it down. It would connect with the tissue, and they’d rip all that out. It was absolutely torture.”
The healing process took 8 months. “It was horrible,” Katie remembers, “not only fighting for my life, but feeling so incredibly alone.”
“Every agency that we went to trying to get help, they just treated us like we were drug addicts or like we chose this,” says Katie. “I remember people would refuse to help us because while I was going through all the surgeries, of course I was on pain medicine. They said ‘you have to stop taking it or you can’t come here,’ and there was no way I could physically do that at that moment. That really decreased all the options.”
The family stuck together and tried to get back on their feet, but nothing worked out as they hoped. “We ended up somewhere in Deer Park that was totally not safe. There’s a lot of people out there who prey on families who are in tough situations.”
“We ended up getting into the Salvation Army the same day [Family Promise] opened up Open Doors, and that was after two months of trying to make things work. Family Promise wasn’t what it is today, but it was a safe place to land.”
Katie smiles as she pulls out her phone to bring up a photo of her kids, sprawled out and sleeping soundly at the shelter. “My son says Family Promise is his second favorite place he ever lived,” says Katie. “To them it was like camp. They were all sleeping in the emergency shelter before the lights were even out. They were just totally ok. It was their safe place, and that meant everything. There were a lot of people who might not have appreciated it because they weren’t in that headspace.”
When the family eventually got into Richard Allen Court day shelter, having a place to do laundry and cook for her family was a really big deal for Katie. “With an open wound and pain, not being able to keep ourselves clean was horrible,” Katie says. “Just having a place where we could make food, especially as a mother … it gave me so much of my pride back, being able to cook for my kids.”
Katie reflects on the struggles they faced along the way, and the toll homelessness can take on a person’s self-image. “People say, ‘I don’t understand it, there’s jobs!’ But how are you going to get your clothes clean to even get that job? How do you make sure you have the food to eat to make it through? How do you get there?”
“Interviews aren’t easy for those of us who really believe we deserve it; but when you’re in the street, you don’t feel like you deserve anything.” She adds, “I used to say I felt like the trash of society. Especially as a mom, because you’re supposed to protect your kids and you're supposed to keep everything ok.”
The resources Katie and her partner found through Family Promise finally made it possible for them to work toward their goals. “As soon as we got here, we started taking classes at WorkSource through Rise,” Katie says. “Getting plugged into the community really changed everything. It gave us hope; feeling like we’re not stuck in this and we can make something different.”
The volunteers made a lasting impression on Katie. “They chose to be here,” she says. “They took time out of their life to make us feel seen and loved, and that was probably one of the greatest impacts. There was a volunteer named Kathy who used to just sit in the kitchen and cook with me and talk about everyday stuff, and that was so different.”
While staying in the shelter, Katie started working at SCRAPS through Rise’s employment program and her partner got a job doing commercial carpet cleaning. “That 200-hour class through WorkSource helped me learn I could change things. It might not be overnight, but little by little, it could be done,” Katie says. “It was amazing. I’m so grateful for that program.”
Katie says that her partner used to go up to Work Source and sleep whenever in their parking garage while she was in class. “I was so proud of him for not giving up when we were in the shelter. He was doing commercial carpet cleaning and it was not easy. We didn’t have a car and he’d have to get rides back and forth, but he continued working.”
Even with their new jobs, finding housing they could afford for a family of seven was going to be a challenge. So when a complete stranger decided to remove that obstacle from their path after hearing about her family through his church, Katie was floored.
“Our landlord actually bought our home without ever meeting us. He just heard part of our story, and he said God told him that one was on him. So he bought a six-bedroom house to rent out to our family and had someone else come ask me if I was interested.” Of course, Katies says, she and her family were thrilled.
Their new landlord closed on the house and remodeled it before they moved in. Katie says “For a six-bedroom house we pay $1,000 per month, so that is unheard of here!”
While they waited for the remodel, Katie and her partner kept on working, managing a hectic shuffle between their jobs and the shelter with the kids. “We had moved from Open Doors to Salvation Army for a short period of time just because we worked,” she explains.
“My significant other worked nights and he would work from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., but no matter what, he’d have to be up at 6. He’d get back to the shelter at 4, sleep until 6, get up, and be up with the kids.” So the family moved to the Salvation Army’s intermediate shelter for a couple of weeks to make the transition a little easier.
Finally, the house was ready for them to move in.
“We had been struggling for years, and it was probably 3 months total until we were ready to move into our new home,” Katie says. “We’ve been there ever since. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my entire life, so I feel like I’ve finally been able to give my kids that stability I never had.”
These days, Katie says that they’re all doing better with that stability. “The kids are doing so good. My oldest two have been able to maintain straight A’s all the way through. The middle two struggle a little in school, but are just blossoming everywhere else,” Katie says with a smile.” She comments on how smart her youngest son is, now two years old.
Katie and her family made a lot of good friends at Family Promise, and found a sense of community at The Rock, a church they first started visiting when they were at the shelter.
Katie’s recovery from the complications of her first C-section was long and difficult, and after eight surgeries she felt lucky to be alive. But life still had some surprises in store for her. “After all those surgeries, they told me I could never have another baby. I didn’t intend to, so I had my tubes tied … and I still got pregnant and had another baby.”
“It was a huge shock and scary because of all the medical stuff,” she says, “and I thought, there is no way this is going to be ok.” But despite the odds, everything went well and now she has a healthy two-year-old boy.
Soon after connecting with Family Promise, Katie started working as an assistant supervisor in the shelter, which she loved. The people she met during some of the hardest days of her life soon became her co-workers and part of her growing community.
“Emma was the one person I really bonded to in a huge way, which is really great because now she’s my boss. Toya used to work here and was a huge support. I was kinda shell-shocked by all the different people, and they helped me feel grounded and feel safe. Serena really encouraged me to come back and saw my potential” Katie says.
Katie says she feels that the struggles she faced were God’s way of helping her find her purpose. “When I was in the shelter, my main focus was always helping the people around me, which was what has always gotten me into trouble in my life,” Katie explains. “But this allowed me to find a way to do it and keep it out of my home life. You don’t have to bring people home to help them. This is really giving me an outlet to feed that part of my soul without hurting my family.”
“Now I’m a donor relations coordinator and connect with our donors and share our story and build impact. Every person who partners with us makes a huge difference and there is success,” she says.
“I really feel like they’re the first organization that doesn't just throw bandaids at it. They really get down to the reasons why a family can’t stay stable and then helps partner with them through that,” she continues. “[Family Promise] didn’t just get us into housing and leave us alone. Even at the beginning, there were things that came up and they helped with each and every one.”
The community connections Family Promise has with other vital organizations solutions were crucial for her family, Katie says. “Vanessa Behan was a huge resource for us so often with the little ones. They can watch the kids for up to 72 hours in any kind of crisis. When we’d go to pick up the kids they’d send us backpacks of new clothes and diapers, and letters telling us how great we were doing; to keep up the good work. They were a huge huge piece of support for us.”
“The first Christmas we were in a house, [Family Promise] had somebody sponsor us. It was Windermere, I think. We hadn’t been able to do anything for the kids before that because we were in the middle of homelesseness and struggling … They brought an entire truckload of presents ― bikes for all the kids. It was amazing.”
Katie says that Family Promise goes way beyond meeting a family’s physical needs. “It’s just the little things. It’s not necessarily just about stability but the joy. Showing people that they matter.”
“I think one of the biggest things is it's so incredibly powerful to be able to use all of the bad that happened to me to help other people. It makes it all worth it: every day that I suffered; every day that I was in pain. To know that I can make a difference to other families and that they’re never going to have to feel quite so alone.”