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Against the Odds: Sharing Fierce Hope after Homelessness and Abandonment

Written by Jane Sutherland-Farstrider

When you walk into the Family Promise administration office, you’ll likely run into Janet Bray, a soft-spoken woman with kind eyes and a warmth reminiscent of home-cooked meals and cozy bedtime stories.


Janet’s been with Family Promise as Rental Assistance Liaison and Prevention Intake Specialist for about a year; and like many others on the team, she’s no stranger to the troubles that bring people through those doors. But Janet grew up at a time when resources for families struggling to make ends meet in Spokane were few, and Family Promise didn’t yet exist.


“When I was a kid we were really poor, so when my parents couldn’t pay the rent, in the middle of the night we’d just leave,” Janet says. At one point their family of eight spent six months living in a run-down motel in Airway Heights.


“They always seemed to take us into small places. We lived in Waverly, Washington, and we just got to run free and do whatever we wanted. No one knew what was going on. I don’t remember my dad being home much, but my mom was always home and there were always people coming and going. I don’t sleep very much at night because night was never safe.”


That lack of safety and family support shaped her drastically, and Janet can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel like a parent. At eight years old, Janet says she was already working at a recycling center and babysitting ― often overnight ― to earn money. She recalls one long night when she was babysitting and had to call the police because someone was trying to break into the house. “So yeah,” she says, “I didn’t have a childhood.”


Janet had learned to read at a very young age, and loved getting lost in books. The Velveteen Rabbit was a particular favorite. With that love for reading and a desire for structure, school soon became her safe space, despite often being picked on by other kids.

“I knew I was going to eat at school because we got free lunch, and I started to play sports. I was a pretty angry kid, because when your basic needs aren’t being met, there are behaviors that come out ― going to school, being the poor kid in dirty clothes. You can be poor, but you don’t have to be dirty.”


In 4th grade one of Janet’s teachers allowed her to come to class early and gave her breakfast while she helped correct assignments. Then after school, she’d allow Janet to stay late and would give her a snack. “I was safe at school,” she says. “When I started playing sports it was way better. Even though I bounced from school to school, I knew people because I was playing sports and I was pretty good.”


“When I was 11 years old, my parents divorced and we had to find a place to live, and dad just bounced around,” she says.


“My mom just didn’t want us. She just packed up and left. We came home one day and she was gone. She took my sister, Mary, because Mary had a different dad. My mom had nine children, but we didn’t all live together; just six at a time. The first three she just left too. She just walked out, and who knows how many times she did that when I was a baby, because I don’t ever remember her taking care of me.”


Janet says that after the divorce, her father was unprepared for the challenges of single parenthood, and their situation became even more fragile. “My dad didn’t always let us go to school because he was so worried about my mom and her boyfriend trying to kidnap us,” Janet says. “It was a huge ordeal, always. I think in seventh grade I went to four different schools.”


These moves weren’t just within the city, either. Janet’s father would move the family to the Seattle area for a while, only to come back to Spokane or Deer Park. “It was just all over the place,” Janet says. “I ran away in 7th grade and ended up at the Crisis Residential Center (CRC), and I remember them asking me, ‘Why are you here? You’re a clean kid, you don’t do drugs; you follow the rules.’ I ran away because my dad wasn’t in a good state of mind.”


CRCs are short term facilities for young runaways and kids in conflict with their families. According to the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families website, these crisis centers don’t allow teens to stay for more than 15 consecutive days, with counselors working to reunite families and help them resolve conflicts.


Rather than returning home, Janet and another girl at the center briefly ran away together, and Janet ended up getting a little more time at the facility because she didn’t want to go back. “It wasn’t stable,” Janet says. Running away at least gave her a little control, and she thought, “we’re going to have to move soon again, because he can’t pay the rent.”


“It’s hard too,” she adds, “when you’re a girl just living with your dad and he doesn’t have money to buy feminine hygiene products. So I got picked up for stealing tampons. I didn't get arrested or anything, but they stopped me and talked to me. They gave me resources for where to go.”


Despite it all, Janet doesn’t blame her dad when she looks back on those days when the only person she could rely on was often herself. “My dad wasn’t actually a horrible person,” she says, “he just wasn’t capable of being a parent by himself, with the way his life went.”


Janet explains that her father didn’t do drugs or drink, but he had a nervous breakdown that seemed to affect him long afterward. “He wasn’t a horrible person. To me, he got abusive because I was the only girl in the house, and some of that is that he didn’t have the resources to control that. No excuses, but I just don’t think he was capable.”


“When I was 14 we actually became homeless,” Janet says. “We didn’t have a home to live in, so my dad went to my grandma’s and us kids were just given to people in our church to stay with until we could get into a home. He never found a place, so I went to a foster home.”


Janet continues, “he was so wrapped up with my brothers that my needs weren’t being met. I wanted to stay in foster care and was kind of relieved when I got to ― because I knew where I was going to sleep. I knew when I was going to have breakfast, and that I could go to school.”


“When I went into foster care I was like, ‘I have a bed? With sheets on it?’ Because we didn’t always have sheets. We didn’t always have clean clothes. We didn’t always have running water because they didn’t pay the bill. We didn’t always have food.”


Her time in that home didn’t last, though. When Janet and another girl staying there got in trouble with their foster parents for drinking, Janet lost her placement. “I had never met my case worker before, but she placed me back with my dad. Two months later, my dad left and he didn’t take me. So the people he was working with just kept me and became licensed to be my foster parents.” She was a junior in high school.


Being left again was crushing, but Janet says that knowing exactly where she’d be until she was done with high school gave her a little bit of relief.


“Now foster kids get a guardian ad litem, and then when they’re 12 they get an attorney. I didn’t have that. Like I said, I only spoke to my case worker once, from 14 to 18. One time. My foster parents got some money for me every month, but that was all we knew. Oh, and they had to have permission if I left the state,” she adds. “That was it.”


During the next couple of years, Janet settled into her new life as well as she could, pouring herself into school and volleyball. She was an outside hitter, and she did well enough to earn a scholarship at Spokane Falls Community College.


Janet went to Europe with her volleyball team the summer she turned 18, but when she got back, her foster family had moved away without her. “To me, it was pretty traumatic,” Janet says. We knew they were moving, but I had thought it would be after. So they’d packed up all my stuff and moved me into a studio apartment. I had parents … and then, again, I didn’t have any parents.”


“In foster care you age out and they don’t really have anything for you. You just age out. There’s no support. I had my foster parents, but they had their own kids and they had moved away. Nothing was stable enough,” she says. “People would come and then they would just leave, and you’re by yourself. So yeah, I have huge abandonment issues.”


With her life turned upside down, maintaining stability on her own at 18 was a tall order. “I kinda bounced from place to place for a while after that, because I didn’t know what to do. I was a senior in high school, and I could write my own notes to miss school,” Janet says. She explains that although she wanted to keep going, the pressure of doing it all on her own doubled when she lost her studio apartment and briefly had to stay at her sister’s house before finding a roommate.


Janet moved in with a friend, but when her new housemate impulsively decided to move to Iowa, she convinced Janet to come along. “I left school ― a full ride scholarship ― and went to Iowa with her. Then when we got there, we had nothing, so I worked three jobs to get a bus ticket to go back home. But then I was just homeless again and was sleeping on people’s couches and floors. I was 19. So some of my life choices weren’t the best.”


Back in Spokane, Janet reconnected with a boy she had met earlier that year, and soon they started dating. “When I came back, we actually went to California for him to finish high school with his mom, and I shared a room with his sister.”


The two of them got married and started a family of their own. From the beginning, Janet was determined to give her own children the things she didn’t have growing up, especially the simple, everyday needs we don’t really think about. “I made sure my girls were always stocked [on feminine hygiene products], even if they didn’t need them,” Janet says. “Or toilet paper ― I never let it go down to just one pack in the house ― and toothbrushes, because I didn’t always have a toothbrush. So now I have extra toothbrushes like crazy, and laundry soap. I have a hard time budgeting because I was never taught how to budget. I lived most of my life in survival mode.”


“We kinda bounced around with our kids quite a bit until [my husband] found a job in Wyoming … but our kids always had a stable home. They never had to worry about where they’d end up.”


Even so, childhood wounds had a way of resurfacing in painful ways. “When we were younger and I was pregnant with my children we got state medical [coverage]. So when I had my children, they automatically drug tested me and told me I had to have a home nurse or they’d take my children,” Janet says. “Because I was raised in the welfare system. Because of my parents. I had never been in trouble or anything, but I was made to feel like I wasn’t worthy of being a mom just because of my childhood.”


“At first I was really angry, but then I was like, ‘they’re just wanting to make sure my kids are protected and safe,’ and I took advantage of having that home nurse come over,” Janet says. Even though they were living with her in-laws at the time, that extra support meant she could take little breaks and uninterrupted showers more often than she could have otherwise.


“We didn’t always have a lot of money for our kids, but they never had to go to school in dirty clothes or hungry,” Janet says. She also made sure her kids were able to do lots of extracurricular activities, and coached her daughters’ volleyball teams for years. She has very strong opinions on the importance of good athletic shoes, and says that’s one thing she always buys new for her kids and grandkids.


Janet says their 25-year marriage was difficult, but she and her now ex-husband stayed together until their kids were grown. Sometimes Janet wonders if she did the right thing, staying for so long even though things weren’t healthy. “I always wanted to be a mom, and I wanted my kids to have a dad,” she says.


(Pictured: Janet with her three adult children)


Amidst a particularly dark period for Janet, their relationship ended. “Five years ago I divorced and moved home, back to Washington, and stayed with my best friend for six months. I got a job and then I was on my own ― for the first time ever in my life I found myself in my own apartment,” she says. “I’ve always worked. I’ve always had two or three jobs … I have a really strong work ethic, so if I want something I’m going to work for it.”


Janet had spent 20 years teaching preschool, but didn’t want to go back to the classroom, so the first niche she found in Spokane was with Fulcrum Dispute Resolution Clinic. “I was doing supervised visits and transporting foster kids,” she says. “I used to drive 700 miles a week driving foster kids to visit their parents.“


She explains that it felt good to help provide safe, supervised visits for kids who couldn’t live with their parents ― something she never had when she was younger. “When I was in 7th grade my mom got arrested, and I couldn’t have unsupervised visits with her until after I was 18. There was no program around for someone to sit there and do my visits. My foster dad would take me to see her, but it wasn’t like that time I would have gotten with [official] supervised visits.“


Janet also worked with Fulcrum’s eviction resolution program, helping people who were at risk of losing their housing. After an extensive search for a better long-term fit, Janet landed her current role at Family Promise.


Now, she gets to use her experience to help families navigate challenges her own family faced; connecting them with vital resources, motivation, and a good amount of empathy. “I think I understand where people are coming from, but I also know how to empower them,” she says.


Sometimes, Janet says, it’s as simple as encouraging people to communicate with their landlords when they are struggling to pay rent. She’s found that most landlords are willing to work out solutions with their tenants, and long as they communicate honestly.


Janet says she often wonders how things might have been different when she first became homeless with her dad, if they’d had the resources that exist today. “Even if those resources are there, knowing how to access and use them effectively is a barrier,” she adds.


Housing prices and mental health are among the biggest challenges for families struggling to stay housed, according to Janet. She knows all too well how much a parent’s mental health can suffer in poverty, and the toll it takes on their children. “Think about the kids in shelters,” Janet says, “their lives are in upheaval and they’re expected to go to school and learn. How can they learn when they don’t know what’s going to happen the next day? I didn’t do as well in school as I probably could have, because I was always concerned about everything else.”


“All the mental health counselors are so overbooked that you can’t get in. So there’s a crisis with mental health,” she says. “I’ve only done counseling once, but I know that it wasn’t enough. For a year I went once a week, sometimes twice a week, but then I couldn’t afford it anymore.”


“Having a support system is crucial,” Janet says. “It doesn’t have to be family, you just need that support. If I can help someone, then they can help someone. And then that person helps someone.”


It’s clear that Janet is the kind of person who feels compelled to help those who need her ― even when it’s difficult. Outside of her work, she’s very involved with her grandkids, and her house is still where her kids go when times are tough. She’s also recently had to become her biological mother’s power of attorney. Understandably, Janet says she feels conflicted about carrying that weight for the mother who walked out on her all those years ago. “Life takes a lot of different turns,” she says.

Some of life’s turns, however, have finally brought Janet to a more peaceful place. Not only is she no longer living in survival mode, but she’s found another unexpected source of joy. “I’ve been dating this guy for five years now,” she says. “His name is Alan, and he absolutely adores the grandchildren. We’re really good friends and we communicate.”


“I’ve learned that I don’t have to settle,” Janet says with a bright smile. “He makes me feel safe, and that’s something I didn’t think was possible. He’s working really hard to help me through that.” Janet says that she finally knows what it’s like for her feelings to be validated. She no longer sees them as right or wrong, but something to experience and process. “Every day is a new day,” she says.


(Pictured: Janet and Alan)



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