From pain to purpose: Katie’s story

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?”