Eyasu Tefera is a survivor. As a teenager in Eritrea, when his choices were military service (going to war during a time of conflict) or prison, he escaped to Sudan. He endured a treacherous journey across the Libyan desert to start a new life in France, only to encounter inhumane work practices that damaged his body and religious discrimination that bruised his soul.
So when he and his wife Bilen brought their baby daughter to Everett, WA to stay with Bilen’s sister’s family, they were ready to live on their own terms. Unfortunately, more hard times were still to come. After six months in the US, Bilen became pregnant again and was very ill. They couldn’t afford a doctor, and she ended up in the emergency room at Harborview Hospital where Eyasu says, “A social worker came and asked about our living situation. They contacted the shelter and made space for us.”
‘The shelter life’
Once in shelter, they immediately got health insurance for the whole family, including their 11-month-old daughter, and Eyasu says, “We start to live the shelter life.” While they were grateful for a roof over their heads, he says, “Staying in shelter is really hard.”
Every morning, “You have to get out from the shelter, and you have to come [back] by nighttime. Especially in Seattle, the weather – it was rainy and cold – and staying on the street [during the day] was really hard.”
“When you’re walking, pushing kids with stroller, busing, and there’s a lot of people using the bus – not good! But at that time, we don’t have choice. You accept it, but it’s hard.”
They ended up living in shelter for six months, because they lost two housing opportunities while caught in an immigration waiting period for Social Security ID. Then finally in mid-September 2015, through King County’s Coordinated Entry for All system, they connected with Solid Ground’s JourneyHome/Rapid Rehousing (JHRRH) program: “They told us there is one organization whose name is Solid Ground. ‘They want to [help] pay your rent for you guys. Even if you don’t have Social Security number!’”
JHRRH exists to move families as quickly as possible from homelessness to permanent housing. With the support of a Case Manager/Housing Advocate team and flexible short-term rent subsidies, families develop goal plans to help address barriers to staying housed.
So after just a few short months working with Case Manager Sungea (Sunny) Dawson, a condo unit in Tukwila became available. All seemed on track until the quoted rent was raised significantly. Eyasu says, “I need the house, but I can’t do that.” This is where Housing Advocate Theresa Curry Almuti stepped in to negotiate, telling Eyasu, “If you like it, we can pay.” So with Solid Ground’s support, Eyasu, pregnant Bilen and their toddler moved into their first home.
‘She showed me a lot of things’
Eyasu met with Sunny twice a month until housed, then once a month. In the JHRRH model, families contribute a portion of their income toward rent and work their way up to market-rate. “Sunny and her office, Theresa, for me, [are] really great,” he says. They connected him with vital resources that helped cut costs, like utility bill discounts. “She showed me a lot of things – saving money, making a budget every month, and reducing.” Sunny says, “And he did excellent! I remember the first six months living in the condo, you saved up enough to pay in advance on your car insurance. I thought that was very responsible.”
He also took Solid Ground’s Soft Skills employment workshops, where he says, “I got a lot of information: How you get work, how you apply, and they [mock] interview me. That’s good really, it helps. It gives encouragement.” Sunny was impressed with how hard he worked to improve his English, and how much progress he made in a short period of time. He constantly worked to learn new skills to help his employment prospects.
For example, until he got his work VISA, he also took classes in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) at Renton Technical College, and enjoyed learning a new field. But as soon as he got his work VISA, he started a series of different part-time jobs, enabling him to contribute more and more to his rent. However, the pay and hours were bad. So then he interviewed to be a full-time Solid Ground Transportation (SGT) Driver, and the Soft Skills coaching helped: He got the job!
He says that SGT staff are “like family; they are so nice. They accepted me just for me, giving [me] a chance. It was good.” Having volunteered for the Red Cross in France and being committed to service, driving for SGT is meaningful for him. “When I got this job, I was happy because that’s part of my job – especially when you drive the Access bus – giving service for disabled people. I like it.” He describes some of the challenges of the job. It takes patience, for example, when a passenger wants to be dropped off out of order, insisting “Please drop me first!” But he says, “I accept that, because we are doing service. It’s satisfying.”
‘New house, new life’
Since his second daughter was born, he cut back to part-time at SGT and drives deliveries for Amazon, allowing him the flexibility to spend more time with his family. But through both jobs, he has a driver’s seat view of the impact of lack of affordable housing in our city. “There’s too much homelessness. Wherever you go, there are people on the street – especially the young.” He feels Solid Ground’s housing work is vitally important.
He describes how it felt to finally move into their own place after shelter. “Great! House is very important thing for human being! If you don’t have house, everything is hard. When we get key, we was so glad!” Today, the family lives in a spacious two-bedroom that they found and pay for completely on their own. “New house, new life,” he says. And his next goal? Save to buy their own house, which Sunny agrees will happen: “Oh yeah, I’ve had faith in him from Day 1.”