Tiffany Brownlee laughs easily as she grills a small mountain of vegetables and chicken for her children in their Lynnwood apartment. Life these days is good, she says.
But seven years ago, she was frightened, angry, and alone as she stood on a downtown Seattle street corner with her four children. It had been a sleepless three-day train ride from Illinois, with each stop along the way reigniting fears that her violent and controlling ex could be waiting for them.
It wasn’t until they were shown to their new apartment at Solid Ground’s Broadview shelter several days later that Tiffany began to feel safe enough to close her eyes at night. “I’d been woke for days,” Tiffany says. “When you’re traveling with kids and strangers, you can’t sleep, because you’re running. Every time the train pulls into a new place, you feel that anxiety.”
Reimagining life after domestic violence
It would still be years before Tiffany stopped looking for her abuser’s face in crowds or sleeping with a pair of butcher knives by her bed. But at Broadview, she began to feel safe enough to work to rebuild her frayed relationships with her children and to understand the anger that raged inside her.
She also learned how to navigate a fractured social safety net and break down bureaucratic barriers to get the support she needed for her family, developing skills along the way that would eventually lead her family to stability and self-sufficiency. And she built relationships with Broadview case managers who stayed by her side long after Tiffany and her family moved out.
“All the staff at Broadview are amazing,” she says. “They’d call me, they’d text me if I needed to be texted, to be like, ‘How are you?’ and ‘Why are you doing that?’ And lots of times, I needed that.”
Tiffany’s family is among the more than 300 parents and children every year who find security, safety, and a chance to heal at Broadview, which is the only shelter in Seattle that provides emergency and transitional housing exclusively for people escaping the dual traumas of domestic violence and homelessness.
That’s despite the facts that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among children and women – and that one in four women in the U.S. report experiencing domestic violence at least once in their life. Domestic violence has been on the rise since the pandemic struck in 2020¹, and there are simply not enough shelter beds to meet the demand.
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Building skillsets for stability
Women who escape violent relationships often do so with little or no money, especially if their abuser uses access to money as a way to exert control. That was the case for Tiffany, who had worked full time as a home health aide in Illinois but had to turn over all her earnings to her ex, who also tried to control where she went and who she saw.
“It empowered me to help myself and helped me get my independence back, because I had been in a situation where he had so much control.” ~Tiffany Brownlee, former Broadview mom
As a result, she arrived in Seattle in 2015 with little money and even less experience managing her finances. At Broadview, she began taking financial education classes with her case manager Joyce Y., and Tiffany soon discovered she had a knack for saving money. By the time she and her kids left Broadview, she’d built up impressive savings.
“She was my best student,” says Joyce. “She encouraged other residents to save money and increase their credit score.”
Financial education classes are just one of the support services Broadview provides residents as part of a comprehensive strategy to help survivors heal and build skillsets for stability as they reimagine their lives. Broadview provides trauma-informed, survivor-centered services – driven by residents’ own goals – and designed to remove barriers to reaching them.
Depending on each resident’s needs and goals – whether housing, education, or employment related – services might include legal advocacy and support to obtain protection orders and establish parenting plans, support groups for both kids and adults, parenting classes, and one-on-one case management. (Read more about parent coaching services offered at Broadview in our blog post, Understanding stress can heal relationships between parent and child.)
Supporting self-determination toward success
“Our residents have incredible stories. Many have experienced horrific levels of abuse and have a tremendous level of resilience and strength – and it’s great to see Broadview as a launching pad for their success,” says Charlisse H., Broadview Shelter and Transitional Housing Director. “This program offers an opportunity for safe, temporary housing with access to services, so clients can create their own success story.”
To help Tiffany achieve her goals, Broadview staff members worked directly with her children and their teachers to address their trauma – and the behavior that it fueled – while helping set them up to succeed in school.
They helped Tiffany get a domestic violence scholarship so she could go to school herself to get licensed to work as a home health aide in Washington state. And they showed her how to navigate Seattle’s social safety net to find sources for help with food, clothes, childcare, and transportation.
“It empowered me to help myself and helped me get my independence back, because I had been in a situation where he had so much control,” Tiffany says.
Healing in community
Tiffany says much of the healing and growth she found at Broadview came from talking with other women when they gathered for community meals, in a deliberately judgment-free space. It was there, she says, that she began to feel she could allow herself to be vulnerable.
“It was like I was on my little island by myself – and her giving me a path, by writing that letter and burning it, it helped me release that pressure.” ~Tiffany Brownlee
“That was a pivotal moment for me, because … on a certain level, I thought I wasn’t like other women. And when I heard the other women’s stories, I saw myself in them,” she says. “Mothers don’t get to fix themselves. We have to focus on so much else. I didn’t have time to cry, so you just kinda have to put it away. I was just angry.”
Tiffany says that anger – at her ex for his abuse, at her family for not believing her, and at the world in general – kept her from connecting with one of her sons, who was himself angry at having been taken away from his father. But it didn’t faze Broadview staff members like Joyce.
“She didn’t care about me being angry,” Tiffany says with a laugh. “She’d knock on my door and harass me – in a good way.”
Tiffany had many conversations about her anger with Broadview staff, including one caseworker who told her she risked passing it on to her children if she didn’t accept and address it. Finally, she suggested that Tiffany write a letter to all the people who had hurt her in her life, and together they set it on fire and watched it burn.
“It was like I was on my little island by myself – and her giving me a path, by writing that letter and burning it, it helped me release that pressure,” she says.
Help beyond housing
Broadview wasn’t Tiffany’s only stop along her journey out of homelessness and into stability, but she says it was a crucial one. By the time she and her children were getting ready to leave, she’d saved up some money and got a voucher for an apartment.
But then she decided to go back to Illinois for a two-week visit so her son could see his father. Her ex used the opportunity to trap her and the children there under a court order. Three months later, he attacked her again – so once again, she found herself on another harrowing train ride to Seattle with her kids.
“Solid Ground taught me to advocate for myself – to be my own best advocate.” ~Tiffany Brownlee
This time, though, she was pregnant and didn’t know what to do – so she reached back out to Broadview staff. “Instead of judging me and saying, ‘Why’d you do A, B, or C?,’” Tiffany says Broadview responded with, “‘OK, what can we do now?’”
Through another agency, the family first got set up at a motel. Then with Broadview’s help, they moved into a new shelter. But unlike at Broadview – where they had their own apartment with a lock on the door – they were now sleeping on cots that had to be packed up and put away by 8am. Broadview also helped Tiffany apply for housing assistance through the Coordinated Entry for All system, but she was told her case wasn’t a high enough priority.
Determined to not give birth at the shelter, she worked a minimum wage job as a courier while her kids were at school or bided their time at the public library, hoping she’d be able to save enough so to move into an apartment.
As her due date drew ever closer, Tiffany used her connections to find an income-restricted apartment large enough for her family, but she still didn’t have enough saved up to afford it. So with the support of Broadview staff, she began pleading her case with various Seattle agencies until she’d collected enough to cover move-in costs and a few month’s rent.
Finally, Tiffany and her kids moved out of the shelter and into their new apartment. Five days later, she gave birth to her youngest daughter.
A chance to dream
Tiffany now uses her own personal experience and knowledge of the social safety net to support people who find themselves homeless amid a regional and national housing crisis. She leads the night shift at a homeless shelter to pay her rent and keep her kids fed, and even has dreams of starting her own shelter some day.
It continues to be hard work, but she’s proud to be building a safe, stable future for her family – an unimaginable dream that first day in Seattle. Starting with almost nothing, she’s created a new life and lasting stability for herself and her children – while helping others get a start on the same.
“Solid Ground taught me to advocate for myself – to be my own best advocate. They fixed me,” she says, but then corrects herself: “They gave me the blueprint to fix myself.”