Editor’s note: We are honored to present Lisa Pierce’s account of her journey through homelessness, especially the moving story of her time spent living at a roadside rest area.)
In December, 2007, my son Brycen and I moved into a beautiful 4-bedroom home with a fenced yard in the Renton Highlands. We lived in a quiet neighborhood next door to our church. We had two roommates to offset the rent and utilities.
I was working and going about my life, just maintaining. Then, in 2009, I lost my job as a manager due to my Multiple Sclerosis.
To this day, I still don’t know how I was blessed to be introduced to Solid Ground. The first person I encountered was Tunde Akunyun. (Tunde’s work in Solid Ground’s Stable Families program focuses on helping at-risk families maintain their housing stability.)
Tunde came into my world and made a difference. She didn’t just help keep the roof over our heads and the lights on. She helped me get my social security disability benefits. She taught me how to budget my money. And when I was diagnosed with diabetes, she was responsible for me being able to give myself an insulin injection.
The biggest thing she did for me was let me know it’s okay to ask for help.
In May of last year, I lost the home. The owner passed away and it was sold out from under us. I didn’t have savings or a plan.
My son and I had packed our four Chihuahuas and what we could fit in the car and moved to a motel.
My income was $765 disability and $91 food stamps per month. So, I was able to keep us in a room for two weeks at a time. The other two were spent at the SeaTac rest area on I-5 and at a truck stop where we could pay for a shower.
Living at the rest area
When you are at the rest area, the only really good thing is that you are right there next to Enchanted Village and Wild Waves. During the summer it would make you feel like you are not out in the woods. Sometimes you could just dream about it, like, “I wish I could take Brycen over there.” It did help.
When I first came to the rest area, I really didn’t pay much attention to anybody else. I didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want people to notice me sitting in my car, making my phone calls looking for shelter and doing my paperwork. I started to be more attentive to my surroundings, and who was coming and who was going.
I noticed this man. He walked by my car continuously, all day long. So, I started to watch him. He would go to the garbage can and he would rummage through it. He would go to the ashtray where people put out their cigarettes and he would go through that.
One day, it was pouring down rain and I noticed he went into the men’s room and he got a bunch of paper towels, came out and sopped up all the water out of the cigarette thing. He was hoping he could get a cigarette butt out of there that wasn’t sopping wet. And that is when I really started paying attention, like “Wow, he is really staying here.” Someone that is just passing through is not going to take the time to do that, you know.
As the days went by, I kept noticing the same vehicles there. Then, when I would go into the restroom, I would see everybody that would go in there – I would see their clothes – basically like a dressing room.
One day, I counted and I noticed there were about 12 vehicles with people that were living there. You’ll see them, just to kill time, take things out of their vehicles, put it back in. Like you would do in housework, doing housework in your car. Just something to do.
Well this man, one day I watched him and he went up to a gentleman who had a really nice car, and dressed really nice. You really can’t judge a book by its cover, but you had to assume that he probably had money. The guy was smoking right next to his car.
I had my window down just a little bit and I heard him say, “Do you have a cigarette?” And this man talked to him like he was just the lowest piece of garbage. You know: “Get away from me old man, I don’t know who you” – just awful words I can’t even say. So that just hurt me and I started to cry.
So, I went up to him after that gentleman left and I gave him a bunch of cigarettes. I asked him if he was hungry and he said he was. I had a few dollars in my pocket, so I drove to McDonald’s and got him some food and brought it back to him. He was just so shocked, I don’t think anyone had ever done that for him before.
When I could, I always made it a point to help him. When I got my apartment here, I’ve never forgotten him. I can’t forget him.
‘Lisa, you need to say something’
When we were homeless, I felt embarrassed, ashamed, worthless. You name it, I felt it. I tried to make things as normal as I could for my son. All his friends were in Renton, so I would take him to the recreational building so he could hang out and I would walk the dogs. We would stay there ‘til it closed and then go back to the rest area to sleep.
I didn’t tell anyone anything. I spent the bulk of my time calling 2-1-1 and trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the nightmare I was living. I couldn’t find a shelter to take us both, and no one had any funding to help us with a motel voucher. [Editor’s note: Very few shelter programs that serve women accept teenage boys as well.]
I was sitting at the picnic table at the rest area, honest to God, and felt so sick. I thought it was because of my diabetes; my insulin hadn’t been refrigerated because we were in the car. Tunde popped into my head. She always said: “Lisa, you need to say something.” So, I called her.
Tunde gave me a referral to Sungea Dawson at Solid Ground’s JourneyHome, who contacted Kelle Standley at Family Shelter. Family Shelter paid for one month at a motel and Sungea became my case manager. She referred me to Stacey Marron for help finding housing.
Stacey found my apartment and called me with the information about who to contact. Before I knew it, my son and I and our four Chihuahuas had an apartment and a new start. In a nutshell, JourneyHome and these four women saved my life! Not once did I feel like a case number, I felt like they truly cared about me. My time with Sunny, Stacey and Kelle was short-lived and I hope they know how grateful and appreciative I am. Tunde was truly my angel.
Rest stop Christmas
This past Christmas Eve, I was sitting here. My son’s dad – my ex-husband – came, and he made Christmas dinner and stuff. And I made a plate for that man at the rest stop.
I was given some Christmas ornaments that were really, really nice and I took him one and some candy in a tin that someone had given me. I wanted him to know that somebody cared about him.
I went to the rest area, and I took him that stuff, and I visited with him for a few minutes.
Well last week, I went to the rest area to see how he was doing and see if he had gas in his car for heat. His truck wasn’t there. I thought, maybe he went to the store, maybe he got out of there. I went a second time and he was not there again. I hope nothing happened to him and he passed away in his truck. I just think that would be so awful.
Next week, when I get paid, I’m going to go there. I know that the woman who does groundskeeping there; I’ve watched her have coffee with the people. It’s like they have like a little morning coffee club. She knows who is living there. And if I noticed that man in the red truck, she had to have. If he is not there, I’m going to ask her if she saw him, if she knew that he left or something. I just need to know.
I want to give back
My hope for the future is that my son can get the counseling he needs to get back to the normalcy that we used to have. My hope is that he gets his diploma, he graduates from high school.
Eventually, I would like my own house. I don’t know if I am ever going to be able, but if I don’t, I don’t ever want to stop dreaming. I just want to keep going about my life, one foot in front of the other, and just still keep dreaming and get to where I want. I want a part-time job and I want to volunteer, I do. I owe so much to a lot of people and organizations and I want to give back.
I’m just like my grandmother. I’ve never been the receiver, I’ve always been the giver. I would rather see somebody else happy before myself. I don’t mind being the last in line.
My grandmother was from Centralia. She passed away in 2007. She was my life support. When I was homeless it made me think a lot about her, and I just want to continue to do what she taught me, how I was raised. Even though I was put through all this mess and madness, I just want to get back to being normal. And now that I don’t have to struggle to survive, I can struggle to live, and that is a step forward. And so, I am on the right path.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for what I went through, because I learned so much that I was so oblivious to. I had no idea that it was like this out here. And I’m glad that I saw it because now if I am ever in the position to make things better, even just starting little by taking care of little man, I know where to start.
Tunde always said, “Girl, you better ask when you need something, you better learn how to do that real quick because a closed mouth don’t get fed.” That is the truth, a closed mouth does not get fed.