Among the easels, brushes, and tubes of paint in Michelle Flickinger’s Solid Ground apartment, a new mixed-media project is just starting to take shape. For now, it’s a heart-shaped canvas with a phrase painted in blue and gray: “I have the will. I know the way.”
“In homelessness, people treat you like you’re nothing, and you start to believe it,” Michelle says. “For me, this is about reminding myself that I’m worth it and I’m capable and I can do this. Convincing myself that it’s true has been one of the hardest parts of the healing process for me, so I felt like I just need a physical, visual reminder that this is the right path for us.”
For most of her life, Michelle says she was a “Type A perfectionist” and “overachiever to the max” who cried the one time she got less than an A on her report cards in high school. That drive carried through into her work in salons, where she was so popular among her clients that she eventually opened a spa of her own.
But everything changed in 2015 when Michelle was sidelined by two serious back injuries and what she would later learn was a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
All of a sudden, Michelle became a different person. Always someone who had to be five minutes early for everything, she now found it impossible to keep her appointments at all. She couldn’t make herself clean her salon, pay her bills, or follow through with plans.
“I just watched my life unravel before me and I had no idea why it was happening,” Michelle says. “Everybody else had their own narrative, everybody else thought they knew why.”
“In homelessness, people treat you like you’re nothing, and you start to believe it. For me, this is about reminding myself that I’m worth it and I’m capable and I can do this.” ~Michelle Flickinger, artist, mom, & Solid Ground resident
Michelle lost her business, then her apartment, and eventually moved into a tent encampment, where she was robbed, sexually assaulted, and lost nearly all of her belongings in a fire and a police sweep. A deeply dehumanizing experience with a police officer during the sweep left Michelle so traumatized that she turned to heroin to numb the pain of existence.
But the thing that truly sustained her through the trauma of homelessness was her newfound love of making art, even when it was just spray paint on a scrap of cardboard or a concrete wall. Michelle had never been an artist before, but now making art became an essential part of who she was.
“That was the only time I ever felt like I was me, where there wasn’t all this other chaos and white noise happening,” she says. “It felt like the only time when what I was really trying to say came out.”
‘My gratitude runs deep’
Michelle’s life changed dramatically again – this time for the better – when she became pregnant with her son, Kaylan. She was terrified that her baby would be taken away because of her addiction and determined to get out of an abusive and chaotic relationship with Kaylan’s father, but she didn’t know where to start.
“That’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, trying to leave a man who would kill me if I did,” she says.
That’s when she learned there was a space for her at Solid Ground’s Broadview Shelter and Transitional Housing, a safe haven and place of healing for parents and children who’ve experienced the dual traumas of homelessness and domestic violence. The staff helped Michelle develop a safety plan to protect herself and her son, made sure she had basic things like food and diapers, and created new opportunities for joy and celebration as she built a new life.
“They had more compassion and kindness for my really tough days than anyone ever has,” Michelle says. “My gratitude runs deep. When I’m there, they’re not going to get away without a hug and a thank you. I’ll be chasing after them.”
Broadview staff were also there for Michelle when she was getting ready to move out but couldn’t find a place she could afford. After a long search, a staff member asked Michelle what she’d think about moving into Solid Ground’s permanent supportive housing.
‘I can see the happiness for us’
Now safely housed, Michelle has the stability to pursue her dreams and a better life for herself and Kaylan. While she was still at Broadview, a friend suggested she consider teaching art, and Broadview staff nurtured the idea. Michelle says that two staff members in particular, Children’s Program Supervisor Amy H. and Case Manager Grace D., “reminded me every day that they could see this path in the arts ignite my soul.”
She adds, “To grow from this and put it all towards something bigger than us, to have it spread love and light through the darkness, is all I could hope for.”
So this spring, Michelle enrolled in a program to earn an associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education with a Certificate of Fine Arts – and to teach her son Kaylan not to let anything stop him from chasing his dreams. In her first quarter, she earned a 4.0 even though every homework assignment requires hours and hours of extra time because of the way the TBI rewired her brain.
After overcoming so much, Michelle can now envision the way forward for herself and her son.
“I can see it, I can see the happiness for us,” she says. “I’m hanging on to it, because I can feel it every day again, that light, that gratitude, that perseverance in my bones. I can feel it with certainty again; nothing can take that away now.”
Michelle also wants to thank the Seattle house music community, which she says “helped me find that bigger purpose again. They are my rock.” She’s also grateful to her mother “for putting so much love and support into understanding what I’m navigating. Thank the Lord for giving me the mother I have.”