The material below was sent to me by a West Seattle resident who is a regular reader of, and contributor to, the Blog. It's interesting enough as a stand-alone memoir, but it seems even more topical now, since it touches on the question of whether government programs to prevent homelessness actually work.
Although the author is staying anonymous, she is still taking a considerable risk by sharing this with you, so please be respectful of that in your comments. If the discussion veers too far off the mark, the whole thing will get pulled. Thanks.
I will not be checking in on this thread or making any comments of my own. However, the author may be checking in, and she may choose to respond to some of your comments/questions. If she wants to respond, she will send me that to me, and I will post it for her.
Growing up and getting out
I grew up in a small Midwestern town. Population: 206. We always had a roof over our heads and food to eat, but I now realize how hard both of my parents had to work to provide for us.
I graduated from college with a major in English and a minor in sociology. My job prospects were limited. I applied for a number of different jobs and worked in civil service briefly. The building I worked in covered a city block and was several stories high. My workplace was one floor of the building, which was divided into scores of cubicles by head-high moveable partitions. Each cubicle contained twelve desks, with desks facing each other in two rows of six. The aisle between the rows was just wide enough for two people to pass, if the people themselves weren’t too wide. The only lighting was rows of fluorescent tubes in the ceiling.
While I was there, word came through that my application to the Air Force had been accepted. The recruiter convinced me that the Air Force would be more interesting than what I was currently doing. That was an easy sell.
After training, I was sent to McChord AFB, arriving shortly after the 1967 earthquake. (I was sorry to miss it.) While at McChord I got pregnant, and when the CO found out, I was automatically discharged. This was standard Air Force policy at the time. They stopped this practice shortly afterwards.
My discharge came through shortly after John and I married. We moved to Seattle where he had gotten a job. He was a bright man who could learn quickly, but he was impatient and got bored easily. He had a habit of telling the boss the way things ought to be run. As you can imagine, he didn’t keep jobs for long.
We survived between jobs on the separation payment I received from the Air Force. That eventually ran out, though, and my husband was working on steadily decreasing commission rates. Meanwhile, it was getting harder and harder to pay the rent. I started to get scared about not being able to feed my daughter. Every time I went grocery shopping, I’d wonder if there’d be money for next time.
One day John came home and told me about public housing, which he’d heard about somewhere, probably at work. We filled out the paperwork, sent it in and were accepted at Holly Park. They assigned us a two-bedroom duplex unit just off Holly Park Dr and Othello. This was to be home to my daughter and me for the next eleven years.
Before moving to Holly Park, we’d been living in a furnished house. We didn’t have enough furniture to set up housekeeping in an unfurnished apartment. We got some discards from friends. We had to buy a couple of things from Goodwill and pay some rent and deposit money up front. After that we had ten dollars in the checking account.
The day after we moved in, John lost his job again.
We were in one of the quieter sections of Holly Park. Our neighbors drank too much, but they weren’t violent or aggressive. A greenbelt ran behind and down beside our unit. I missed the countryside from my childhood, and that greenbelt, along with the big chestnut tree in the front yard, comforted me. I was grateful for the low rent, too. There was a minimum rent everyone had to pay; after that it was pegged to income. Management repaired things when they broke. It was a good place to live.
When my daughter entered kindergarten, I took a job with the city, the first job I was offered. The pay was low, but it provided medical and dental coverage, a necessity. When my daughter was six, John and I separated and later divorced. From then on, I was a single working parent.
Getting out again
When I was growing up, my parents set up bank accounts for my brother and me. They taught us to always put something aside for savings, starting with our first dime-a-week allowance. I never lost that habit, and once I had a regular salary, I started saving. I wanted a home of my own. A yard. Someplace where I could plant anything I wanted.
After I got some money in the savings account, I started looking at prices, but it seemed like there was nothing I could afford. I noticed that housing prices were cheaper in West Seattle. This was during the time when new high bridge was under construction. Until the bridge was finished, people thought of West Seattle as being a long way away from the city and hard to get to. We finally found a small but affordable rental house on Pigeon Hill. My daughter was fourteen years old.
We wanted to get a house and settle down here in West Seattle, although, to tell the truth, I’d have moved anywhere in the city I could have found a house to buy. I got a real estate agent, told her what I could afford, and armed her with a list of what we wanted in a house. In walking around the area, I would sometimes see a house I liked and think, Now that’s the kind of place I’d like to live in.
Then one day, this wonderful agent took us to see a place within my grasp - and it happened to be one of those places I’d admired. I still live there today, twenty-eight years later.
How did I feel about living in public housing? I certainly wasn’t ashamed of it. I was new to Seattle at the time and didn’t even realize there was a stigma attached to it. I told my family back home about it, but they had no idea that it was anything but a cheaper place to live.
I also told people at work where I lived, but I didn’t get any discernible reaction from them. Before writing this, I asked a long-time friend of mine what she thought when I told her where I lived. She said:
It made me think. Up until then, if anyone had asked, I would have said that I didn't realize that some people who lived there also had jobs. I was very insulated where I grew up. The whole idea of people in public housing having some income source other than welfare was very enlightening to me, and as I got smarter I realized how limited I was in my thinking and the way I had been raised. I was equally enlightened when, as an adult, I realized that there was public housing in my neighborhood. I am just damned lucky I never needed to take advantage of that resource in the community.
Thinking back on that time, I can’t remember having any problems specifically related to being in public housing. Like I said, management kept the place up well. Any problems I experienced while living there were either personal or related to other factors. My husband and I had very different ideas about marriage. He was much more of an authoritarian than I was, and there was a lot of strain in the marriage before we finally parted.
I went back to work when my daughter entered kindergarten, and I took the bus to work. At that time, the buses only ran every half hour, which was inconvenient for me.
I didn’t know what to expect from living in public housing. I can’t recall anything in particular that surprised me. Maybe I was too busy with other things to notice. Life was a strain at that time, and I was busy trying to get by.
I felt guilty sometimes for staying at Holly Park while I had a job. But I would never have managed to save up for a down payment on a house otherwise. I had to retire for health reasons before I worked the full thirty years with the city. Because of that I received only a partial pension. I don’t know where I’d have ended up if I was still paying rent or a mortgage at that point.
I’m still grateful for being able to live in public housing, and I’m not ashamed. Being poor isn’t something to be ashamed of. It makes me angry that the city is tearing down low-income housing and putting up something else instead.