By Keri DeTore
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
The journey into homelessness is one that most of us can’t imagine taking. Insecurity, no basic services, no resources, no food, no promises — homelessness is comprised of a laundry list of what there isn’t enough of.
West Seattleites have become even more acutely aware of this since the homeless encampment that calls itself Nickelsville moved back to this area. Through West Seattleites working with Nickelsville – including many volunteers who know each other through the WSB Forums – this group of homeless individuals now has faces and names; they are our neighbors.
One person who has been living at Nickelsville has been our neighbor for years, even before he moved into the encampment. Mike Stahl has been a West Seattle resident his entire life: many locals know him from his work as a cashier at McLendon Hardware and from his WSB comments and Forum posts using the screen name “miws.”
Mike was a Morgan Junction resident until May of 2011, when he became a Nickelsville resident. WSB readers have been following Mike’s journey into homelessness beginning with Mike’s move into Nickelsville, chronicled in a story here last May.
Now, we’re re-visiting Mike to get more of his story, and to share his progress through this phase of his life – with help from friends, and more on the way.
It began with a routine test
In July of 2008, Mike caught pneumonia and was in the hospital for a week. During routine tests, it was discovered he also had the rare-but-treatable disease Hairy Cell Leukemia. He was immediately placed on an aggressive schedule of chemotherapy treatment, and stayed in the hospital for six more weeks. While the treatment cured him, it left him so physically depleted that he required three months of recovery. During this time, his health insurance and Family and Medical Leave Act funding ran out, and McLendon could no longer hold his job open for him. (Mike points out that McLendon did everything they could to help him throughout this time.)
During this recovery period, he “lived on the kindness of friends,” including an anonymous Samaritan who paid his rent. After his recovery, he received unemployment and looked for work, even garnering leads through WSB. However, he wasn’t able to find work before the unemployment ran out, and then his anonymous Samaritan was no longer able to pay his rent.
Six days before Mike was to be evicted, his power was shut off. Three days before eviction, he was trying to find people to store his belongings, trying to figure out which park to sleep in, and struggling with stress and depression. Fortunately, a friend just happened to stop by, and saw the dire situation Mike was in.
“If (my friend) hadn’t come by, I wouldn’t have gotten up. No one knew how desperate my situation was.” It was this friend that suggested Nickelsville, which had returned to West Seattle just three days earlier. Mike says, “A huge weight lifted off my shoulders. There was structure, rules, it was safe. I was wondering if I’d have to go live in The Jungle.” (The Jungle is an area under the freeway where many homeless people camp.)
When Mike moved into Nickelsville, he became something of a community liaison between West Seattle and the camp, writing WSB Forum posts about his situation and the needs of the residents. He says, “I’m proud to be a connection between Nickelsville and the Blog community, but I can’t take credit for the generosity of the West Seattle community — they did that on their own.”
Unfortunately, Mike’s journey was about to take another turn. Health problems are what led to Mike’s move into Nickelsville, and health problems are the reason he needed to leave the camp, and move into housing.
The struggle toward health
It’s one thing to camp outside for a week, it’s altogether something else to camp outside for months on end. The weather gets cold and damp, the campfire is smoky and ash-spewing, and even regular meals may not be as nutritious as you need. This can be hard on a body, especially one that’s already compromised because of an inability to acquire necessary expensive medications.
“I hadn’t been taking my asthma and heart medications because I had no money,” Mike explains, “then I got sick around Thanksgiving (of 2011.)” For the next two months, Mike struggled with pneumonia relapses and heart arrhythmias. Finally, his doctor recommended he not return to Nickelsville. Mike’s only option at that point was to stay at a shelter run by DESC (Downtown Emergency Service Center), where conditions also weren’t ideal for Mike’s health.
That was when an emergency meeting of sorts was called: A group of Mike’s friends, all of whom met Mike through the Blog or through Nickelsville, came together to form “Team Mike,” a group of people willing to donate time and resources to get Mike onto a solid path to housing and self-sufficiency. (Full disclosure: This author is a member of “Team Mike.”)
The first priority was to get Mike into short-term housing, and he’s currently renting a room in a local home. However, due to the unsustainably high cost of this option, he’s been visiting and calling transitional housing centers around Seattle such as Aloha Inn and the Compass Center.
The quest to find transitional housing takes effort, energy and resources—things many homeless people don’t have. Mike has had to visit the various housing options in person, fill out paperwork to get onto waiting lists and he has to call once or twice a week to maintain his position on the lists. Without outside help, Mike wouldn’t be able to mount this type of effort, and according to Mike, “so many people get overwhelmed by the paperwork or the beauracracy. Or people are in the system, but they’ve hit so many obstacles that they’ve given up.”
No one knows how long it will take for a housing spot to open up for Mike. Daniel Malone, DESC’s Director of Housing Programs, says they’re “oversubscribed.” Meaning: “There are not enough resources for everyone who needs it.” This isn’t news to anyone even vaguely aware of the City’s efforts to house the homeless population. Some resources are available but, Malone adds, “the number of units affordable to low-income people pale compared to the numbers (of people in need).”
So Mike continues to make his calls and stay on waiting lists. In the meantime, he’s also applying for long-term subsidized housing through Seattle and King County’s Housing Authorities. How long is their waiting list? “3-5 years,” answers Mike. How long can you stay in transitional housing? “About one year.” Do the math.
Making the transition
Transitional housing, though inexpensive, still requires residents to have some form of income or insurance. Mike, again with a little help from his friends, is making strides toward this as well. He’s applied for and gotten Medicaid; he’s applying for disability and is looking into vocational retraining. He’s looking for a way to get new glasses and dental work, and his self-confidence is being helped by requests from folks asking him to speak to homelessness issues, which he did while at Nickelsville, appearing, for example, before the Highland Park Action Committee, and, while at Nickelsville, talking to visiting City Councilmembers about responsibilities he had at the camp.
In April, he will be speaking to a panel of UW Medical students about trying to get health care without insurance. Asked about the message he wants to share with the students, Mike answers, “A homeless person can be your neighbor, someone you pass by every day. They’re not necessarily holding signs or disheveled, and they’re not all addicts. They come from every background and all levels of intelligence, success and income. Many are veterans who aren’t getting the support they deserve.”
Asked to reflect on these past couple of years, and what he thinks about the impacts on his life, Mike struggles to put thoughts to words. And who wouldn’t? He has traveled the unthinkable journey, from secure job and home to struggle and uncertainty and living in a tent. He insists on looking on the bright side (“I believe everything happens for a reason”), he’s made new friends, he’s gained “street smarts” and self-confidence, he’s brought positive attention to Nickelsville and has become a speaker and an advocate for the homeless.
But there is still lingering concern and worry: How long before he gets into transitional housing? What if his transitional housing stint is up before long-term housing is available? What if his disability application is rejected?
Despite his personal concerns, Mike switches back to advocate mode with a message for all of us: “As generous as the West Seattle community is, I’d like to see even MORE people get involved! Don’t be scared to donate or mentor people (for example—helping with paperwork.) Also, more citizens need to pressure the City to recognize Nickelsville (legally) to provide basic services and to increase services to the homeless in general and listen to them to find out what they REALLY need.”
Right now, what Mike really needs is his community to rally around and support him. A fundraiser is being held at Feedback Lounge on Sunday, March 25, from 1-4 pm, to help raise money for Mike to continue on the path to stability that he’s currently on. The event will feature a silent auction, a dessert auction, the “Mike Stahl Trivia Challenge,” and it will be emceed by Teri Ensley of Furry Faces Foundation. Information can be found on the “Friends of Mike” Facebook page.
Take this opportunity to meet our neighbor Mike, and wish him well on his journey. (If you can’t, but are interested in helping, friends have set up an online donation page: Find it here.)
(Photo credits: David Preston, Keri DeTore)