Desperation and Heartbreak: The Struggle to Get Off the Streets and Into Affordable Housing

Seattle's rapid rehousing program didn't work for Lisa Sawyer.
| Updated: November 27, 2018
 
 
Lisa Sawyer says she's often forced to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person. 

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5 p.m.—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn't worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford. But they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before. They signed the lease. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending up back on the street, this time with an eviction potentially on her record—a black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction.

A few days later, the group Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next. Sawyer's path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle's system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail. It’s also a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks. 

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle for her whole life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. "I thought that was the worst day of my life," she says. "I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside."

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a "rapid rehousing" voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle's Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, however, because she couldn't find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from the Downtown Emergency Service Center, until this year when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that."

When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren't willing to give her a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood, but she would have to sign a 10-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. "We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied," she says. "If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we'll say yes. It's heartbreaking. We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long."

Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food. When she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends $30 to $40 at the nearby Safeway. But that food only lasts “a couple of days,” especially when she hasn’t eaten in a while.

"I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over," Sawyer says. "Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford."

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she and her boyfriend will move out and try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. "I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking," she says. "We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. ... I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: 'Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?'"

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer's aren't, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County's homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay.

Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income. However, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

"Clearly, the system didn't work for her," Putnam says, "so the question is what can we learn from it?"

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