When dreams evaporate

The morning sun filters through the windows of a Seattle Starbucks. People in business-casual dress are placing orders for skinny lattes and double americanos. Billie gets her usual drip with milk and sugar and sits down at a large table where she left her overstuffed bags and personal belongings unattended.

Billie is 53, a stout woman with long salt-and-pepper hair. She’s a mother of two, and divorced after a violent and turbulent marriage.

She’s also homeless. She works on the streets, gets free meals from charity organizations, sleeps at homeless shelters and struggles with demons that at one point led to her being institutionalized.

While the other customers take their coffee and go, Billie sits behind, sipping her coffee. There is a quiet, warm glow in the now-empty coffeehouse. She starts watching a DVD on her laptop computer.

The laptop is her prized possession. It cost her $700, a fortune considering her income is limited to a $600 monthly Social Security check and whatever she can raise working odd jobs for the Millionair Club or from selling copies of Real Change, Seattle’s newspaper for the homeless.

“I don’t pay rent, do drugs, drink alcohol. I need to spend my money on something,” Billie said.

But because she bought it used, Billie’s laptop didn’t come with an instruction manual and she is still mystified by it. She can’t surf the Internet or send e-mail, but she has figured out how to use it to watch movies, which she loves. Her DVD collection consists of B movies from the 1980’s and ‘90’s, the kind you’d find in the clearance sections of movie stores.

Billie (The Mirror isn’t using her last name) is an early riser. Her typical day at a local homeless shelter starts early. By 5:45 a.m., she is up and ready to go. She never misses a shower. Her hair is always put up in a neat bun, her nails are long and manicured, her clothes washed.

Most mornings, she heads straight to the nearest Starbucks or Ralph’s grocery, for coffee and breakfast. Ralph’s, she says, lets diners linger. She often watches DVDs there.But this day, after breakfast, she picks up a stack of copies of Real Change at the paper’s office in Belltown, then walks down to her usual selling spot on the corner of Pine Street and Fifth Avenue. Toward lunchtime, the spot gets flooded with tourists, shoppers and flash by, honking at careless pedestrians. People scurry past.

Under a blue sky, Billie stands on the corner with the newspapers, smiling, waving and greeting passersby with “Have a good day” and “Have a nice day!” Some smile back or nod; others look away or ignore her. Occasionally, someone stops and gives her change or a dollar bill in exchange for a copy of the paper. Billie said a man recently gave her a $100 tip, “but that doesn’t happen very often.”

At lunchtime, Billie walks to a nearby McDonald’s. This day, she orders a Big ‘n’ Tasty, small fries, fruit salad and two cops of water. The sign on the wall states that there is a 30-minute limit for eating (“I always push it,” she said), and patrons must show a receipt before they can use a bathroom.

Billie doesn’t have any friends. The women at the shelter are her “acquaintances,” she said.

“They all have a monkey on their back, you know?” she said. “It’s better to be alone.”

Billie has family. She’s the oldest of eight siblings, born in Twin Falls, Idaho, to a drug addict mother and an alcoholic father. And like her parents, Billie has struggled to keep her life together.

She says her husband was abusive. While serving eight months in prison for writing bad checks, her son was taken away to foster care and then she was institutionalized and things went downhill after that. She’s bounced around a half-dozen states in the past decade and ended up in Seattle five years ago with hope of finding a job as a cook on a fishing boat. That didn’t pan out. She has since done work for the Millionair Club –– labor, office work and other temporary jobs.

Billie said her son is an engineer in South Africa. She has a daughter who is a kindergarten teacher living in California with a husband and four children. She keeps in touch by telephone, but so far has rebuffed their attempts to help get her off the street.

Her main source for food and shelter is Women’s Referral Center at the YWCA. The center provides nightly dinners and finds homeless women places to sleep.

Billie wants better things. Recently, she found a classified ad about a business opportunity, stuffing envelopes for some company. She eagerly sent $40 for more information, dreaming of making enough money to lease an apartment and office space.

She said she’d hire homeless people. “I will supply lunch for the workers for the first couple of times from KFC or something,” she said. “I make money, why not share it? I want to work with the homeless to help them make money.”

But the ad was bogus, and Billie’s dreams evaporated.

Her laptop, also, disappeared. One Sunday evening, while watching a movie with some other women at a homeless shelter in Belltown, someone stole it along with her identification and Social Security card.

The shelter’s staff tried to console her, but Billie was devastated. She gathered up her belongings and left the shelter, slowly climbing up the dark narrow stairs into an empty alley, in search of another place to sleep.

Staff photographer Fumiko Yarita: 925-5565,

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