Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in the Mirror’s year-long “Humanizing Homelessness” series.
Lisa Smith knows what it’s like to have nice things.
She lived in a quality house in Thurston County with a fine living room set, slept on a Tempur-Pedic mattress, watched TV on a large flat screen and had almost everything she wanted.
But a lot can change in one year.
On a recent Friday morning, Smith sits at an empty circular table, eating a toasted bagel and cream cheese in between bites of cereal at the Federal Way Day Center. Her comfortable name brand clothes — including a pair of Nike shoes, a sweatshirt, jeans and a pair of sunglasses on top of her head — are stark reminders of her life before she became homeless.
“My husband never really denied me of anything,” said Smith, whose real name was changed to protect her identity per her request. “I always had everything I needed or wanted. Granted, we fought a lot at times.”
When her husband’s verbal and physical abuse escalated a year ago, he was arrested and booked into jail following a domestic violence incident. But instead of getting the protection she needed from the system, the police ordered her to leave her home after her husband filed an anti-harassment order against her.
“The police came and told me, ‘You have to leave. If you come back, you’re going to jail.’ So at that point I was like, whoa, what the heck?”
The longtime stay-at-home mom said she was forced to leave her home and she was separated from her children, then ages 3 and 9.
“So I had to leave and then I stayed with friends here and there and it’s been that way ever since for like a year now.”
A typical day for Smith consists of figuring out where she will sleep for the night: In a friend’s hotel room, on a friend’s living room couch or in someone’s car.
“I get up and do it all over again.”
Although she has been to homeless encampments, she has never stayed overnight at one as she’s uncomfortable staying in the woods with people she doesn’t know.
However, she added that she is “just skating on a thin line in between walls. I refuse to stay in a tent, but then again it’s like I’m struggling not to.”
On that Friday, Smith found for the first time a day of refuge at the Federal Way Day Center, as a woman she met earlier that day had dropped her off there.
She also hopes to seek help at the YWCA, which offers free services, including assistance with housing resources, for survivors of domestic violence throughout King County. But her biggest challenge accessing any services is finding transportation.
And there are many other obstacles that thwart her ability to become stable.
One of Smith’s biggest barriers to obtaining housing is finding a job. But honestly, she said, she’s not trying to find one right now.
“I just need to heal a little bit before I go back to work,” said Smith, a college graduate who was employed by the state of Washington before she became a stay-at-home mom. “I’d hate to have a meltdown at work. I have not had that stability yet to where I can fully recover from what I’ve been through.”
The domestic violence abuse that Smith suffered at home has followed her on the streets.
“It doesn’t help that I just recently got assaulted twice in the past couple of months — fractured nose,” she said, her voice breaking up with emotion as she points to a slight line where stitches had just been removed a couple of days ago. “And my black eyes are just finally healed up. So of course I’m not going to want to cart my kids around through this instability.”
The most recent abuse she suffered was from “someone with a home, somebody with an everything,” she said.
Consequently, she struggles with untreated depression and anxiety. From time to time throughout the interview, Smith looks over her shoulder.
“I have nowhere to go and having to go back to that is a horrible, vicious cycle. I don’t know how you explain it or what the hell it’s called when people just go back like idiots. I must be an idiot. This has happened twice now.”
According to King County’s 2019 Count Us In report, 7% of the homeless individuals who responded to a survey — 886 people — reported that they were currently experiencing domestic violence.
Smith feels hopeless and lost over her situation, especially because she lost her support system of family and friends.
“Well you left your husband, it’s your fault,” she said of some of their comments about what happened.
As she navigates her daily struggles with finding a place to sleep and take care of herself, she is still trying to maneuver the court system, divorce her husband and gain custody of her children. Her husband also lost custody of their children, who currently reside with her uncle.
But she is frustrated over the entire process.
“Because I’m over it — I don’t care. I just want to be able to have a friendship [with my husband] or something or mutual respect for each other so we can parent our kids,” she said, crying.
She said it’s been horrible for her children who have been unable to visit with her regularly. She tries to see them once a week.
But two months ago, she lost her car, which has created another barrier for her. When her car was impounded and auctioned off, she lost all of her belongings, including clothes, her marriage certificate and her kids’ birth certificates.
“I see the kids once a week but I can’t really commit to a whole lot. I’m hanging out here with no car, no transportation and not really knowing the bus system,” she said. “I’m learning it. But I’ve always been really codependent and that’s part of my problem is that I need to learn how to be more independent and get things done and stop feeling sorry for myself and, ‘Oh, I’ll never make it by myself.’”
But trying to lift herself up is exhausting.
“Trying to rebuild everything I once had — thinking about it, there’s just no comparison. How do I ever get that back?”
South King County domestic violence programs:
Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN), Kent office: 253-893-1600, Crisis Line: 425-656-7867
Jennifer Beach Foundation, Covington office: 206-833-5366
Mother Africa, Kent office: 253-277-7625
YWCA of South King County, Renton office: 425-226-126
Read the first story in the Mirror’s “Humanizing Homelessness” series at https://tinyurl.com/y25oergy, the second at https://preview.tinyurl.com/yxuvnlzu and the third at https://preview.tinyurl.com/y4vlssy8.