On a cold night just before Christmas 1997, I found myself huddled in an irrigation ditch, shivering from the cold. The only clothing in my possession was a fast food restaurant uniform from my shift earlier that evening. I had no money, no place to go, and no idea what to do next. This was the night where I would find myself homeless at just 16 years old.
Despite being an honor student, president and vice president of several clubs, a Key Club member and an active student volunteer, my home life was volatile. My mother struggled too, continually cycling in and out of lifelong drug and alcohol addiction.
For as book smart as I was, I was wholly unprepared for the trials of youth homelessness. That night ended with me sleeping at a public facility two towns away. Later, I would couch surf with friends for weeks. With no familial support, I had to rely on my community. However, my small rural farming community had few social services to help people struggling with homelessness.
Today, too many families across Washington state face where I was 20 years ago. More than 40,000 Washington school children are homeless. Families struggle with low wages and rising living costs.
I know how hard low wages make life in the Puget Sound.
As a teenager, my $4.90 minimum wage job couldn’t support me. Moving — or being sent away — to a different community where I didn’t know anyone, that took me away from my job, and was far from the few support networks I had, simply was not a solution.
Thankfully for me, my high school counselor, Mrs. Reittinger, would end up risking her job to take me in. By giving me a safe place to live until I turned 18, she helped me graduate from high school. She helped ensure I could rent an apartment and obtain financial support to pursue college as a path to economic opportunity and social mobility.
Had it not been for my friends, their families, community members, my high school English teacher Mr. McCaffery, and Mrs. Reittinger, I don’t know that I would have continued to survive those cold December nights sleeping outside or under bushes behind the church.
It is this lived experience that drives my continued fight for families experiencing homelessness in our community.
It is the feeling of uncertainty, the trauma of being shuffled from foster home to foster home within the first 10 years of my life which informs my all too close understanding of the hurdles children experience from housing instability. It is this direct experience with the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and powerlessness to change my own circumstances that motivates me today in fighting for the kids in our community who are just trying to make it to adulthood. To give them a shot at their future.
It is why, in the two short years I have had the privilege of serving as your state representative, I have fought for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding to support and partner with local non-profits and the city to ensure that we are creating solutions to end homelessness in our community, particularly for women and children. I know what compassion and a helping hand can do to change someone’s life for the better.
It is because I have experienced homelessness that I will keep fighting to support the hard-working families of our city as we fight to end homelessness in our community, and ultimately, build an economy that works for all families in Federal Way and the South Sound.
State Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way, can be reached at Kristine.email@example.com or 360-786-7830.