Lisa Sawyer and Steven Drogosz have been together for about six years. They met volunteering at a food bank, they noticed each other and one thing led to another.
At first Sawyer was shy. She pretended to be interested in a book Drogosz was reading. But it became apparent pretty quickly that’s not where her interest was.
Things went well for a while. Then, about three years ago, the place they were renting together burned down. They didn’t have savings or relatives to turn to so they ended up on the street. And it’s been that way ever since.
Sawyer and Drogosz are part of an overlooked segment of Seattle’s homeless: couples without children. Advocates estimate they make up about a quarter of the people who live on our streets. That’s because shelters typically separate men and women or house just one gender, and families with young kids or those who are ill get priority.
"If you can have a couple go outside on the streets and live like that you test one another,” Drogosz said. “And if you're still together after three or four years living on the streets, there's something there. Because you're going through the worst of the worst. You can't get no further below."
Sawyer added, "There are times I want to strangle his neck and there's times he wants to strangle mine and we're still here."
Sawyer and Drogosz both work. She sells the Real Change street paper downtown. He works at a laundromat in South Park and with a local construction company.
But it's still not enough to get them into stable housing, so they bounce around. Sometimes they're on the street and sometimes they stay with friends.
About a month ago they were living on the street when the cold, the rain and the fear became too much.
“It was getting really, really hard for Lisa. She was crying every night and she couldn’t do it no more. She just broke down,” Drogosz said.
So they made a change. Right now they're living in a rundown hotel near Sea-Tac airport. It’s a boxy little place next to a busy road that looks like it has seen better days.
But it is cleaner than some hotels Sawyer and Drogosz have stayed in — there are no bed bugs. And at $50 a night it's cheaper than hotels closer to the city.
But it's not just paying for a night, there are other hidden expenses.
“You have to pay a deposit, and you have to struggle with money to get food every night in your stomach," Sawyer said.
There's also transportation costs. Drogosz sometimes has to take three buses and a train to get to work.
"The hidden costs are just the little things that people take advantage of every day. You wouldn't think they add up, but they do,” he said.
You can’t be lazy when you’re living in hotels, Drogosz said. They have to work every day to bring in cash for their room. If Sawyer and Drogosz don't make their $50, they'll be back on the street. And that’s always in the back of their minds.
“Every day I worry about, you know, next week, are we going to have enough money,” Drogosz said.
“I think about it every day,” Sawyer added.
If they end up back on the streets, shelters aren't an option because they usually won't take couples. Sawyer and Drogosz would have to split up.
"So we say, forget about it. We don't want to be separate,” Drogosz said.
And that reaction is pretty common, according to Jason Johnson of Seattle's Human Services Department. He said the city knows there's a service gap for couples without kids.
“There are often couples who are not in a position to separate, nor do they have a desire to separate, in order to have a roof overhead,” Johnson said. “So we hear time and time again from our shelter providers that they are turning folks away.”
But opening a shelter for couples isn't easy. You have to think about safety, logistics and cost. Johnson said it's difficult to have men and women in the same space.
“We like to offer shelter space for couples where they can have their own unit, where they have a space that is uniquely and solely theirs. They have a door that can lock,” he explained.
Transforming a space into one that has walls and doors that lock gets very costly, he said. But there are alternatives to shelters. The city-run tent encampments allow couples without kids. Outreach workers also provide hotel vouchers for short stays.
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And then there are rapid re-housing programs. They're considered best-practice nationwide and proven to be as effective as models that take people from shelters, to transitional housing, and finally to permanent housing.
There are multiple rapid re-housing programs throughout King County. Rapid re-housing recipients get a one-time injection of money to pay first and last months' rent and security deposit. Their rent might also be subsidized for a short time, and they can get help finding stable employment.
In cities like New Orleans, where rents are low and housing abounds, the programs are very successful. But in places like Seattle, Johnson said the lack of affordable housing can make it harder for these programs to thrive.
He also acknowledged that it can be hard to find landlords who are willing to rent to homeless people, especially when there is so much demand for housing from people with spotless rental histories and stable incomes.
Lisa Sawyer and Steven Drogosz have been enrolled in a federally-funded rapid re-housing program for months. Despite the help of the program, they still can't find anyone who will rent to them.
"We do have jobs, I do have references and all that. No evictions, no criminal records,” Drogosz said.
“We have good credit and we still can't get in. If they find out you're homeless for a certain amount of time they won't rent to you,” Sawyer said.
People working with rapid re-housing programs say this struggle isn't unique. They hear time and time again from people who are having trouble finding a place, even with the backing of the program.
There are some people willing to rent to the homeless. More than 5,000 people – singles, couples and families – were housed through rapid re-housing programs in King County in 2015.
Jim Brass manages several properties in Auburn. He's worked with rapid re-housing clients many times. In his view, the program takes some of the risk out of renting to people who have been homeless. And he's had as much success with rapid re-housing tenants as anyone else.
“They’re very careful not to break any rules, they don’t want to lose this one last chance that they’re getting. And so it’s very, very important to them,” Brass said.
Brass knows first-hand how it feels to need a second chance.
“My wife and I had fallen on some hard times about 12 years ago, went through a bankruptcy and lost our home in Seattle,” Brass said.
“We became homeless and lived in a bus for a year and a half. So our heart goes out to those same people. We know what can happen: that most folks are living from paycheck to paycheck and when there’s an emergency that pops up, you’re done.”
Brass said rapid re-housing could have saved them a lot of pain. “It would have made the difference in getting us a new start. But we had to wait a year and a half and scrimp and save."
Brass encourages other property managers and landlords to rent to people who are enrolled in a rapid re-housing program. He said it’s one way people like him can help address the homelessness crisis.
Sawyer and Drogosz said it would change everything for them if a landlord gave them a chance. It would give them confidence and stability.
"I'd have tears of joy because I always dream of having my own place. It would be amazing. It would be life in heaven,” Sawyer said.
For now, Sawyer and Drogosz are still looking.