Before becoming unhoused, Lower Woodland Park resident Susan Fritts-Jackson lived what most people would consider a very normal life. Brought up in an upper-middle class suburb of Washington D.C., she had a big family — four brothers and a sister — and an active family life.
“Every Christmas we’d go to Disney World at Epcot Center. We’d go camp down there and watch the fireworks for New Year’s. Every summer we went to Vermont to a little town named Strafford where they made mandolins and dulcimers. I mean, I really had a great life,” she said.
She ended up in Denver for college, where she graduated from Metropolitan State University with a bachelor’s of science in public administration, including an emphasis in community service development. After graduating, she worked for the Colorado School of Mines.
“I ran three research centers,” she said. “That was my favorite job, because I was so busy. And you’ve got to get all these bigwigs in a meeting on one day for two hours. It’s a huge puzzle, but I was very good at it.”
She had a family too, a large and blended one. Two of her kids were grown and had families of their own, but she had a son and stepson at home. Until, all of a sudden, she didn’t.
“I lost my stepson to a drive by, and my natural-born son a week after that to prison because he killed another kid. No one will ever know what happened there,” she said. The trauma tore her apart, and she started using drugs to cope.
“In two weeks, I lost my head,” she said.
Her heavy drug use quickly became a full-blown addiction, and things went way downhill from there. She went to Florida to be with her best friend, but got into a bad relationship there that led to trouble with the law.
In her version of events, he hit himself with a beer can and called the cops, saying she had hit him. Susan refused to plead guilty and spent four months in jail because of it. Defiance is something that comes quickly and naturally to Susan, a fact that’s made clear by her experiences in the Seattle area, such as her currently broken collarbone that she said was courtesy of an altercation with another camper at Lower Woodland.
After Florida, Susan got a one-way ticket to Seattle courtesy of her mom, dad, aunt and uncle. They sent her here to participate in a shelter program tailored to women struggling with addiction. It’s also free, which was, for both Susan and her mom, a major draw.
“My mom was done supporting me. I had already told her not to send me any money because I would spend it on things she didn’t like,” Susan said.
However, it would be the first of many places that Susan left. She got into it with the program’s administrators one night when, she said, they kicked two women out in the middle of the night with their kids.
“I said, ‘I don’t care if they robbed your petty cash, you make them sit in one place with their kids until the buses start running.’ I got very angry,” she said. “They just didn’t like how I was explaining that, so they kicked me out. They told me I had 20 minutes to get my stuff.”
From there, she tried to go stay with a friend, only to have the cops called on her as soon as she arrived. After that, she was off to another friend’s house, but their girlfriend was none too keen to have Susan staying with them.
“Everywhere I went was horrible,” she said.
Eventually, she was able to get stable for a bit, finding an apartment via the Department of Social and Health Services’ Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program. At that point, she wasn’t using and was on a very serious job search. She tried applying anywhere she could think of, including Wendy’s.
“I sent out 240 resumes and probably got 70 hits. I probably went on 60 interviews, but more than half of them said I was overqualified because I ran the research centers. I was just trying to get a job! I was unemployed,” she said. Not having a job was not good for her addiction issues, and she lost her housing.
From there, she ended up unsheltered, camping in the little triangle between the BMW dealership and the Greyhound station in SoDo for seven months. That was her “best camp” she said, and she had it all set up with tiki torches and a Starbucks coffee machine. But that camp ended in yet another run in with the cops.
“They arrested me! The transit authority cops arrested me. The lady was horrible,” she said. “When I got back there was nothing there.”
Susan did end up in housing again after that, but that shelter situation involved roommates, she said, which didn’t work out well for her. She even suspects one of her roommates drugged her.
While Susan was out in a park downtown, she had an experience that sent her packing immediately. A man who looked exactly like her son looked at her, said, “I miss you,” and left her two cigarettes. She was, to say the least, spooked. There happened to be a large cart sitting right there, and that was the last straw. She grabbed it, loaded all her stuff into it and was gone.
She got robbed at the next place she camped and eventually ended up in Eastlake. From there, she made her way to a shelter out of town. Once again, she ran afoul of the administrators, this time for talking to her bunkmate too late at night.
“They kicked me out for ‘disrespect of staff.’ I didn’t even cuss. I just said, ‘I’m not talking to you, why are you involved in our conversation?’” she said. It was the middle of winter, and she had nowhere to go.
“I was crying that night, it was so cold,” she said. Luckily, the cop who responded to the incident was kind. Besides bumming her two Marlboro Reds, he drove her to the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) Crisis Solutions Center, a place she has nothing but high praise for. It is, however, not a permanent place to stay.
It wasn’t clear exactly when, but she was also in a tiny house village at one point. That was another situation where a private room would have gone a long way. Before getting your own tiny house, she said, “You have to live in a community situation first. They want to see if you can work with a team.”
In this case, while she was trying to get clean, her “team” happened to be a very active drug user.
“This girl came in, she had every drug imaginable, and she nods out with a needle hanging out of her arm. She was like, two inches from me. I was like, ‘I gotta go.’ It was 3 in the morning, I was like, ‘I’ll get in trouble for all the drugs sitting on her bed,’” Susan said. Someone from the village eventually came to her and said she could come back, but the damage was done. She declined.
Before coming to Lower Woodland, where she had been since October 2021, she was down the hill by Green Lake, but the “nasty comments” from neighbors got to her, and she migrated to higher, more secluded ground.
Having sampled just about every flavor of low-income housing and shelter in the area, what does she think would actually work for her? Just an apartment of her own, she said, preferably one where she can smoke. Or, failing that, walk down fewer flights of stairs to go out for one.
Asked why current outreach efforts aren’t more effective, she cited two main reasons. One being that outreach workers aren’t really getting to know the people they’re reaching out to. They do come, she said, but they don’t stick around to find out information about each camper’s situation.
“The biggest thing is that I think they need to look at everybody individually, because we’re all different. We all have different stories. We all have different reasons why we’re in the position we’re in,” she said.
The other, she said, is that most shelter options don’t offer something that camps like Lower Woodland do.
“They have too much freedom here,” she said. She believes that people won’t move inside until they can come and go as they please.
But, given the few meetings on homelessness she’s seen, she’s not holding out hope.
“It reminds me of a bunch of university professors with their big egos and their bank accounts and their projects, saying, ‘Well I’ve got the right idea,’” she said. And that attitude leads to closed minds, she warned.
“They don’t want to hear the truth.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor of Real Change.
Read more of the May 11-17, 2022 issue.