Robert Barden is tired. Tired of living in a tent, tired of being cold all winter, tired of getting swept, but mostly just tired of being homeless. He was recently caught up in the Woodland Park sweep and is now a resident of the growing encampment along the trail that runs from the back of the Aurora Avenue North Home Depot and the street behind the Lincoln Towing lot.
Barden said he’s been on the streets for about 13 and a half years. Originally from La Conner, Washington, his early experiences of Seattle involved homelessness. Barden first visited the city as a runaway.
“While living at home, not feeling like I fit into my community, off and on I’d run away from home and I’d come down south. So, I already had met people throughout this area. Over the years, I just slowly migrated down this way,” he said. When his parents sold their house and moved to Mexico, there was nothing left for him, he said, so he’s been here — and, with one notable exception, homeless — ever since.
That exception is a period of about six months when he lived with his oldest sister, whom he’d never met before. Barden was adopted as a baby, so he hadn’t had any contact with his biological siblings. One day, while experiencing homelessness in Seattle, he decided to try calling his biological mother for help. His eldest sister called his friend’s phone back and left him a voicemail instructing him to stay put. She planned on picking him up later that day.
“It was the best thing I ever could have done for myself. We clicked instantly and stuff. I was able to get clean, having that opportunity, having that stability there,” he said. He started working full-time at a McDonald’s and helped his sister’s best friend’s husband with handyman work on the weekends. It was the friend’s husband who, one night at dinner, suggested that Barden get a DNA test.
“We were on the topic of my ethnicity, because I was adopted out because my mother was raped. She didn’t want to have me there as a reminder of something bad happening to her. [Her sister’s best friend’s husband] offered to give me an AncestryDNA test in exchange for some labor with him. I agreed, but when those test results came back, my father is actually the man [my mother] was dating before she was raped,” he said.
Barden didn’t connect this revelation to what happened next, but one can imagine it came as a quite a shock. After a little under six months at his sister’s, he relapsed.
“I’ve never felt so upset and disgusted. I’ve never felt like that. Letting myself down like that. I didn’t know how to talk to my family like I wanted to. I self-sabotaged and totally lost out on the opportunity. And it sucks, because I wish I could have saved that,” he said. Instead, Barden ended up back on the streets in the same location he finds himself now. He is currently not using, he said, but it hasn’t gotten him any closer to being housed again.
“I was staying here before I went down to Woodland Park. I’ve lived through this, I’ve lived through that sweep down there, I’ve been up here for a sweep, and... yeah,” he said, sighing in resignation.
“I was living at Woodland Park from the very beginning, and I lived through the snowstorm and all that stuff,” he said. That all came to an end with the city’s May 10 encampment removal. While Mayor Bruce Harrell visited the park afterwards to tout the city’s success in housing 89 residents — 60 of them in tiny homes — not everyone who got swept got into housing. Barden is one of those who slipped through the cracks. When the sweep came, he was offered a shelter referral, he said, but it didn’t feel viable for him.
“I did [talk to the HOPE team]. I stuck around, and I was able to talk to Bradley and stuff. He had discussed with me that there weren’t tiny homes available. There was a shelter available, but what he had explained was that you had to show up at a certain time. It wasn’t guaranteed if you were going to get a bed that night,” he said.
To say beggars can’t be choosers might be a little too on the nose in this instance, but that’s what Barden experienced. Technically, he counts as one of the Woodland Park campers who refused an offer of housing. That’s not how he sees it. He would have happily taken a tiny home placement.
As someone who had lived in the park for a very long time, he said, “It hurt my feelings so bad when I watched all these other people get their tiny homes before myself.”
He may have missed too many connections with outreach workers, he surmised, but contended that it isn’t always easy to be there when the HOPE team is.
“I don’t understand what they expect me to do. I have to survive. I’m not going to just sit in my tent all day long waiting for someone to not come by,” he said. Either way, he’s ready to get into a tiny house and get to work repairing his life.
“I’d love to be in a tiny home right now, knowing that I have someone working with me, fast-tracking me into where I should have been a long time ago,” he said. Given that the city’s Unified Care Team has chosen to focus on his current camp as its next removal project, he may have another shot soon. He also hasn’t stopped trying to get housed in the meantime, he said.
“I’ve been trying to keep in touch with the [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion] program the best I can. It’s hard because I still don’t have a phone right now. I want it so bad. So many friends of mine, they’ve gotten their Section 8 vouchers, and they’re about to move into their new apartments and stuff like that. I just don’t want to go through another winter,” he said.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the July 13-19, 2022 issue.