On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Johanna Paul was in a very bad spot. She was in her tent at the encampment she lived at in SODO, just south of the Interstate 90 off ramp behind Lumen Field. Her boyfriend — really more of a guy she’d been casually seeing who moved himself into her tent, she said — was getting abusive. It started with verbal abuse, quickly progressing to shoving, striking and, eventually, choking her, Paul said.
Luckily, volunteers from the controversial encampment cleanup group We Heart Seattle happened to be having a work party at the site that day. Tim Emerson, a We Heart Seattle employee who does outreach work in encampments, heard Paul’s cries for help. While the group does not, as a rule, enter or open people’s tents without permission, he felt he had to act. With other volunteers backing him up, Emerson opened the tent and stopped the attack.
“Today, [Tim] was that angel, [who] was able to open the tent, pull me from his arms and save me,” she said, “because I could have very well died.”
Other times she’d been abused, she said, her partner had fled before the cops could arrest him, only to return when things had cooled down. Paul herself couldn’t leave, she said, because she had nowhere to go.
“I felt like I had to stay, because it was my tent, and then he took over on it,” she said, illustrating the unique challenges that unhoused victims of domestic violence face.
While there is an inclination among his group to not get involved in domestic violence because they feel that intervening without offering a long-term solution to the situation can often make things worse, Emerson said he’s glad he did in this case. He urged others to do the same.
“If a person out here has the heart to do it and witnesses something like this, you know, make the call. Do whatever you can,” he said.
At first, he was just hearing her attacker’s tirade and figured it wasn’t enough of a reason to get involved. But when he saw Paul thrown against the side of the tent, things changed.
Emerson carried Paul, who was bleeding, to the group’s rented U-Haul truck, where they waited for EMTs and the police. Paul was grateful that the police were able to arrest the man, she said: “I think this time they’re going to help him.”
Still sporting a jagged line of dried blood from a laceration above her right eye, Paul took a few moments to reflect on how she ended up in such a bad situation. She’d only been unhoused since last December, she said, but it was miserable.
“To be homeless and to be roughing it, it’s tough. And to make your life where you’re having to go from appointments to appointments and counseling to counseling and on foot and bus, it just makes it [so hard],” she said.
She worked as a flagger for crews doing road work before losing her housing — even while working, she couldn’t afford an apartment. She became unhoused, she said, because, “You have to have twice your income to be able to live in a place. It’s so hard nowadays. That’s basically why.”
While she had a trade, she was not able to ply it while living on the street.
“If you don’t have a good nest, then it makes it very hard to continue to go forward,” Paul said.
She did get on a waiting list for a housing voucher with the Seattle Housing Authority, but waited a long time, only getting approved for it the day before the attack. No one had offered her any housing help besides that, she said.
However, We Heart Seattle was looking into options. While Paul had been approved for the voucher, she needed to get housed immediately — being on the street would put her at risk if her abuser was released. After the incident, volunteers offered to drive her to Ballard to collect her ID from a day shelter and then to a tiny house village, where she hoped to get a spot.
The next day, this journalist ran into Paul in front of City Hall, walking towards Westlake Center. She’d gotten a safe place to stay, she said, and was already exploring a few different job opportunities. Some were closer to her traditional line of work, but some potentials were also with We Heart Seattle, helping do trash pickup and outreach to other unhoused individuals.
At the end of the previous day’s interview, when asked what she thought would keep others from enduring what she had, Paul did not hesitate: A safe place to live was paramount.
“I think that people that are suffering from any kind of mental, verbal, physical abuse should be absolutely housed right away,” she said. “We should not be out here where we feel like we have to be in a situation with a partner that is doing those things to another person.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Oct. 19-25, 2022 issue.