Keylett “KeyKey” Tyus estimates she’s been in the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) for about six years now. When a group of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s (KCRHA) systems advocates set up a tent to do outreach at Bell Street Park, close to the section where she’d been living in a tent, she was less surprised than they were to see her name already in the system.
She was, however, excited about what they had to say: she would be assigned her own advocate, and that advocate would make sure she found some form of housing. James Sizemore, the systems advocate leading that outreach event, told her that the person who was assigned to her was currently on vacation but would be back shortly to get her a phone and start the process of finding housing, Tyus said. Sizemore then asked her what she needed immediately.
“When he came,” Tyus said, “he told me all this: ‘Don’t worry, you just need somebody who’s going to step up to the plate and not leave you on the back burner and … get it done for you. This is what we’ll do.’”
When she heard that, she said, it felt like “so much weight lifted up off me.”
It was a particularly rainy week, so she asked Sizemore for a new tent and sleeping bag. Sizemore delivered both quickly. It was a Thursday in late October, and she said Sizemore came back the next day to fulfill her supplementary request of a tarp to put underneath her new tent. According to Tyus, he reiterated that her systems advocate would come by the following Monday with a working cell phone. The process of getting ID and getting inside would start from there.
A little over a month later, Tyus is in a tiny home at one of the villages run by Nickelsville, and she’s thrilled about it. The village is in the neighborhood where she grew up, which she loves. But besides the location, she loves the clean, private restrooms and well-equipped kitchen.
“This is where I know that I’m safe,” she said.
She also said that she hasn’t heard from Sizemore or any other systems advocate since the last time she saw him, on that Friday in October.
Instead, she got housing with some help from We Heart Seattle, the controversial trash pickup and homelessness outreach organization headed by Andrea Suarez. We Heart Seattle has been accused of taking encampment residents’ personal property during their trash pickups, and many people in the mutual aid community oppose the group’s work. Suarez lives in Belltown, right behind where Tyrus had pitched her tent, and the two had developed a rapport. Suarez was aware of Tyus’ contact with KCRHA and shared in her enthusiasm about it. When the promised systems advocate never showed up, Suarez said, she started emailing KCRHA to see what went wrong.
“We’ve been sending pictures of her and the tent twice a week for three weeks, including videos, saying, ‘Where are you?’ And I have gotten no response,” Suarez said during a Nov. 15 visit to Tyus’ tent on Bell Street.
During that same visit, Tyus described how disappointed she was when her systems advocate never showed up.
“I got up that morning, I brushed my one row of teeth, and I washed my face and I put on the phone that she had gave me and I waited,” she said, a self-deprecating chuckle about her teeth quickly giving way to less pleasant emotions.
Anne Martens, KCRHA’s spokesperson, said that, while she couldn’t discuss “details on interactions with identified people experiencing homelessness,” the volume of unsheltered individuals in the downtown area was an issue.
“The challenge is that we have engaged with 830 people living unsheltered downtown, and are only able to focus our limited staff capacity and housing resources on so many encampments at a time,” she wrote in an email on Dec. 15. She did not comment on whether anyone at KCRHA had received Suarez’s emails or why they didn’t respond.
More communication, said Tyus, would have been huge.
“It’s like, if you’re going to say something, if you can't complete it, please come back and let a person know. It's going to take a little time, of course. I know it’s not supposed to happen overnight,” she said.
While Suarez continued to email KCRHA, she and We Heart Seattle outreach lead Tim Emerson moved forward with getting Tyus an ID, a crucial first step to finding housing. They also got her another phone. Once they’d secured those key elements, Suarez discovered that the Nickelsville encampment, in which Tyus would eventually land, had a vacancy.
From there, getting Tyus into that vacant tiny home didn’t require much more legwork on their part. On Nov. 29, We Heart Seattle rented her a hotel for a night, helped her freshen up and dropped her off the next day for an intake interview, which she passed. After a few more days in her tent, Tyus moved in on Dec. 5.
Emerson is We Heart Seattle’s only outreach worker and manages about 30 cases at any given time, Suarez said. Martens said that the KCRHA has 26 systems advocates working with the 830 people identified as being unhoused in the downtown area and that they were also tasked with the initial work of identifying those individuals.
“One of the causes for homelessness, I would say, is a mistrust in the system that the system has created for people. So they’re just like, ‘I’m good,’” Suarez said, huddled around a big table with a glass-encased model of a galleon on it in the smoking tent at Tyus’ camp.
“People say it’s drugs,” Tyus responded. “No, it’s not the drugs. It’s the let down, the not showing up, the no structure.”
Martens, in her Dec. 15 email, said KCRHA shares that viewpoint.
“Our Systems Advocates all have lived experience of homelessness, and understand how delicate trust can be in this situation, which is why we’re working with urgency and creativity to find solutions,” she said.
However, beyond trust, Tyus said, meeting with the systems advocates had given her hope. Not seeing them again destroyed that hope, she said, and made her feel quite small.
“I mean, I felt like an ant, a crushed ant,” she said. “Because [they said], ‘Oh, yeah. Don’t worry. We got you. Get your stuff ready. Pack up. We’ll be here Monday.’ Do you know how hard it rained Monday?”
A previous version of this article misspelled Keylett Tyus' nickname. The paper regrets the error.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Dec. 21-27, 2022 issue.