Sandra Rouse and her partner Tim have really been through the wringer. It might sound melodramatic, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way from the kitchen table of their Studio 6 extended stay room in Mountlake Terrace. Nine of Rouse’s fingers are covered in pink medical tape, a brightly colored reminder of why they spent the last of their money to get inside.
“I got frostbite on my fingers because I don't circulate like [normal people],” she said. It happened on her way from their most recent camp location to a bus stop. “It ended up being that my fingers had gotten … so cold for so long that they never warmed up.”
The story of how they came to be outside is an all too typical one. Rouse made, she estimates, around $4,000 a month selling art and offering art instruction before the pandemic. Tim had a booming business himself, doing foundation and footing repair specifically for homes and buildings on steep slopes.
The pandemic, of course, put an end to their prosperity. Neither was able to access unemployment, as they were self-employed and unsure of how to navigate the system, despite pandemic-era accommodations for small business owners. Neither have substance abuse issues, they said, but Rouse is beset by medical issues. She suffers from type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, dyskinesia, neuropathy in her left arm, a bad back and a broken hand that mended without being set. Her health woes are the source of a lot of their problems staying housed, they said.
However, Rouse was a participant in a rapid rehousing program she was connected to via a local shelter. She stayed at the shelter for a while and was expecting to get housing via the rapid rehousing program on July 17, 2022. While she was there, Tim was in jail. For what, he declined to say, but he was scheduled to be released around that time, and they’d planned to live together in the apartment she expected to get.
However, Rouse had been having problems with a fellow shelter resident who had made what she considered credible threats of violence. She was scheduled for a heart surgery and, fearing for her safety if she returned to the shelter to recover, planned to utilize the hospital’s homeless respite program.
“I have a broken hand. I'm really not going to be able to defend myself if they don’t do anything about this lady,” she said, describing her reasoning.
The surgery took place on the day of Tim’s release, and, when she was told by hospital staff that their social worker hadn’t actually secured her a spot in respite, the couple decided it was better to be together on the street than for Rouse to face her antagonist alone in the shelter.
“We went straight into the streets,” Rouse said. “At that time, we didn’t have anything.”
Following that disappointment, they lived in a car for awhile, but it was totaled by a hit-and-run driver. They were able to drag it to a nearby church parking lot where they continued to live in it. However, escalating pressure to leave the church forced them out.
“They would leave a note as soon as we would leave,” Tim said. “Before we even got to the end of the block, there would be a note. It’d be like 2:30 p.m. and they would say, ‘Yes, it’s fine being there, you guys are good for a while.’ And then when we would walk away, like, 50 feet away, they would scurry out and put a note on the door saying, ‘If it's not moved by 4, we're towing you.’”
After accepting that they couldn’t rely on the car, they switched to tent camping. Rouse and Tim appeared in a previous Real Change piece about how unhoused people handle the coldest months of the year. They were interviewed at a U Heights cold weather clothing giveaway near the sanctioned encampment they were living at in the empty parking lot on the northeast corner of 15th Avenue NE and NE 45th Street. They landed there after a resident of that encampment saw them camping at an unsanctioned site a few blocks north. While the sanctioned encampment eventually closed up shop, they left before that.
“We went from that tent city to Camp United We Stand, and they allowed propane heaters in your tent. In my eyes, I was like, ‘Okay, it’s going to be better,’” Rouse said. While it was warmer, it wasn’t any safer. When temperatures got down below freezing, Rouse said she was forced to make something of a Sophie’s choice between heat and ventilation.
“I closed [the tent flap] all the way, because it was almost 14 degrees outside,” she said. “Like, just for a little while because all my heat was going out.”
The fumes from the propane heater, trapped inside the tent, did not agree with her.
“I woke up, and I got myself out of the tent. I didn’t even make it to the port-a-potty. I started puking everywhere,” she said.
After that, she made sure to keep the flap open, but that severely curtailed their heater’s effectiveness. At some point, they realized they couldn’t make it work at Camp United We Stand and decided to rent the cheapest hotel room they could find close by. The Mountlake Terrace Studio 6 was renting rooms for a little more than $50 a night that week and is close to Camp United We Stand’s current location in Kenmore. Rouse says she gets about $800 in social security, and Tim said his disability check is about the same. He didn’t offer too many details besides that it happened in an elevator, but he came out of jail with two broken hands. It’s not enough to keep them there for a full month, but at this point, they said, they’re desperate.
“A week out of the month, I normally try to get in,” Rouse said. “One day here, one day there, whatever it is, I really try to get in.”
While her nights inside each month keep her going, it’s a constant struggle to stay healthy.
“By the time you heal, you’re right back out there,” she said. They’d love to get into something more permanent but end up spending any money they might save toward first, last and deposit on an apartment on hotel stays instead. At this point, said Tim, they’re willing to give any landlord who will take them every penny of their checks, but they can’t find one who will take a chance on them.
Landlords require them to prove income of three times monthly rent or more, they said, which isn’t feasible while they’re not working. Tim would love to be, he said, but he “still [has] two broken hands. And I can’t even get them operated on, because we don’t have housing, so the doctors won’t even do the work until we’re housed.”
Rouse has started a GoFundMe in hopes of extending their stay at the Studio 6 long enough for them to find permanent housing or for Tim to get well enough to work but worries that they face the very real possibility of ending up outside again.
“I can't do the cold. I’m going to die out there. I just know it’s going to happen,” she said.
To prevent that, Tim said, he’d do anything, even if it landed him back in jail. Robbing a bank, he said, was something he had seriously considered. Why, he wondered, should anyone have to do something like that to survive?
“It’s like, how is this conducive to any kind of positive society?” Tim asked. “I’m caretaking for someone who I feel like should be inside. … Just stewing and festering over this every day.”
Thankfully, it hasn’t come to the point where he’s ready to slip any notes to any bank tellers. Instead, he’s taken over Rouse’s rounds of potential housing programs and spends several hours every day showing up in person to places like Catholic Community Services and Solid Ground to see if they can get housed. They are, contrary to some people’s unflattering accusations towards the unhoused, very actively trying to get help and very aware of what help is available to them. The issue, they feel, is that the nonprofits in charge of providing help aren’t doing a very good job of it. After what they described as constant unresponsiveness from Tim’s court-appointed social worker and Rouse’s various case managers, they’re fed up.
“I don’t think anybody should get any money. I think they should get rid of all of those people and all those groups,” Tim said.
Instead, he suggested, “I think that [we] take that money that [the government] has been giving to all these places and divide it [among] however many people there are that have been waiting [for housing], provably, for a year. I guarantee you those people aren’t gonna be homeless again. I promise you that.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.