Tanner is relatively new to Seattle. Right now, he’s staying in an RV behind the Lowe’s on Aurora Avenue North with a couple friends he just met.
Originally, he’s from South Bend. Not the one in the Dakotas, but rather the tiny town just outside of Raymond, Washington, that is home to the world’s largest oyster. It is, unfortunately, just a statue of an oyster, but it is undeniably large.
Another of South Bend’s claims to fame is that its high school football team won the state championship one year while Tanner was on the team. That high note was not the final statement on his life in South Bend, where he later got into opiates, ran afoul of the law and eventually ended up in rehab in Portland.
“I was there for like a year or something,” he said, “and then me and the girl I met [in Portland] moved back to South Bend, and then after a couple of years we moved to Wenatchee.”
There, they enjoyed a period of sobriety and stability and had a child together, until his ex eventually relapsed. Tanner helped her obtain drugs and, he said, contaminated his hands while handling those drugs to the point where he failed his court-mandated urinalysis. While he’d remained sober until that point, when faced with losing all his progress over something he didn’t actually do, he decided he might as well do the thing he was accused of doing: get high.
“I think I’ve been pretty much high ever since,” Tanner said.
Although his and his ex-girlfriend’s addictions continued unabated in Wenatchee, they were able to live with her father there for quite awhile. However, her dad eventually moved to the Tri-Cities, leaving them in the lurch. They stayed off and on with friends but eventually ended up piecing together nights in hotels.
“That only lasts so long because it’s so damn expensive,” Tanner said. After that there was some couch surfing, but eventually he and his ex broke up, and he ended up in Seattle. He was staying with a friend at the Travelodge on Aurora but is now in that RV behind the Lowe’s where a few new friends are letting him crash.
Is that the long-term plan?
No. He reported filling out paperwork to get housing the day before we met, saying that he’d been to the King’s Inn downtown to get into a housing assistance program. The program, he said, would put you up for a year in a hotel, help you get a housing voucher and then give you $2,500 to buy furniture once you found a place to use your voucher.
What’s interesting is that Tanner had no idea who had helped him or who they were affiliated with. The King’s Inn was a shelter managed by the Chief Seattle Club throughout the pandemic. He didn’t speak to a social worker or outreach worker in this case but rather filled out forms.
“I met a girl on the street, and then she was like, ‘Hey, I’m getting housing through these people,’” he said. He’s optimistic but unsure exactly who he turned his paperwork over to. A bit of certainty, he added, would go a long way.
“I guess there should be, like, a part in the government that’s specifically for homelessness,” he said. “There might be. There probably is.”
Informed of the existence of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, he said they sound like who he filled out paperwork for. At the end of the day, however, he’s never spoken to anyone directly. In the few months he’s been unhoused in Seattle, he said, “the only assistance I’ve got is maybe like people handing out food or stuff like that.”
His hope is that, once he gets stably housed and has a job, his ex can come live with him. Their kid is staying with Tanner’s mother, he said, but he hopes to reach a point where they can bring the whole nuclear family back together under one roof.
However, he added, what he could use help with on top of housing is treating his substance use disorder.
Contrary to what certain right-wing commentators might have you believe, going to rehab is almost impossible if you’re unhoused, according to Tanner.
There are simple logistical barriers, for starters, like getting to the facilities.
“I don’t have a vehicle,” he said. “How am I going to go to somewhere [on the bus] to go to rehab, and I’m going to be sick?”
Also, he noted that some rehab facilities don’t offer medical detox, which involves weaning people off opiates with substitute drugs like methadone. Withdrawing cold turkey is something he could do on his own, he said, so there’s no incentive to go to a program that expects him to endure withdrawal. Even jails offer medical detox nowadays, he added.
The basic threshold for a rehab program’s effectiveness, in Tanner’s estimation, is that it should be easier to do than the drugs themselves. Currently, that isn’t the case.
“It’s a lot easier for me to score a little bit of money or do something to just get well,” he observed.
There’s also the ever-present issue of financial constraints.
“Most of them you have to be on your parents’ insurance. And once you get over 26 or 27, you drop off, you’re screwed. And that’s if your parents have a good job,” he said.
His friend Brian chimed in to note that the cost without insurance was often in the tens of thousands of dollars. Not exactly the kind of money either of them has access to.
“They should make a public one that’s as nice as the private ones,” Tanner said. And when it comes to getting people there, he asked, “What’s a $20 Uber?”
Both he and Brian agreed that the issue of opiate abuse isn’t going away no matter how much we criminalize it or how much rehab we throw at it.
“But,” Tanner said, as far as rehab is concerned, “if you’re getting more people through the doors, more people are going to end up sober.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the April 12-18, 2023 issue.