Melissa Gross and her dog Little Lady only came to Seattle in mid-August, but they’d already made some friends. Gross was selling Real Change in front of the Starbucks at the Colman Dock ferry terminal. “One of the employees came out and took Little Lady’s picture,” Gross said, “They made her Dog of the Month for September.”
Gross said one lady came up and told her, “Tell me a joke, and I’ll buy five papers.” And so Gross did. She told a joke you can’t print in the paper, everybody around burst out laughing and the lady bought five papers.
Once, early during her time selling Real Change, Gross had put a pet raincoat on Little Lady. “A man gave me $20, saying, ‘You’re the only homeless person I’ve met who cares this much for her animal,’” Gross said.
Gross’s journey to Seattle was a long one, as she didn’t always reside in the PNW or even this country for that matter. She grew up as an Army brat, living in a lot of different places. When she was 13, she visited Berlin, which was then East and West Berlin, divided by the Berlin Wall. “I remember my family writing their names on the wall and sitting in the guard towers with East German soldiers,” Gross said.
She moved back to the States with her parents when they retired to Clovis, New Mexico. Gross didn’t finish high school because she got pregnant and was not allowed to continue attending. Instead she married, but six months later her husband began to struggle with substance abuse. Gross decided to leave him and move to Dallas, but she then faced similar struggles with addiction.
Gross recounted going cold turkey in the Cathedral Shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe in Dallas, staying there for weeks. “I got sick; I got shakes. People gave me food, they gave me drinks, they gave me money. I’m so grateful to them. I went out of there clean,” Gross said.
She sold Streetzine, the monthly street newspaper in Dallas. She struggled to get housing because she needed her birth certificate, and the state of Oklahoma, where she was born, charged $50 for a copy. An ID is a basic requirement for people trying to get publicly supported housing, and it’s difficult to get an ID without a birth certificate. Fees to get them are often hard for homeless people to raise, and paperwork often gets lost in sweeps or when their belongings are stolen.
Despite these barriers, Gross said her experience at Streetzine was a good one. “The paper had an art and a jewelry program. Art museums would use their art and invite them to the opening. I actually sold four paintings in Dallas,” Gross said.
In addition to those paintings, Gross also made quilts. “I sold one in Dallas that was a map of the U.S., with the capital in the center of each state. I asked for $35, and a woman gave me $200 for it,” she said.
After the death of her estranged husband, 11 years after Gross arrived in Dallas, she decided she needed “a new start with fresh faces,” and decided to move to Seattle.
At the time of this interview, Gross was in a shelter, where she and Little Lady had to leave each day and take all her possessions with them.
She was attracted to Seattle because of its educational opportunities, working on trying to obtain her GED. She was impressed with what her sister had done in Seattle, trained as a chef and has worked in food service and recently began training as a Metro bus driver. However, Gross said, she had some mental and physical disabilities that limited her choices of employment, and she refused any medications that were likely to be addictive.
That’s partly because of her own experience with substance abuse and partly because she saw what chemotherapy did to her mother. “Mom got lung cancer five years ago. I went to see her whenever I could, and I saw what she went through, how the chemo gave her brain fog and made her miserable,” Gross said. And when Gross got breast cancer a few years later, she accepted surgery.
Gross said people had been really kind to her since she came to Seattle. A woman at one church gave her a new fanny pack and a winter coat and was looking for a small bag for Little Lady’s dog biscuits.
“At St. James’s Cathedral, they talked about giving Little Lady service dog training,” Gross said.
Gross took a lot of pride in the care she gave her dog. “People can see that my dog is fed, taken care of, even has boots for her feet,” Gross said.
Gross wanted to get on a housing list. “I’m going to keep selling papers. I want to be a good example to the community. When you look for negative, that’s what you get. If you look for positive, that’s what you get,” Gross said.
After she finished the interview in the Real Change offices, someone gave her $5 for a copy of that week’s newspaper. She used it to buy a Real Change zine and a crossword puzzle book to sell along with her papers.
Melissa Dawn Cartwright Kimmel Epperson Gross
Dec. 7, 1971, to Oct. 13, 2023
She was a loving sister, daughter, aunt, niece, cousin and dog mom. She brought four beautiful children into this world. Melissa lived in many places in her lifetime — Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Germany, Minnesota, California, New Mexico and Washington.
She was working at Real Change and trying to build a life for herself in Seattle until God called her home. She will be missed so much. Fly in peace, our sweet angel. Melissa is preceded by her sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. She is survived by her dog Little Lady, four grown children, her parents, her sister, nieces and many aunts, uncles and cousins.
Read more of the Nov. 8-14, 2023 issue.