Over the Edge


Shelly Koyen

Homeless Close to Home

You see them standing on the corners, holding a sign that says, “Will work for food.” Sometimes you help, offering a little change, a $5 bill, some coffee or a business card. You imagine the worst possibilities. Is it drugs? Mental illness? Are they just lazy?

The truth is worse.

I should know. In eight months, I went from making $45,000 a year to budgeting $420 a month. When we lost our home, some dear friends offered to let us stay in their camper until things got better. But things haven’t gotten better.

No, I’m not an addict, mentally ill, lazy or irresponsible. I just got very sick, and therefore my daughter and I and our two dogs and cat have had our lives ripped apart.

When I became ill, I received help from the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and then went on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). DSHS provides cash, food and medical assistance. SSI is strictly need-based, according to income and assets, and is funded by general taxes, not the Social Security trust fund. SSDI recipients are only eligible if they have worked long enough and paid enough tax into the trust fund to be considered “insured.”

The average monthly income for someone like me is $840. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the Gig Harbor area is $1,100 a month. There are only two places that accommodate low-income earners and they have a two-year waiting list. I have lived most of my life and raised two children here. Now, just as my youngest is about to graduate from high school, we are being forced out of the community because there is no affordable housing.

I know some of you will say, “My taxes pay for social services and that should be enough.” And you're right; your taxes do pay for many people who receive these benefits. My taxes did too.

But let me break this down for you: When I got approved for SSI and SSDI, I was receiving $420 a month through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federally funded, state-run program that provides limited cash assistance to parents and their children. I also received $320 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which most people still call food stamps, though now it’s a restricted debit card. When my application for Social Security was approved, the grant to support my child (no, I don't get child support) was reduced and most of my SNAP benefit was taken away. DSHS counts everything you have as income. My Social Security, the value of my insurance policy, the value of my car and the value of the food I get each month are all included. It was too much, so they deducted the surplus value from our food supply.

I never thought I'd be on the other side of misfortune. Most of my friends have no idea we are homeless. I check in on Facebook, liking posts and sharing photos, trying to keep up the pretense of my former life. They have no idea I stand in line at food banks, or that local churches have sent us blessings and prayers and some financial assistance for Christmas. I worry that my life will become something I never imagined. The struggle against illness can mean the end of you, but with love and support, you can persevere. I think of those who lack these resources and my heart aches.

One thing you can do right now is donate to your food bank, and I don’t mean the cans from the back of your cupboards. Fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, milk and milk substitutes, as well as cheese and bread, are always needed. Things like toilet paper, deodorant, soap, shampoos, diapers and tampons are not provided by SNAP.

There is a large need for this help in our community. I should know; I've stood in line to gratefully receive it.

Shelly Koyen lives in a camping trailer on a friend’s Key Peninsula property.