It’s an unusually warm spring day at Wards Lake Park in Lakewood and Katie’s kids are thirsty. Raymond, 4, whines about this to his mom and pulls at the black leather purse hanging from her shoulder.
“I don’t have nothing to drink,” Katie, 27, says, looking into her purse while her son squeals. Mom pulls out a cherry-flavored Starburst and tears it in two. She hopes it will distract both kids for a while. Raymond, outraged that he has to share, takes his half and runs off. Alyssa, 3, crawls on the picnic table and savors the chewy red candy for a good five minutes.
Katie’s life story used to include another person: the man she loved. There was romance, then a family, then a home that soon became a dark place.
“He was amazing with [the kids], he showed them all the love in the world,” Katie says of her ex-boyfriend and her children’s father. “That’s why I pretty much stayed with him, because I knew that there was a good person in there and that something was just the matter. But I couldn’t do it after a while. His excuse was, ‘If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t hit you.’ ”
Katie met her ex at a truck stop in her home state of Oklahoma. She worked as a cashier there. Friendship soon became romance, and the two fell in love. Born in early 2009, Raymond was their first child. At the end of that year, the young family boarded a Greyhound to Washington. A relative was sick with lung cancer. The young family was on its way to Spanaway to move in with the relative to help provide care.
Alyssa was born shortly after the move, and Katie’s ex got a good job building houses. Katie says he had begun physically abusing her back in Oklahoma when she was pregnant with their son. But when the relative’s condition worsened, her ex’s behavior grew increasingly violent. “What was his was his and what was mine was his and if I wanted or needed something I had to ask for it, and at that I’d be lucky to get it.”
Katie put up with the abuse for four years until she called police. A no-contact order was issued; her ex went to live with friends. Katie and the kids stayed with the relative until he died. Shortly after, they moved into an apartment. Rent there soon proved too expensive, but Katie’s ex was financially helping her out. Then one day — out of the blue, Katie says — he quit doing so. Katie was evicted in June. She and her two young children became homeless.
Katie scrambled to find her little family a place to sleep. Her family-preservation counselor was able to get them into a housing unit at Living Access Support Alliance (LASA) in Lakewood on the same day they were kicked out of their apartment. Katie was one of the fortunate ones.
“It’s just a matter of luck,” said Janne Hutchins, executive director of LASA. “Sometimes it works out well like [Katie’s case] and sometimes it can be weeks.”
On a typical night, 25 to 30 families are in line for a spot at LASA. Countless others wait for openings at emergency housing shelters elsewhere in Pierce County. LASA is not a domestic violence shelter per se, but does help house victims who are not in direct danger. LASA also works with families who were barely getting by until a health problem, accident or unexpected job loss sent them over the edge they were teetering on.
“More and more people are living on the edge every year,” said Hutchins. “We need to be aware of how fragile our families are.”
Katie may have been lucky to land at LASA, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t scared.
“I thought of a shelter as, you know, how you see on movies: one big room and all these people,” Katie said. “I was afraid of that. … I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know if they’re good people. My kids are going to be here. My kids are going to be part of it. How is it going to affect them?”
Katie’s stay at LASA wasn’t the frightening experience she envisioned. She was placed in a two-story, four-bedroom home with three other women and their children near Wards Lake Park, where her children can run, swing and get upset over shared Starbursts. After a week in the home, she already had plans to transfer to another LASA program which will move her to her own two-bedroom apartment. But the first move left her with little more than the clothes on her back.
“[I’ve gone] from having everything to having nothing,” she said. “I have absolutely nothing now.” When her thoughts shift to her children, Katie’s eyes tear up. “I need clothes, I need clothes for [my children]. I feel sad because they lost everything, all they got to take was a backpack with a few Hot Wheels cars or something in it and a bag of clothes and that was it. I had nowhere to put anything else. I had nowhere to store anything. I didn’t have the money to get a storage place.”
Katie’s only income comes from her $280 monthly welfare check. She has applied for several retail jobs. No one has called her back.
Raymond and Alyssa often ask where Daddy is. Katie tells them they can’t see him right now. Truthfully, she says, he is in prison for continuing to break his no-contact order. Now in an environment she had been deprived of for years — a safe one — Katie has started to heal. She still worries about the day her ex is released but she’s moving forward with her life and finally accepting everything she’s been through.
“There was a lot of things I was afraid of,” she says. “I was afraid of counseling because I was afraid of talking about it … because I get upset, I get sad, I get depressed. But after I started going to counseling and actually talking and not flaking out on [the counselors] and stuff, it feels good. The best thing to do is talk about it or it will eat you up.”
Back at Wards Lake Park, the daring boy Katie calls “Houdini” because of his frequent disappearing acts runs on the grass and flirts with the idea of sticking the only shoes he has in the lake while his mom ponders life. “I like it here,” she says. “I love it in Washington, I just regret who I came here with. I don’t regret it because I have my children. I just wish it would have
Daughter Alyssa, still exploring the picnic table, says she likes painting pictures and watching “Strawberry Shortcake,” a movie about a girl who travels to a land of dreams where there are rows of fresh berry bushes for everyone to share.
It’s the only movie she owns.