Down and out in Seattle

Meet Jack and Ernst, two of the hundreds of honest, hard-working citizens struggling to survive on this city's homeless margins.

SOMETIME AFTER 6 last Tuesday morning, Jack Skiles and Ernst Morrel left their campsite at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines and headed for work. They were running late. They like to catch the first bus of the day for Seattle, so Jack can be at the Millionair Club charity in Belltown shortly after it opens at 6. That's when he has the best chance of securing one of the day-labor jobs that employers call in to "the Club."

Now, at 7:45, Jack and Ernst are among a hundred or so men and a handful of women waiting along rows of long Formica tables for the Club's job dispatcher to call their names. They begin to explain how they wound up here. It's a complicated story that takes several sittings to tell—complicated like the practical challenges of trying to find and hold down work while you don't even have a place to live.

But Jack and Ernst are hardly in a unique position. According to the city of Seattle's annual yearlong survey, the number of homeless reporting some form of employment or income (including unemployment insurance) nearly doubled between 1996 and '97, to almost 20 percent of the 2,563 individuals residing in city-funded shelters. A separate survey by the Seattle-King County Coalition for the Homeless, taken on just one night in 1997, found that 28 percent of shelter dwellers were employed—up from 21 percent the year before; 3 percent more drew unemployment insurance.

Karen Dawson, manager of the city's survival services program, believes both surveys probably undercount the working homeless, missing those who, like Jack and Ernst, live outside the shelter system. Those folks may sleep in their cars, at formal campsites like Saltwater's, at informal ones like the on-again, off-again Beacon Hill Jungle, in chairs at the airport—or, if they're able and inclined to splurge for a night or so, at an Aurora Avenue motel.

In shelters and out, the working homeless defy the easy stereotypes of the down-and-out as crazies or drug-addicted bums. But they are also a diverse group. Some have steady jobs; others work when they can. A number do have addictions or other severe personal problems; others are too free-spirited to hold onto a job or stick to one locale for long; still others worked regular jobs all their lives before getting upturned by a divorce, layoff, or other crisis.

In the past, those characteristics could land a person on hard times but not necessarily lead to homelessness. City officials and social service advocates say the times have changed for one reason: Seattle's crazy housing market, where a new tenant must plop down $2,000 or more in rent and deposits.

Consider this sampling of those staying at the Salvation Army's William Booth Center: A 31-year-old office temp worker who overcame a cocaine addiction. A 51-year-old telecommunications engineer, who moved here from Los Angeles. On the way, someone stole his $2,000 box of tools, nixing the job he had counted on. Fortunately, a premier company servicing Microsoft and Boeing recently agreed to take him on without tools. Another fiftyish resident, laid off three years ago by Weyerhaeuser's recycling plant, works 15 hours a week doing property maintenance and has shelter staff wake him at 1 in the morning so that he can study for a business degree at Shoreline Community College.

JACK AND ERNST, a gay couple, are likable guys who seem remarkably open and almost naive despite the harshness of their circumstances. They tell a tale of fresh starts gone awry, of all the ways they can't quite make life work for them, that's at once particular and universal.

They met in Dallas about a year ago, when both lived in normal housing. Jack, 36, a small-built man with close-cropped hair and intense eyes, worked as a certified nursing assistant. Forty-six-year-old Ernst, wiry and wearing a baseball cap over shaggy brown hair, had lived close to the edge for most of his life, working a series of brief jobs, sometimes as a blackjack dealer or cook at ski resorts. It turned out the man he'd lately lived with had jumped parole and had to go back to jail.

Neither of them really liked Dallas, particularly its heat. So they headed north on something of an adventure. In Minnesota, they hooked up with a carnival, running two food concession stands that they lugged from town to town with their cars. That ended when Ernst got into a car accident.

They returned to Dallas, Jack quickly found a nursing-assistant position that paid so well, Ernst didn't need to work. But the expiration date on Jack's professional license snuck up on him; during the three weeks it took to get it renewed he couldn't work, and they lost their apartment. They moved again, this time to Albuquerque, where they heard jobs were plentiful and housing cheap. They made out fine there. But Ernst itched to return to the Northwest, where he grew up and where he dreamed of living out in the country. "Ultimately, the plan is to get 5 acres," he says. "I could build a home and grow everything we need."

So the two men loaded up their '79 Honda Civic with camping gear and staples like rice and beans. "I figured if things got bad, we could always use the beans for protein," Ernst says.

Things got bad. Jack and Ernst had planned on paying the same rent here as in Albuquerque, $400 a month. Instead, a one-bedroom apartment costs $675 or so—and remains out of reach, even though both have been working.

"I was happily surprised about the job situation," Ernst says. "Seattle's full of real work; people are begging you to work." Eleven days ago, two days after they hit town, Ernst found the best-paying job he has ever had: $10 an hour doing maintenance for a property management company. Just two problems: He hasn't been paid yet, since, as with any regular job, it takes a while for the first paycheck to come in. And the Honda broke down last weekend; without it he lacks the transportation the job requires. So Ernst sits at the Millionair Club sorting through a W2 and other forms from his employer, which he plans to turn in later today along with his resignation.

Jack has been doing day labor most days for $8 an hour, which keeps them going but leaves them nothing to set aside for housing. Jack does the calculations: $11 a day for the campsite; $5 for bus fare to and from Seattle if they avoid peak hours, saving 50 cents a piece ("It doesn't sound like much but that's our showers," he says; the park charges for its facilities); and $5 a day for cigarettes. That's $21 of the $56 a day Jack makes, not accounting for food or their occasional splurges on beer, restaurant meals, and a $25-a-night respite from the outdoors in a Capitol Hill bathhouse.

Jack says he could get a better-paying job as a nursing assistant, "but then again you need a vehicle. Or I could get a live-in position where I would get a bed and a job, but... " He trails off, glancing at Ernst. "He hasn't deserted me yet and I'm not going to desert him."

AT 8:45, THE DISPATCHER calls Jack's name; a job has come up. "Saved," he sighs, and heads toward the dispatch cage. He returns a few minutes later saying he has been told he will go out today, but not until 9:15.

Ernst looks around the room—a sea of hard faces and bodies either slumped over or tight with the apprehension of waiting—and evidently feels depressed. "I hate these places, I just hate them. There's an aura of almost acceptance and pride in being a street person." He nods toward Jack. "He's almost got it now."

Jack doesn't disagree. "There was a time I would starve to death before I would come in here and take one of those doughnuts," he says, noting the refreshments the Millionair Club provides. Now, he says he recommends them to others.

"What do you mean?" Ernst laughs. "You stash two of them in your pocket like the rest of them." On the table between them are two baggies of Cheerios and a cinnamon roll wrapped in a napkin—saved from the club's free breakfast and intended for their lunch.

When 9:15 rolls around, Jack gets his assignment: He is to meet someone who needs a small guy to crawl beneath a house, to some unspecified end. Unlike some, this employer doesn't provide transportation, so Jack needs their last dollar and change for bus money. Ernst will have to walk to Queen Anne to talk to the property management company where he was supposed to be by now—in a temperature of 80 degrees and climbing fast. We all agree to meet later and go to their campsite.

At 4pm I arrive at the Club to find Jack and Ernst taking advantage of today's free dinner—a not-so-appetizing mound of rice covered by a red sauce and sliced sausages. Jack and Ernst choke down a few bites and give up. In my car on the way to Des Moines, Jack discloses that the day was a "bust." The employer he was supposed to meet in an IHOP parking lot never showed. He waited almost two hours. As his bus transfer was about to expire, he decided he should call the Millionair Club and ask what to do. But he had no money for the phone. "I got my first experience of panhandling today," he says, sounding slightly amused. After scoring 35 cents, he phoned the Club, which told him he could return and get first crack at any job that came in during the rest of the day. None did.

Meanwhile, Ernst and his employer agreed that he couldn't perform his job without a car; no more job. He then went to check on a job on a fish-processing boat; their latest plan, he explains, is to "get on a processing boat. They'll take care of room and board. When we come back, we'll have enough money to wait out the two or three weeks until we get the first paycheck." Ernst figures they'll also have enough for the deposit on an apartment. But he gets no definite answer; a processor job might be available from anytime this month to September.

The couple's short-term plan is more concrete. Ernst will also sign up at the Millionair Club. That's not easy, since the Club limits the applications it takes each day, to get a good place in line, he must be there by 4:30am. There's no bus from Des Moines that early, so he'll have to spend the night on the streets.

SLEEPING ON THE STREET is nothing like the campsite Jack and Ernst have found. It's a beautiful stretch of woods within spitting distance of the beach. "I call it a working vacation," Jack says with a smile. As at most campsites, however, they can only stay for a limited time—10 days in this case. To get another 10 days, they'll switch names on the registration form. Then if they can bum a ride off someone, they'll move to another campsite a few miles away, stay there 20 days, move back and so on.

Knowing full well that their intricate plans could go awry at any step, Jack and Ernst take turns being optimistic and pessimistic. Earlier that day, Jack recalls, he asked Ernst for a reality check on the fishing-boat scheme: "Is that a fantasy I'm holding onto?"

Are they on a dead-end trail? Possibly not. Many people in their situation do get up and out. Rick Reynolds, executive director of the late-night shelter referral service Operation Nightwatch, estimates that 25 percent of the people he sees are "short-termers" overcoming whatever temporary crises landed them on the street.

At a weak moment, though, Ernst laments that even if he and Jack find housing, his long-term prospects are dubious: "I figure I'm 46, I'm one of those people who's never going to get on my feet. I don't have a trade or profession. I'll never make the kind of money where I could hope to buy a home."

But more immediate concerns intrude. Night is around the corner, and Jack and Ernst need to get to sleep soon so they can make their 5:30 bus in the morning.

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