Not long ago at school, a girl started making fun of Ashley Keith’s 10-year-old daughter, Tru. “You’re homeless,” she accused Tru, with the pageboy cut and star-studded winter jacket.
The label stunned Tru. “I want to keep that a secret,” she said. “No one needs to know where we live. No one needs to know that we are homeless.”
Tru grabbed her mother’s hand, and her mother replied with considerable sorrow and considerably less sugar-coating: “We are homeless until we find a home.”
For Ashley Keith, No Child Sleeps Outside is more than just a compelling campaign to raise money for Mary’s Place, a shelter for women, children and families. It’s her reality. Although she’s been without a permanent home since October 2016, Keith and her three children have been fortunate to not have spent a single night on the streets. They’ve bunked in an RV owned by the basketball coach of one of the kids, and with friends until their hospitality wore thin, as it did on Memorial Day of 2017.
A few dollars in gas leads to a safe place to live
That day, Keith, 31, consulted a notebook she’d compiled of phone numbers for agencies that might be able to help. Mary’s Place, which shelters parents and children, was on that list. Keith called. “They asked if I could get to Seattle,” said Keith, who was in Auburn, about 28 miles away. “I put my last $7 in my gas tank and we made it to Seattle at midnight, with the kids asleep in the car.”
Keith, Tru and Keith’s 9-year-old twins, Liberty and Douglas, moved into a single room with a bathroom, with a twin bed for each of them. It was a luxury considering the alternative — sleeping on the sidewalk or wedged into her 2000 Ford Explorer.
Demand for housing at Mary’s Place has skyrocketed along with Seattle’s homeless population, which ranks third largest in the nation. In Seattle and King County, many of the area’s hundreds of homeless families — including an estimated 1,200 children — have to wait months on average for basic emergency shelter. The good news, such as it may be, is that donations have enabled Mary’s Place to provide shelter to 500 more families with children this year than they were able to assist last year.
To help fund the growing need for beds and other services to support unsheltered families, Mary’s Place hosts an annual campaign called No Child Sleeps Outside. Starbucks has contributed $250,000 to this year’s initiative, which runs through Dec. 31. Customers in King County can donate to the campaign via the Starbucks mobile app or by visiting https://www.nochildsleepsoutside.org/campaign/no-child-sleeps-outside-starbucks/c153322.
The Starbucks Foundation will match every dollar up to an additional $250,000, continuing the company’s commitment to helping homeless families find stability. The crowd-funding campaign is part of a community-wide effort to raise $1.5 million for Mary’s Place, the region’s best-known provider of safe temporary shelter for families. Last year, the Foundation contributed $2 million to the effort.
“It’s not okay for babies and kids to sleep outside in the cold and rain, in tent, cars and trailers,” said Shannon Boldizsar, senior manager for government affairs at Starbucks and chair of the No Child Sleeps Outside campaign. “They all deserve to have a warm, safe place inside to sleep and call home. There are so many unsheltered families in our hometown, in our backyard, that it was an urgent call to action for us.”
Keith and her children occupy four of the nearly 700 beds that Mary’s Place provides at 11 locations in King County. They keep their clothing in bins in their room, which has no television. Keith understands why. “They don’t want you to get too comfortable here because it’s not supposed to be a permanent place,” she said. They live at one of the organization’s Family Centers, where shelter, services and resources are offered in one location. Keith, for example, works with an advocate who has helped her identify her obstacles to success. “Everyone has different barriers,” said Keith. “Mine are trying to find a job and upping my income so I can find us a place to live.”
A job is first priority. Without income, there’s no way that Keith, who dropped out of high school in Auburn at 16, could pay rent. Over the years, she’s worked at McDonald’s, at K-Mart and at a traveling carnival.
Since she’s been at Mary’s Place, Keith has applied for house-cleaning jobs at Merry Maids and You’ve Got Maids, though she had to cancel a recent job interview because Douglas stayed home from school sick.
The road to homelessness
Keith’s path to homelessness began once she realized her husband — the father of her children — was doing drugs. He would stay up all night doing meth, which led Keith to divorce him in 2009. “He wasn’t being a father to the kids,” she said. He was so far gone when she left him that he didn’t even seem to care. Keith said he hasn’t seen the children in nearly eight years and provides no child support.
After the divorce, Keith went to live with her mother in Auburn. In 2014, she got married again, to a construction worker, but she sighs heavily as she says that he cheated on her with her best friend. This time, divorce was even more difficult. By now, Keith’s children were old enough to have formed bonds with their stepfather. They called him “dad.” Fortunately, he has stayed in touch with the children, who visit him in Port Orchard.
But the continued connection didn’t address their housing problem. After the second divorce, Keith and her children had to leave her mother’s home. The Auburn Food Bank put them in a hotel room for a week. Then they bounced between friends until Mary’s Place took them in. “I would be on the streets if not for this place,” said Keith. “It is terrifying to think about what I would have done without Mary’s Place.”
Last year, Mary’s Place was able to open four additional shelters, thanks in part to donations from Starbucks, the Starbucks Foundation and the Schultz Family Foundation, along with Boeing, Microsoft, Dick’s Drive-In and many others. “We know that our family homelessness crisis is solvable,” said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place. “Together with our community and amazing, committed partners like Starbucks, we can bring every child inside to warmth, safety and stability.”
With Christmas approaching, Keith has squirreled away some money from donated gift cards to buy presents for her children — a drone for Douglas, baby dolls for Liberty and Little Live Pets (a toy turtle, mouse and hedgehog) for Tru.
It’s money that Keith could have used for more practical purposes, but she thinks it’s important to do what she can to make her children feel less alone. “It’s been difficult for them,” she said. “They have to navigate their emotions and adjust to not having their own space.”
She doesn’t have elaborate plans for Christmas dinner, but what matters most is that she knows that she and her children will get three meals a day at Mary’s Place, Christmas or not, plus a serving of hope for a better future.