Exhausted And Afraid, Young Homeless Woman Tells Herself 'Everything’s OK'

Feb 1, 2016

We meet Lisa Sawyer on the corner of 4th and Union in downtown Seattle. That’s where she sells the Real Change street paper every day.

Sawyer wears a Seahawks beanie, puffy coat, no makeup, loose pants and tennis shoes (she says she sometimes wears heels while selling the paper but her feet are so sore by the end of the day that she prefers her runners). It's been a while since she washed her hair. 

She has a small backpack with her, no other luggage or bags. She says people look at you differently when you carry all your stuff around with you, so she tries not to.

She is 29, enthusiastic, outgoing, and seems to have a flair for selling the papers. She stands on the corner calling out to passers-by — “Real Change, read all about it. Hot off the press. Get it while it’s new!”

She started living on the streets three years ago. Her rental house had burned down and she couldn’t find one she could afford. That’s how she ended up "outside" — the word she uses to mean sleeping on the streets.  

“I am exhausted,” she says. “I want to cook again, I want to watch TV again, I want to do my laundry. I don’t want someone else to do my laundry, because over here at Compass Center they do your laundry and they don’t put much soap in it. Sometimes they don’t put any soap in it at all. So I just want to be normal.”

We stand with her while she sells her last few papers for the day. She has a conversation with every person who stops to buy a paper. Some she seems to know well, others she just chats with about what’s in the paper, what they do, who they are.

Her last paper sold, Sawyer takes us to a small waterfront park where she and her boyfriend used to sleep.

Sawyer says shelters aren't an option for her. "It’s hard for me to be with my boyfriend right now," she says. "It’s hard to find a shelter because there’s no couple’s shelters."

Right now she’s living with a friend, but she wants to leave that house badly. Sawyer says there’s a lot of drug trafficking at the house and she says she’s woken up at all hours of the night by people coming to buy or sell drugs.

Sawyer says she’s been clean since she was 18. She says her friend’s house is a tough environment to be in as a recovered drug user. She looks at motels where she could move. Her main concern with motels is bed bugs, but she thinks she’s found a place that doesn’t have any.

I want to cook again, I want to watch TV again, I want to do my laundry. So I just want to be normal.

Living outside takes some cunning. You need to find a place where you can guard your stuff while you sleep, where you can be safe, where you won’t get kicked out in the middle of the night, she says. That’s why she and her boyfriend sometimes sleep in the park she’s taking us to. It’s next to the Seattle Aquarium.

“We sleep right in the corner where there’s a table and a bench because we feel more safe and secure,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about getting your stuff jacked behind you. You can see what’s right in front of you or next to you.”

It’s cold there in winter, she says, “but during the summer it felt so good. With the breeze coming off the water. You see the Ferris wheel at night when it lights up.”

But it wasn’t safe — especially not for lone women.

“You probably will get raped, get mugged or something,” Sawyer says. “I have a friend who was out here by herself, she’s in transitional housing right now, and she got raped when she was outside. I met a girl who got raped here when I first came outside, a couple of years back, about three years ago. Her body was dropped right in front of the waterfront with no clothes but a blanket over her. And she was only 16 years old.”

Lisa Sawyer eats part of a sandwich near the Seattle Aquarium. She saves the rest for later.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kate Walters

Before we set out, Sawyer sits down at a bench to eat. One of her Real Change customers gave her a PotBelly gift card for Christmas and she’s hooked on the pizza sandwiches.

She bows her head ever so briefly and puts her hands together for a short prayer. Then she takes a few bites of her lunch. She has to stop herself from eating it all at once. She wants to save some for later.

“Your appetite will surely change when you’re outside,” she says. “Your stomach will shrink. I usually eat a full plate of food while I was inside. Now I probably eat less than a third of it because I’ve been outside so long. You don’t eat that much because it’s so expensive.”

As she’s putting her sandwich back in her bag she looks over at a man lying on the bench next to her. She leans over and asks him if he’s hungry. He shakes his head. She asks if he’d like some of her sandwich. He shakes his head again so she puts it away.

Somehow the offer seems less like charity coming from her. There’s something in the way she talks to him that makes it sound like she’s just chatting to a friend who forgot to bring lunch to work. There’s no pity. Just understanding.

“Sometimes I just daze out, pretend that everything’s OK,” she says. “That helps me get through most of the day. Look at the good side of things, don’t look down upon the bad because you will break down over here.”

As tough as it is, Sawyer says she's found joy in selling the Real Change papers. It's part of the reason she stays in Seattle, she says it's what keeps her going. The other reason she stays is her mom. She's in a nursing home and Sawyer is her only child. And besides, Sawyer grew up here. 

"I'm 100 percent Seattliete and I deserve to be here," she says. "I deserve to have a home."

Sawyer is still looking for that home. She and her boyfriend both have some income and between them they can afford about $1,000 in rent a month. Sawyer's even part of the Rapid Rehousing program, which pays for first and last months' rent and security deposit. 

The program is designed to help lower the barrier of move-in costs. But even with all this help, Sawyer says she's still having trouble getting anyone to respond to her applications. 

"I feel like it’s really tough for people to accept a homeless person or a person that’s been outside to be in their place," she says.

"A lot of people are capable of stealing, I’m not one of them. A lot of people are druggies, I’m not one of them. I’m just an ordinary person that wants to be inside."

This segment originally aired Jan. 11, 2016.