Portrait Of A Homeless Family: 17 Months, 25 Moves
Jessica Tossey is in the living room of her condo, getting herself and young son Blakely ready for their mile-long walk to church, where he goes to preschool.
Jessica puts on a bright orange sweatshirt, shoulders a backpack, grabs Blakely’s hand, and heads out the door.
Her family doesn’t have a car, so to get anywhere, they bus, get rides or walk.
Except there are very few sidewalks in this part of Des Moines. The only way to get to preschool is to walk the shoulder of Kent-Des Moines Road. Tossey uses her body to guard Blakely from traffic as best she can.
“No matter how much you hold your kids’ hands or tell them to stay close, they still wander,” Tossey said. “There’s times that cars – I don’t know if they don’t see us or do it on purpose – but they’ve almost hit us.”
Her husband, Jason Tossey, works at a construction site on Capitol Hill. Her eldest son, Dakota, goes to a school about two miles from the condo, and daughter Cheyenne goes to a different school in the Highline School District.
All the kids are involved in clubs at church or play sports. Without a car, Jessica Tossey has become a kind of transit logistics mastermind.
Still, where they live now affords the family the most stability they’ve had in a long time. Jessica Tossey estimates her family has probably moved 25 times since spring of 2013. She thinks that’s a conservative guess.
After the recession dried up construction work for Jason Tossey, the family became homeless.
When they were looking for a place to live, Jessica Tossey tried getting help from the King County's Family Housing Connection.
She said it felt like she called the Family Housing Connection’s 211 number 5 million times.
“They always said they had no help for us, or they’d give us numbers for places that said they had no more funding for the quarter or the year sometimes,” she said.
So the family got creative.
In early 2007, if you’d told Jessica Tossey she and her family would become homeless, she probably would have laughed. Her husband, Jason Tossey, had just joined the carpenters’ union and the couple used to joke about retiring at 65 with full benefits.
They lived in a four-bedroom house on a half-acre in Pierce County and they had plans with the landlords to lease-to-own the house.
Then the recession hit. Construction work slowed down. Jason Tossey took side jobs, but he couldn’t afford to pay his union dues so he lost his membership.
“We were starting to get pretty depressed at that point. We no longer had the security of being able to pay rent and put food on the table every month,” Jessica Tossey said. “We also lost the security of knowing our future was going to be fine.”
They rented an apartment and then a townhouse.
They tried starting their own business as deck and fence contractors, but the taxes were so expensive they had to shut it down. Jason Tossey left the state to train to become a cross-country semi-truck driver. And Jessica Tossey started selling nutritional shakes from a company called ViSalus to try to bring in extra income.
Then one day in spring 2013, Jessica came home to find a notice on the door of the townhouse.
“As I started reading it more, I realized it was from a mortgage company and it was addressed to the landlords, and I realized it was notice for intent for foreclosure,” Jessica Tossey said. “It even had an auction date on there.”
At that point, the couple had a third child, a baby boy named Blakely. But the landlords told the family they needed to leave the townhouse.
“The kids and I still stayed in the townhouse for a few days, even though we weren’t supposed to, just to have a roof over our head,” Jessica Tossey said.
After that, Jessica Tossey and the kids stayed with friends for a couple of weeks. Then they started staying in motels around SeaTac with weekly rates.
In September, Jason Tossey quit his training and came home to help his wife. On the bus trip home, he got a call from a friend who said a carpenter was needed for a temp job starting that Monday morning.
The job was in Mill Creek and the family was living in motels in SeaTac at the time, but he bussed up there with his carpentry bags and tools. The company hired him on full-time.
But the family still couldn’t get an apartment. Landlords kept rejecting their apartment applications because of an eviction on the couple's credit reports.
Jessica Tossey tried to fight the eviction, but landlords saw them as too big a risk.
In June 2014, they parked their SUV at Jason’s job site and slept there for three weeks. “We borrowed blankets from friends and locked the doors and listened to the radio until the kids fell asleep,” Jessica Tossey said.
By then, they’d been homeless for more than a year. Jessica Tossey told a friend she felt like a failure.
"She reinforces me and tells me I'm not, but it just seems like no matter what we do, we can’t ever get ahead or make a change that’s a permanent solution," Jessica Tossey said. "I’m 35, I don’t own a home, I have no working vehicles right now, I take the bus everywhere or walk. I do: I feel like a loser."
Around that time, Jessica Tossey got some money from her parents, and so the family bought a 26-foot travel trailer and parked it at the KOA Campground in Kent.
On sunny July days, their trailer was surrounded by vacationing couples and families. The KOA allowed long-term stays, so Jessica Tossey knew her family had a place to live for at least the next year to save money and plan their next move.
She seemed happy there. Her oldest son, Dakota, swam in the pool every day. Over that summer, he learned how to swim from one side to the other. “Something as little as this, it sort of makes other things go away out of my mind,” Jessica Tossey said.
But by December, the family was on the move again. “It just seemed like when the weather changed, things changed there too,” Jessica Tossey said.
The managers of the KOA had the Tosseys’ trailer towed out of the campground. That meant another few weeks of moving around to motels and friends’ houses.
But this time was different: Jessica Tossey got the family enrolled in a Rapid Re-Housing Program through the Highline School District and a nonprofit called Neighborhood House.
The program is more than just quickly finding people homes. It also includes discussions about budgeting with a goal of teaching people how to keep making rent. It also includes a monthly meeting with a case worker.
This Jan. 5, they got the keys and a 12-month lease to a condo in Des Moines, the city where Jessica Tossey grew up.
It couldn't have come at a better time: While the family was living at the KOA, Jessica Tossey found out she was pregnant with the family's fourth child.
"I was sort of shocked, and I hate to say I was in denial most of my first trimester. I’ve come to accept it now," she said. "I have to be, I only have about 10 weeks left."
When Jessica looks back over the last 17 months, she notes a focus she and her husband shared: No matter where they were sleeping or what they had to do next, they tried to keep their kids’ lives as consistent as possible.
“They got to stay in their same schools, same friends. We come to church every Sunday still, they go to Sunday school, they went to vacation Bible school this summer. They got to have all that,” she said.
Jessica said she knows the family could slip back into homelessness again if her husband gets hurt on the job. But when she looks to the future, she’s not thinking about her husband or herself.
“Are my children going to need counseling? Twenty or 30 years down the road will this affect them in their marriage or relationships or with co-workers? Did we do damage?” she wondered.
According to the National Center On Family Homelessness' 2012-2013 count, there were about 61,000 homeless children in Washington. This number includes families who are "doubled-up" in apartments, living in motels or utilizing campgrounds, like the Tosseys.
Jessica Tossey probably wouldn’t be surprised at those statistics. It’s something she’s seen herself. This past Thanksgiving, the Tosseys went to a church dinner with other families from daughter Cheyenne’s school.
“There were, I believe, 10 other families who were homeless. I was in shock. And that made me think – if there are 10 here, and those are just the families who showed, then what about the other schools?” she said.
It’s not clear how being homeless will affect the Tossey kids as they get older. But it is clear they’ll have other kids to talk to who have had the same experience.