Partner Post: A Young Homeless Mother Fights to Survive in Bethany at ACT Theatre

Written for Firesteel by Hannah Hunthausen, Program Assistant, Seattle University’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project


Emily Chisholm as Crystal, the beleaguered single mom who has lost her home to foreclosure. Families made up over one-third of the country’s homeless population in 2013 and the majority of these families experiencing homelessness are female-headed. Photo credit: Chris Bennion.

“Fighting to survive doesn’t bring out the best in a person.”

I heard this truism spoken by one of the main characters in the new play Bethany at Seattle’s ACT Theatre on one of the first preview nights, and I saw it play out repeatedly and disturbingly.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favorite albums, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, in which we see characters’ dreams and spirits consumed by loss of jobs, debt and dignity.

In Bethany, Crystal, our heroine, fits this profile to a T – she’s lost her home and her daughter, and finds herself at the edge of a precipice. We watch as she faces setback after setback and as her desperate struggle to reunite her family – while keeping up appearances – eats away at her hope, judgment and sense of self.

Darragh Kennan and Emily Chisholm as Gary and Crystal sharing a McDonald’s meal on their first night as roommates in the foreclosed home. Foreclosure rates soared from 2008-2013 and Washington has been in the top 15 states in foreclosure activity according to Columbia Legal Services. Photo credit: Chris Bennion.

Foreclosing on the American Dream

We meet Crystal as she is breaking into an empty house that is not hers. Though she’s dressed smartly in a business suit for her sales job at the local Saturn dealership, we soon find out that she recently lost her house to foreclosure and has been living out of her car for days. She runs into Gary, an agoraphobic and mentally fragile drifter who’s already squatting in the house. The two form a delicate alliance and support one another as they navigate their otherwise isolating situation.

Framing the action of the play, Charlie, a motivational speaker, peddles a distorted version of the American dream: “There’s a higher power that guides our destiny, and He wants you to be rich!” This crass and deceptive vision of “manifest prosperity,” of security and stuff, reminiscent of Cadillac’s recent ‘Poolside’ ad, lies mockingly out of reach for the main characters, casting their desperation in cruel contrast. 

The action centers on Crystal and her unravelling plight to re-establish some stability in her life and regain custody of her five-year-old daughter, Bethany (the absent title character), who was taken away from her when she became homeless. In thrilling dramatic fashion, it all comes down to closing one last big sale.

Darragh Kennan and Emily Chisholm as Gary and Crystal. Gary holds up a picture of Bethany to Crystal’s face to see the resemblance. Five-year-old Bethany lives with her mother in their car for a time before being taken away. 2,709 kindergartners are homeless in Washington state alone, out of a staggering homeless schoolchild population of more than 30,000 in our state. Photo credit: Chris Bennion.

Fragile and Invisible Families

Crystal’s recession story is a reminder of the fragility of so many families in our midst – especially single-parent families. 

We don’t know much about Crystal’s previous circumstances. I was frustrated by this at first (at one point, Crystal says simply, “My only problem is that I lost my home,” which clearly doesn’t tell the whole story), but it leads us to imagine the possibilities as well as the special kind of struggle faced by single mothers. 

Was she abused or abandoned by a former partner? Divorced? Did a medical problem or emergency drain her resources? She has a job, but she probably experienced a significant salary reduction in an economy where people aren’t buying cars. Any one of these factors could push a single mom into the abyss.

Families like Crystal’s make up a startling portion of America’s homeless population: more than one-third are homeless families, and the majority are female-headed households. These vulnerable families often seem invisible because, like Crystal and her daughter, they may live out of their cars or couch-surf to avoid the dangers of the streets.

Darragh Brennan, Emily Chisholm and Richard Ziman. The condition of poverty imposes a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points according to a recent study. Photo credit: Chris Bennion.

Realism and Bad Decisions

So what did I think of Bethany? As the house lights came on, my reaction was mixed.

First, I questioned the realism of a key premise: would a mother really be stripped of custody of her child for being homeless? It turns out that, while unlikely, homelessness might be considered child neglect in and of itself in some states and therefore grounds for taking a child into protective custody or foster care.

On the other hand, Crystal’s struggle to get Bethany back feels real enough. Her interactions with a compassionate state social worker, whose hands are tied, certainly ring true.

Ultimately, I was most shocked and disgusted by the deception and manipulation Crystal resorts to in the end – even to the point of victimizing others. But I had to take a step back. We often hear about people going into “survival mode” when they are pushed into poverty and homelessness. This toxic stress can bring about bad decision-making, ranging from financial mismanagement to criminal activity. 

I had to remind myself that Crystal’s actions, while extreme, also come out of this vulnerable place.

Emily Chisholm and Darragh Kennan. Photo Credit: Chris Bennion.

A Tale of Extremes

Bethany is a highly dramatized tale of extremes: a fictionalized account not meant to be representative of the millions experiencing homelessness and poverty in our country.

And yet Crystal’s struggles are rooted in reality. She loses her home to foreclosure, just as thousands have in Washington since the beginning of the recession in 2008. She sleeps in her car for a time, like 993 people during the One Night Count in King County this past January. And Crystal faces losing her job when the recession comes knocking at the auto industry’s door.

We see Crystal’s story played out on the stage, but so many others are hidden from public view. They’re members of our community and they need our help. It’s important that we build supportive communities of service providers, policymakers, advocates and members of the faith community who work together.

Go see Bethany and come face to face with the human cost of homelessness.

Bethany runs April 11-May 4 at ACT Theatre. Photo: Hannah Hunthausen.

What Can You Do?

See Bethany at ACT Theatre through May 4.

Learn more about family homelessness on Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness Facebook page and here, at the Faith & Family Homelessness Project Blog.

Learn more about avoiding foreclosure through Washington’s 2011 Foreclosure Fairness Act, the Foreclosure Fairness Program,  and efforts by Columbia Legal Services and Seattle University School of Law’s Foreclosure Mediation Outreach Project.

Watch films that explore these issues, like American Winter, The Line, Inequality for All, A Place at the Tableand Inocente.

Encourage a high-school student to see Bethany and submit an essay about homelessness stereotypes to Firesteel’s Spark Change Essay Contest for High School Students.

Follow these advocates on Twitter: @BuildingChanges, @budget_policy, @firesteelwa, @HDC_SeaKC, @LisaGustaveson, @chinrichsen_su, @wliha, @Mb_society


Read more posts like this one in Firesteel’s “Culture Watch” series.

Have you seen Bethany? What did you think?


In the News – Voices from the Street: Aaron and Becca

Homeless kids can often find a hot meal and a hot shower. Maybe even a bed. But sometimes what they need most is a friend.

Originally posted in Crosscut by Florangela Davila

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of radio conversations between homeless youth. “Voices from the Street” will also be broadcast on KPLU-FM.

Homeless_Friends_Aaron_and_Becca_Florangela_Davila[1]On any given night in King County, as many as 1,000 youth are out on the streets. Crosscut News has been writing about these young people. And as part of our occasional series called “Voices From the Street,” reporter Florangela Davila will be bringing us radio conversations between between Aaron, who is 19, and Becca, who is 20.

They met at a Friends of Youth shelter on the Eastside. They talk about their friendship and about some of the lessons they’ve learned from being homeless. Aaron and Becca asked that we not use their last names.

The day after this interview, Becca moved into her own apartment. She’s now juggling two fast-food jobs and community college. Aaron has taken off to Alaska for a job on a fishing boat.

This story was produced by Crosscut’s Florangela Davila. Music (“Asa Nisi Masa”) is by Johnny Ripper. The Crosscut” series “Voices from the Street” can also be heard on KPLU-FM.

To see all Crosscut’s Kids@Risk coverage, click here.

In the News: What would it take to end family homelessness?

In the piece below, Metrotrends’ Sarah Gillespie helps us wrap our heads around the seemingly unattainable goal of ‘ending family homelessness.’ Our region is on the right track when it comes to proven models like coordinated entry, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing. Family homelessness is declining (albeit slowly) across the country, and by working together as a community to create systems, programs and services tailored to the needs of families, we can ensure that family homelessness is a “rare and brief” occurrence.


Author: Sarah Gillespie

Posted on Urban Institute’s MeTROTRENDS Blog: April 2nd, 2014

In February, the Obama administration announced a multi-pronged approach to ending family homelessness. But what does “ending” really mean?

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the working definition is that no family will be without shelter; should homelessness occur, it will be rare and brief. The HEARTH Act, which governs federal homeless emergency assistance programs, specifies that in high-performing communities, average homelessness should be less than 20 days and the share of people who return to homelessness within two years should be less than 5 percent.

According to USICH, the 2013 Point-In-Time Count found 70,960 families (222,197 people) homeless on a night in January, an 8-percent decline since 2010.


Though family homelessness is now declining, it was on the rise just a few years ago. In 2013, families accounted for 36 percent of the homeless population—58 percent of those family members were children. Homelessness damages children’s physical and emotional health, development and education, and undermines family stability. Homeless children are more likely to repeat grades in school compared with children in families receiving housing assistance; homelessness is the reason for foster placement for as many as three in ten foster children; nearly half experience symptoms of anxiety or depression.

To end family homelessness, the Interagency Council’s plan calls for four key strategy areas for federal, state, and local action:

  • A coordinated entry system
  • interventions tailored to the needs of families
  • linkages to local mainstream systems, and
  • A collection of evidence-based practices for this specific population.

When it comes to these four strategy areas, here’s what we know:

Not every family needs the same response when they experience homelessness. The crisis response system should incorporate coordinated interventions tailored to each family. To secure stable housing, a short-term solution may be enough for some families, but others may need a more long-term solution to interrupt the frequent-move, shelter-use cycle.

Yet very few differences exist between families with shorter and longer stays in the shelter system,even when compared with other low-income housed families. These families tend to have relatively low barriers to exiting the shelter system and almost universally do well with respect to their housing outcomes when they exit with housing subsidies, regardless of their length of stay in shelter.

A small number of families (2 to 8 percent of families using the shelter system), however, access shelter on a much higher average, three or more times the average use of other families.  This subset is more likely to have a younger, female head of household and high rates of intensive service use, including involvement with behavioral health and child protective services.  This group of families’ need for intensive services and a permanent housing solution points to the need for a supportive housing intervention within a system of coordinated responses to end family homelessness.

Here’s what we still need to learn:

How can we assess what is “enough” support for homeless families?  We are still trying to understand how interventions such as transitional housing and rapid re-housing outcomes compare in cost to communities.  The HUD Family Options Study is looking at both of these interventions, along with permanent subsidy and usual care.

How can we target families for whom supportive housing is most appropriate? The Urban Institute is conducting a national evaluation of a supportive housing demonstration for families involved in the child welfare system. Building on previous work by Vanderbilt University, this study will address how to prioritize high-need families at the intersection of the homeless and child welfare systems, an empirical question and a focal point of the evaluation which just launched this year.

The number of unsheltered families may be decreasing each year, but to meet the 2020 goal, we need to learn how to help families living in the shelter system successfully exit to permanent housing.

In the News – Report: Housing ‘Out of Reach’ for Minimum Wage Workers

This year’s Out of Reach report reveals that low-wage workers in Washington face a tough rental market, despite benefiting from the highest minimum wage at the state level and more recently a minimum wage in SeaTac that is more than twice the federal minimum wage. In Seatac, in order to afford a decent one-bedroom apartment, one would have to make $17.56 an hour (working full time), and in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment,  $21.60 an hour, according to the report.  These calculated housing wages are $2.56 and $6.60 per hour more, respectively, than the new groundbreaking minimum wage of $15 per hour. Food for thought… Read more about gaps between wages and housing costs in Sam Batko’s summary of the report below.

written by Sam Batko, for the National Alliance to End Homelessness
March 25, 2014
Yesterday, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) released its annual report on the low income housing needs in America, “Out of Reach 2014.”

In the report, NLIHC notes that the “Housing Wage,” i.e. the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford a decent two-bedroom rental unit at HUD’s estimated Fair Market Rent, is now $18.92 per hour.

That puts 2014’s Housing Wage 52 percent higher than it was in 2000. And, perhaps more strikingly, it means that a full-time minimum wage worker cannot afford a one-bedroom or two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent in any state in the U.S.

The states where a worker must make the highest wages to afford housing are:

  • Hawaii – $31.54 per hour
  • District of Columbia – $28.25 per hour
  • California – $26.04 per hour

In Hawaii, California, Maryland, DC, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, New Hampshire, Alaska, Delaware, and Connecticut, a minimum wage worker would have to work over 100 hours a week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment without paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing.

The most expensive Counties in the country all require a worker to make over $30.00 per hour and are predominantly located in California. The three most expensive counties are listed below:

  • Marin County, CA – $37.62 per hour
  • San Francisco County, CA – $37.62 per hour
  • San Mateo County, CA – $37.62 per hour

To see where your state stands, check out the map below from the report, which shows the hours someone would have to work at minimum wage in order to afford rent. For more information, check out the report itself.

map from NAEH out of reach report

Know Think Act: A Conference on Family Homelessness 2014

A Storify compiled by Hannah Hunthausen

Click on any of the images/tweets below to view our Storify of the event (Storify is a dynamic web tool that allows users to collate social media content to create and tell stories.)

Poverty immersion workshop kickoff

This past Saturday, March 15th, 2014, Puyallup Church of the Nazarene, a partner of SU’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project, hosted their second annual Conference on Family Homelessness. The conference consisted of two parts: a 3-hour Poverty Immersion Workshop in the morning, and a presentation on and call to participate in the church’s new WrapUp Ministry in the afternoon.

This was the Faith & Family Homelessness Project’s third time facilitating the Poverty Immersion Workshop, a powerful experiential learning activity that allows participants of all backgrounds to experience some of the struggles facing low-income individuals & families over the course of a simulated month. After two hours of waiting in line, struggling to pay bills, feed their families and make ends meet, participants were left feeling angry, frustrated and fired-up to go out and translate the experience into action and partnership for change in their community.

In the afternoon, PNC’s Pastor David Rodes and Bill Bowers of the One Another Foundation spoke about the Christian call to ministry and accompaniment with the poor and homeless. Sheryl Ice  of PNC’s WrapUp Ministry and Duke Paulson of Helping Hand House then spoke about the distinct role the church community can play in supporting and ‘wrapping around’ homeless families in Puyallup in partnership with local service providers as part of PNC’s new WrapUp ministry.

 All in all, a great day of learning and sharing about poverty and homelessness, culminating in a faith community’s commitment to fulfill its Christian calling by working to end family homelessness.

Click on any of the images below to see more tweets and social media coverage of the event:

pastor dave

Guest Post: Finding Hope in Human Connection

erica wickstrom

Erica Wickstrom graduated from Valparaiso University with a degree in social work in May of 2013. She is currently completing a year of service through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and is serving  Gethsemane Lutheran Church as neighborhood development intern.

I don’t know a lot about poverty and homelessness, but what little I do know is through my lived experiences, and especially my relationships with people. The story of my uncle is one that I feel compelled to share, but I want to explain first that when I began to write this blog post, I kept writing it in a way that wasn’t quite true. I wanted to make it neat, and I wanted it to have a clear message and a clear resolution, but I’m starting to figure out that life and death are more complicated than that. So this isn’t neat, and it’s not even very clear, but it’s true. And maybe sometimes all we can do is tell our truths, in the best ways we know how to do, and hope that by speaking them and by living them we can all be a little more human than we were before.

I moved to Seattle to be in community, both personally and professionally. I’d been working at Gethsemane for a few months when I found out that my uncle Jerry had died. The police had found his body, and they reported that he had been living homelessly for some time. He had died by suicide.


Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle. (Photo credit: Benjamin Benschneider, © 2014, Olson Kundig Architects)

I have been a believer in relationship for as long as I can remember. More than a believer; I’ve always lived relationship, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I can feel myself coming alive when I feel deeply connected to someone. I consider myself an introvert, but there is little that I love more in this world than those quiet, subtle moments when trust builds and connection flows. My uncle Jerry was not someone I had the chance to enjoy those kinds of moments with. I had only met him once, when I was a child, and I knew very little about him. But when he died, I felt our connection more than I ever had when he was alive. I didn’t miss him, because I hardly knew him, but he was my uncle, my flesh and blood, and something deep inside of me began to stir after he died.

It wasn’t exactly an awakening, because it wasn’t new. It was more of a deepening. I had always felt a strong connection to people, especially the people I worked with in a social work setting. But after Jerry died, that sense of connection began to develop another dimension. Maybe it’s compassion, maybe it’s interconnectedness, maybe it’s something I can’t name yet. I don’t know. But I do know that after Jerry died, I started seeing him everywhere. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that I began to experience my connection to people as intimately, and as intensely, as one does with a close family member. I knew, more clearly than I had ever known before, that my life was entirely intertwined with everyone else’s. It was like finding out that the people I met at our Saturday meal program, Soup and Movies, had grown up in my hometown. I never doubted anyone’s full personhood, but suddenly their personhood felt so very personal. I carried a little more carefully the gift of people’s trust, and I respected a little more gently people’s aversion to me and my privilege. I held people more heavily. I looked at my own privilege a little more honestly.


Photo credit: Benjamin Benschneider, © 2014, Olson Kundig Architects

It’s tempting to say that that newfound clarity changed my entire life, and that now I am doing something new and innovative and life-changing that will end homelessness forever. But the reality is that I’m still trying to understand how I can push back on my own privilege. I’m still trying to understand what it means to be my uncle’s niece, to have homelessness and suicidality run through my veins. I want to know why it is that my uncle’s homelessness made it that much more important to me to see other people’s humanity. I want to know what it will take for us, as a culture, to really open our eyes. Because for me, that’s the real problem of homelessness, more than anything else. It’s that we don’t know how to look at what is happening right in front of us. We use our privilege as an excuse to be blind, to be numb, and we ignore the fact that we’re losing our own ability to be human. We convince ourselves that homelessness is someone else’s problem, that we do not have the tools or the knowledge or the means to change anything.

        If anything I write today is true, it’s this. We are so much more capable of impacting positive change than we realize. We don’t need college degrees, or research, or the loss of someone dear to us, to understand that we are all interconnected, and we are all capable of ending homelessness. After all, we already have the tools we need to change the world for the better. We already have our hearts. We already have our minds. We already have each other. We just need to give ourselves the freedom to live into our humanity, in all its painful, vulnerable, resilient beauty, and trust that together, we can do so much more than we can imagine.

Let’s be human together.

Update: WA State Short Session Outcomes

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Liz Fenn and Hannah Hunthausen, Seattle University Graduate Students and Faith & Family Homelessness Project staff did their part to advocate at #HHAD14.

Thanks to our partners at the Committee to End Homelessness in King County for this great summary of the outcomes of the Washington State Legislative Session. 

With the short session, advocates worked hard on behalf of vulnerable men, women and children who depend on resources like the Document Recording Fee, Housing Trust fund and Extended Foster Care. The work begins for next year’s longer session. We encourage all who care deeply about the health and well-being of others to get involved with advocacy groups like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. With their expert organizing skills we can begin TODAY to plan for next year’s session. Join us if you believe It all Starts at Home! 

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