Out of work and living in his car, Seattle man found help that ‘mended me back together’

Read Time5 Minutes, 21 Seconds

KENT — Edward Henry remembers the Saturday when his life started to unravel.

He was working a shift as a loader/unloader in March 2017 at a Safeway warehouse in Auburn, a job he’d held for more than a quarter-century. He reached down to pick up a wood pallet, and he couldn’t lift it with his right arm. It felt weird, but he finished his shift. He used his left hand.

The next day he felt sore. The day after that he went to the doctor. He had degenerative discs in his neck, and problems with seven vertebrae. He needed surgery.

He couldn’t work. He got a lawyer and collected workers’ comp. But it was far less than he’d been making. And after six months, the payments stopped.

By January, 10 months after that Saturday shift, Henry, 55, had burned through savings and could no longer afford the rent on his Beacon Hill home. His wife, son and daughter went to live with Henry’s older, grown children and he moved into his 2005 Honda Accord.

He parked and slept in a Walmart parking lot. He was asked to leave. He parked on side streets. He stayed in motels. He called a couple of agencies, but nothing came of it. He met a substantial chunk of the Auburn Police Department — officers, sergeants, night commanders — and one of them gave him a card for a woman who might be able to help.

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So he called Tina Lewis, an outreach coordinator with The Salvation Army who specializes in people living in their cars in South King County.

“I didn’t think it would go far,” Henry said. “I’m thinking, what can she really do for me?”

Within weeks, Henry was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Kent. The Salvation Army provided the deposit, first month’s rent and furniture, and filled the fridge with food.

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The Salvation Army, one of 12 agencies benefiting from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, provides food, shelter, rehab and emergency services to about 50,000 people a year in King County. And demand for services is rising. The organization helped pay the rent for nearly 2,500 more families in 2019 than in 2018, and provided 27,000 more nights of lodging in its shelters across King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

When Lewis, who usually has around 70 clients at a time, got Henry’s call, she focused on the immediate problems at hand. She told him to keep his head up. She asked where he was living — sometimes in his car, sometimes in motels — and what was going on in his life.

What are the barriers that are keeping you from being housed right now, she asks her clients. Have you had evictions? Do you have anything in collections? Judgments against you? A criminal background, and if so, from how long ago?

Tina Lewis, outreach and community engagement program manager for The Salvation Army, stands outside of an affordable housing building in Kent, where she has found housing for many people. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Tina Lewis, outreach and community engagement program manager for The Salvation Army, stands outside of an affordable housing building in Kent, where she has found housing for many people. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Tina Lewis, outreach and community engagement program manager for The Salvation Army, stands outside of an affordable housing building in Kent, where she has found housing for many people. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

After, she’ll meet with clients and have them sign a release so she can talk with landlords on their behalf.

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Lewis found the apartment in Kent, in a building reserved for low-income tenants, and “next thing I know, all I have to do is go down there and fill out paperwork,” Henry said.

“I talked to them a little bit, and then I was in. It was amazing, it was so …” Henry paused, searching for the word.

“Smooth?” Lewis offered.

“Smooth,” he said. “It’s hard to find the words because I wasn’t expecting it, and it occurred, all on her behalf. However she talked to them, presented me, I felt good. It’s like a mom almost, you know? I just put my life in this lady’s hands, and she helped me out.”

Rent was listed at $1,500 a month, Henry said, but she got them down to just under $1,200.

“I don’t know,” Lewis shrugged. “I have a gift of gab.”

Henry’s got a porch, and a grill, and a spare bedroom so his kids can stay with him.

What your donation means to The Salvation Army

$25: Provides one night at an emergency cold-weather shelter

$50: Provides one month of heat for a family in danger of having utilities shut off

$100: Provides a food box to feed two to three people for one week

$200: Provides ongoing work with a housing navigator, to assist a homeless neighbor with referrals, resources and help to transition into permanent housing

A couple of months after he moved in, he had his neck surgery, getting three replacement discs. Lewis gave him bus passes to get around. She drove him from Kent to Bellevue — “in traffic,” he adds — to the Safeway administrative offices to talk about going back to work.

In September 2018, he got his old job back. He’s been with Safeway for 32 years — as a bagger, a checker, a night stocker and now as a loader/unloader in the warehouse. “They put three kids through college, I’ve got two left,” he says.

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“I look back and it seems like everything was knotted up as I met Tina, and then everything came unknotted,” he said. “Salvation Army was the agency that actually came through, helped me, mended me back together again, and sent me on my way.”

The organization focuses on six areas: shelter, food assistance, addiction recovery, youth programs, domestic violence programs and emergency services.

Jonathan Harvey, general secretary of the Salvation Army’s Northwest Division, said Henry is typical of a lot of the people they help. He had a house. He had a job. He hit a rough patch. He lost it all.

“He was an individual that was working, absolutely has a desire to be a fully engaged member of our community, but found himself in a really difficult situation that led to him being homeless,” Harvey said. “That’s not an untypical reality.”

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