Cathy | Hopelink

I Didn't Realize I was Homeless

Cathy began helping in the family business at 10; learning about restaurants from the inside out. She went to college, joined the National Guard and served in Korea, bought a house and started a business and a family. 

In 2009, Cathy and her two young sons were homeless.

The family had been caught in a perfect storm of misfortune, at the worst possible time in recent history. The American Dream – owning a home, a steady income, the promise of upward mobility – had crumbled, leaving in its wake foreclosure, bankruptcy and the end of a marriage. 

Until then, Cathy had always worked; always landed on her feet. When the bottom fell out, she was suddenly in freefall.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “It was really scary. I was desperate ... I didn’t know where we were going to live.”

When you’re already working at an age when a lot of 10-year-olds are playing with Barbie dolls, being homeless a few decades later isn’t even on the radar screen.

Cathy’s work ethic got its start at a country and western restaurant in South Dakota, when she and her three brothers began helping their mom run the business. 

“We were all treated like assistant managers,” she said. “That time gave us a great skill set, and experience in the hospitality industry.

“And that’s also why I went to college,” she laughed.

At 18, Cathy moved back to Montana, where the family had lived before relocating to South Dakota, and enrolled in junior college. She later transferred to a four-year school, and earned a degree in psychology. 

Along the way, Cathy vividly remembers one “quintessential moment” during her junior year.

She was walking down the hall in the liberal arts building, thinking, “what am I going to do with my life?” when she noticed a flashy poster on the wall.

“Join the Army and See Europe!” it read. 

She headed for the college’s ROTC office and signed up. 

Cathy spent six years in the service as a transportation officer, including a stint in Korea. She met her husband in the National Guard, married at 32, and lived in a couple of different states before settling in Washington.

By 2006, she and her husband were settled in a three-bedroom, ranch-style home in Duvall, raising sons Nathan and Michael, and running their own restaurant. It was everything the American Dream was supposed to be. 

But over time, the marriage began to falter. And as the economy grew weaker, the dream began to fade. The restaurant closed and the couple declared bankruptcy. Two months later, they separated. 

Cathy and her sons stayed in the house as long as they could, and for nearly a year, she looked for a place to live that she could afford; one that would enable her sons to stay in the same school.

“They’d already been through a lot, and I wanted to maintain stability for them,” she said.

But Cathy knew time was running out, and that foreclosure – and eviction – was imminent. 

“The foreclosure process is scary ... you don’t know where your kids are going to live,” she said. 

“I didn’t know what I was going to do – I couldn’t find anything I could afford, and I knew we were about to lose the house,” she said. 

Cathy happened to be in Hopelink’s Sno-Valley food bank when she noticed a flyer about housing.

“It had tear-off tags with a Hopelink phone number, and there were questions … ‘are you homeless? Do you have children?’ Whatever the six qualifications were to get into Hopelink housing, I met every single one of them,” she said.

Reality hit hard.

“I didn’t realize I was homeless,” Cathy said, “until that moment.”

In January 2009, Cathy and her sons, then nine and 11 years old, moved into apartment ‘A’ at Duvall Place – the very first family to occupy Hopelink’s new permanent supportive housing complex. 

 “The day we moved in, there was a feeling of huge relief,” Cathy said.

“I remember just being so afraid … I was worried about my boys. Moving in, it was such a good feeling to know I could provide for them, and that they had a roof over their heads … and that they would be able to stay at their school, and even walk to school.” 

Cathy threw herself into Hopelink programs and classes, determined to get back on her feet. She learned about managing finances, took every parenting course she could find and signed up for a vehicle ownership program. 

“I hadn’t ever used any social services; I hadn’t ever asked for help,” Cathy said. “But Hopelink opened my eyes to opportunity … I found out there were so many ways they could help me get out of my situation.”

Working with a case manager, Cathy said the regular meetings “held her accountable” and supported her as she put her life back together. 

Because she was required to find a source of income within the first few months, Cathy got a job with the Monroe School district as a kitchen manager, enabling her to remain focused on her number one priority: raising good kids. Working Monday through Friday with school breaks off, she was home with her boys as much as possible. 

“It was good that I was able to work for the schools; those are good hours for a mom,” she said.

“I take very seriously raising decent people ... and that’s one of the things Hopelink provided for me,” she said. 

Living in a place she could afford on her paycheck made a huge difference, but the hard work and perseverance needed to build a new foundation came from her. Cathy’s case manager refers to her as “superwoman.”

The day the family moved out of Duvall Place and into their own home was bittersweet. 

“I took advantage of everything Hopelink offered; I knew that was my way out,” Cathy said. “But that was also the home where my boys grew up.”

Today, Cathy’s steadfast commitment to “raising good kids” despite a devastating series of setbacks a few years ago has paid off. Both sons are thriving. 

Michael, now 19, is a musician and college sophomore enrolled in a selective composition program. He dreams of composing music and scoring films.

Nathan, 17, is an ‘A’ student who is acing difficult coursework in high school, and last year, spent 30 days kayaking with a youth group in the San Juans.

Cathy landed a great position in transportation with the Bellingham School District, and is eager to continue to grow professionally. That day when she learned from a flyer on the wall that she was truly homeless seems light years away.

Looking back, Cathy remembers turning to Hopelink for help as “probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made.” In hindsight, it also seems to be one of the best.