After decades of homelessness and fearing the same for her daughter, Alyssa is making her home and her daughter’s future on Bainbridge Island.
Alyssa’s home is beautiful—the creation of a woman who never had a home before this one and is clever with decor and thrift-store finds and of her 5-year-old daughter Cali who loves rainbows and princesses and can draw hearts with both hands. The Christmas tree is decked out for Halloween. And the living room is animated by pink: pink gauzy curtains, pink velvet throw pillows, and pink paper roses that bloom on the wall above the couch. But the most animated and beautiful pink is the exuberant and talkative little girl who darts in and out, donning a pink shag coat.
“When we finally found out we were for sure getting the place, I spent everything I had,” says Alyssa. “I got Cali a princess bed, everything that she wanted for her room. She wanted rainbow curtains. I really was able to build a home for her. Nobody was ever able to do that for me, and without HRB, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. I’ve never had a home. I’m 34. I’ve never had anything before.”
When Alyssa was seven, the family suffered an unbearable tragedy. Alyssa’s father left for California, and then one day her mother, destroyed by grief, never came home, leaving Alyssa waiting and alone. Her grandparents in Enumclaw took her in. And that was the way it would be. “Luckily, I was never in foster care. My family saved me from that. They were never able to give me stability themselves because they were all struggling, but they kept me with them. And if an aunt couldn’t keep me, she’d send me to a cousin, or if my grandparents couldn’t keep me … It could have been a lot worse.”
But it was bad. When Alyssa was 13, she moved in with her 18-year-old sister who had applied for guardianship. The apartment was unsafe, a place where drugs were used and sold and strangers came and went. So at 17, Alyssa set off on her own, staying in hotels, with boyfriends, couch surfing, making it as far as New Mexico and finding work as she could. “I hustled. I did whatever I had to do just to have somewhere to be, to be welcomed somewhere, to fit in somewhere.”
From Federal Way where she was born to Tacoma, Buckley, Enumclaw, Puyallup, Poulsbo—and ultimately to Bainbridge Island, thanks to that same sister, who is now sober and married. She invited Alyssa and Cali to live with her family in Poulsbo, connected her to HRB, and helped her land a job as a front desk receptionist at the Quality Inn, where she also worked. Alyssa, once again, found refuge in family.
Having Cali changed everything. “I’m a different person now. But if I didn’t get this apartment, I don’t know where [I’d be] … Luckily I work at a hotel, so I would be able to stay there, but you can’t send the kid off to school from a hotel. I mean, it’s not sustainable. A little kid needs what I never had, like her own room and stuff to be excited about and just a home, you know.”
Alyssa appreciates that her struggle to find a home she could afford is not unique among those who make important contributions to the Bainbridge community and economy. “The people that work at Safeway, at Quality Inn, at the Chevron, at McDonalds and Walgreens, they can’t afford to rent a place here on the island … I could never afford to move out here and pay a deposit and first and last month’s rent and make three times the rent.
“It might seem like I have like such a small job, but I help with tourism, the people that come here and make the business owners money. I keep things going by being in the hotel industry. The person that works at Chevron, he rings up your gas so you can go and commute to wherever you have to go to. We play an integral part in the community, but it’s not affordable to live out here unless you’re lucky enough to get on some type of low-income or subsidized housing. I’m thankful that I’m out here. It’s such a beautiful area and has such great schools. I don’t have to worry about safety. That was always a big thing with how I grew up. I love it here. I really do. I’m really, really happy.”
And so is Cali. She attends kindergarten at Ordway Elementary and takes swim lessons at the aquatic center. She’s befriended the other kids in the HRB Island Home neighborhood and is out playing all the time, the mothers taking turns looking out for one another’s children. “It’s just awesome to be able to have her in that situation,” Alyssa says, “because stuff’s so simple. People don’t realize that this is … so normal for some people, but for other people, it’s something that didn’t even exist in their life.” Cali wants to be a veterinarian, but for now, she just really, really wants a kitten.