Purchase Photo Reprint Weekly Herald/CHRIS GOODENOW
Living homeless in her car, artist Sheri Collins pets her dog, Token, 8, a vizsla mix, Aug. 16 at Carkeek Park in Seattle. Collins removed the passenger seat of her car to make more room for Token.
It's a feeling she has to hold on to.
For the past 20 months, Collins, 41, has been living in her car.
She sunk into homelessness after suffering a mental health breakdown, going through a breakup with her partner, getting evicted from her home in north Seattle and finally losing her professional job.
It's been a dark and wrenching journey.
“When you are thrust into this homeless world, you are very protective and you try to hold on to everything you have,” she said. “We are out here carving out our own ways, and there's no one to navigate you.”
In a car in winter
It was winter when Collins found herself without a roof over her head. Living in a car in winter meant being huddled in her sleeping bag wearing six layers of clothes. Everything she owned was damp, and the inside of the windshield was often frozen.
In September, Collins' Labrador retriever, Powder, died of cancer. She spent most of the money she had saved from the previous year's tax return on Powder's care. She doesn't regret it. She doesn't know how she'd make it without the dogs' companionship.
The Puget Sound area is a manageable place to be homeless. The climate is mild and enough resources are available that no one has to go hungry, Collins said.
But it's the small acts of kindness from people in the community that make the biggest difference.
“I get these waves of goodness happen to me that remind me that people see me,” Collins said.
Sometimes it's just a hug and a kind word. The other day, a stranger in the grocery store parking lot offered to buy some dog food for Token. Another time, someone bought Collins groceries.
Making it all work
Collins lives on $150 a month she gets from her father in Arkansas. She decided not to sign up for food stamps or other assistance. The money pays for gas, dog food and her phone bill. She uses her smartphone to check email and browse the Internet.
She paid her car insurance earlier through the end of the year with some savings. A storage unit in Tukwila is paid until September, though Collins doesn't have enough money to keep it.
She goes to churches in north King and south Snohomish counties five days a week for meals and fellowship.
She usually parks her Mitsubishi in a parking lot in north Seattle, where it's legal for homeless folks to overnight.
She spends her afternoons making colorful abstract drawings on wood panels.
“When I'm doing my artwork, I zone out and forget that I'm homeless,” she said.
Making a better world
Collins suffers from panic attacks and other mental health issues that make it difficult for her to move forward. She has trouble with unfamiliar places and change.
Some resources are available for low-income and homeless people with mental health issues. Collins went through counseling at one point but it wasn't enough to help her. She believes she needs a kind of therapy that will retrain her brain to respond to things differently.
“There are pieces in my brain that are broken, but I believe that I can heal,” she said.
Collins is slowly moving toward that healing. Still, she doesn't want to leave the homeless world without making it better.
One of her ideas is making a handbook that can be distributed for free to those without homes. It would include tips like where to find hot water, and a list of places where free meals and clothing are available.
“There's such division in the homeless community,” Collins said. “If I don't show them by example that they can be treated as a human being, then who will?”
How to help
If you want to help Sheri Collins produce a handbook for people who are homeless, or if you know a therapist who can help Collins work through her mental health issues, email her at email@example.com.