OLYMPIA — Mindy Woods has told her story countless times, but each retelling still brings tears to her eyes. Her voice catches just a little as she recalls the two times she was homeless.
The first time, the Edmonds resident was too embarrassed to even tell her closest friends that she and her 13-year-old son no longer had a home.
Things shifted early one morning several years ago. She was living in a hotel the YWCA was renting for her until shelter space became available. As she was leaving to take her son to school, she bumped into her son’s best friend and his father in the exact same situation.
“That was the day that opened my eyes that I needed to let go of my pride,” Woods said. “I needed to get over my shame, my embarrassment. I just felt change wasn’t going to happen unless people knew.”
After that, she opened up to her church congregation about her struggles to find housing.
“The world kept spinning,” she said. “Horrible things didn’t happen.”
She continued to share her story, from small community groups all the way to the state capital.
This legislative session she was a constant figure in Olympia representing the Resident Action Project. A statewide group with over 800 members, it was launched by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance in 2015. It is comprised largely of homeless and formerly homeless advocates.
The group has become an important voice and presence advocating for housing reforms and shaping policy that truly meets the needs of the people affected, said Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett.
“We hear from lobbyists all time,” Robinson said. “To hear from a person who has that lived experience, who has been evicted or has been homeless, has lived on the street or in their car, and then for them to have the courage to tell their story and want to change policy to make it better for others, it’s very impactful.
“It definitely moves hearts and minds when you get that real story.”
Advocates made unprecedented gains at the state level this year; from reforming housing laws to increasing funds for affordable housing.
Resident Action Project
Woods has lost track of the times she’s made the 80-mile trek this year down I-5 from her apartment in Edmonds to Olympia in her 1997 Honda Accord. In February, she joined more than 600 housing advocates from Snohomish County and across the state for the official Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day.
That day, small groups roamed the Capitol’s long hallways meeting with legislators from their districts. Woods led a group of about eight.
At each encounter, Woods would quickly summarize her story, using her hands for emphasis. During her period of homelessness she had a legal pad with 45 service providers, though not one had an open room when Woods needed help.
“So many people are hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” Woods told one representative.
As each discussion wrapped up, without hesitation, Woods would make the big ask — for an increase in dollars allocated to the housing trust fund. The Resident Action Project, also known as RAP, wanted to see legislators put in $200 million in the next budget, up from $112 million.
“This is so reasonable, I can’t believe we aren’t there yet,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, when the group met with her. “Affordable housing is becoming more and more difficult to find.”
“Though $200 million won’t come close to meeting the need,” chimed in Mary Anne Dillon, executive director of the YWCA Snohomish branch who was part of Woods’ group.
Woods first found herself at the Capitol when she was living at a YWCA shelter. She was there to push for more funding for that program and others like it.
She returned a few years later when housing advocates began lobbying for source-of-income protections — that ban landlords from refusing to accept rental assistance, such as Section 8 housing vouchers.
At the time, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance was forming an Emerging Advocate Program to train people who are homeless or formerly unsheltered to influence housing policies. Woods joined that first class.
The group was the predecessor to RAP.
“There are more than 100,000 affordable housing units around the state. Our belief was if we could organize just a portion, even just a small percentage, that would be a huge new power base,” said Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
RAP’s regular presence in Olympia has helped bring attention to their cause and was an integral part of the bills that passed, Myers said.
“People with this direct experience can tell stories in ways that stick differently than just sharing a bunch of numbers and facts and data. It adds the human side,” Myers said. “Our strong belief is that we will get better policy if the people who are most directly impacted have a seat at the table in developing that policy and in pushing that policy.”
During the years the Housing Alliance lobbied for the bill, which was eventually approved in 2018, the need for that legislation became a reality for Woods.
Her landlord no longer wanted to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. Woods was given 20 days to leave. She was unable to find a place that would take rental assistance before her lease expired, leaving her without shelter once again.
“I had more passion and anger about it. This was not okay,” Woods said. “I had a voucher in hand with nowhere to use it. I was denied by nine landlords who wouldn’t take Section 8.”
And those were the ones who called her back. Countless others never responded to her message or explicitly said they didn’t accept tenants using rental assistance.
At the time many state lawmakers didn’t quite understand the real implications of this or thought it was a Seattle problem, Robinson said.
“So to have someone like Mindy be able to tell her very real story about how she literally was homeless because of that discrimination and what that did to her and her son and how that affected her life, that is very powerful,” Robinson said. “You can no longer brush that aside as something that doesn’t impact real people when you have someone sitting right there tell you how it has impacted their life.”
The Legislature passed a wide range of housing bills this year, ranging from increasing funds for affordable housing to reforming the eviction process.
“It really was a banner year both in policy and budget allocation for affordable housing,” Robinson said. “It was a combination of a year we had enough votes, quite frankly to move policy, and many legislators talking about the issue and really wanting to do something about the issue to respond to their communities.”
Legislators put $175 million in the budget for the housing trust fund, the highest amount ever.
One of the biggest wins for RAP and the Housing Alliance was changes to eviction law, said Myers, with the Housing Alliance.
“Evictions are a direct pipeline for many people into homelessness,” Myers said. “I see that bill as a homeless prevention bill.”
Nonpayment of rent is by far the most common reason a tenant faces eviction, according to a report from the Seattle Women’s Commission. A majority of these cases were for less than one month’s rent. The study focused on renters in Seattle.
Under the new law, renters will have 14 days to catch up with a missed rent payment. Before tenants had only three days to pay or vacate to avoid an eviction lawsuit, which stays on a renter’s record and can impact future housing options.
“Fourteen days is enough time for many people to be able to get another paycheck and catch up on their late rent, to be able to borrow money from friends or family,” Myers said. “People are pretty creative if they have some time to put things together to not lose their housing because it’s such a priority.”
Critics argued the bill will cause many small landlords to sell their units, impacting the inventory of apartments on the market. They also say lengthening the eviction period could endanger mortgage payments.
Another bill that lawmakers approved this year doubles the time to 60 days landlords must give tenants for rent increases.
It was introduced by Robinson, who also drafted and got passed a bill to allow local jurisdictions to keep a portion of the state sales tax for affordable housing.
“We saw this as a way to infuse additional funding into local communities to address the need,” she said. “By giving them local control they can use it in a way that makes the most sense for their communities. Some places will build housing, others will use it to operate existing housing.”
Becoming an advocate
“I never thought I’d be politically active,” Woods said. “But people with the lived experience are often left out of the conversation.”
Woods rarely turns down a chance to share her story. Recently she joined about a dozen people on stage to share personal memories about homelessness to a Seattle audience. A few days later she spoke to roomful of real estate agents.
“My point is to show that it can happen to anyone,” she said. “I am white and privileged and have resources, and it still happened to me.”
She also works to recruit others with similar experiences to RAP, showing them how on their smartphone they can connect to others in a similar situation, use social media for advocacy, and contact their elected leaders.
“Folks with the personal experience are not just the best spokespeople, but in many cases the best organizers of bringing their neighbors of folks in the communities along,” Myers said.
Even in Woods’ case, if it means constantly recounting her story about one of the hardest times in her life, it isn’t easy.
“Mindy has a place now, she doesn’t need to be doing this,” Myers said. “But she has such a deep understanding of what it was like for her when she was experiencing homelessness that she doesn’t want that to happen for other people.”
Each retelling is traumatic, Woods said, comparing it to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That’s why I feel so strongly that housing is a human right. Everyone deserves a safe, affordable, healthy place to call home,” she said. “It’s not okay, not in the richest country on Earth. With all the money and resources we have, we shouldn’t have people living outside.”