What it took for one man to move from a tent to an apartment
Author's note: I've covered homelessness for more than three years for KNKX. I knew how challenging it was for anyone to get out of that situation, especially those considered chronically homeless. But this story was the first time I got to witness just how difficult that path can be. I interviewed Jayson Chambers both at the beginning and the end of a one-year journey from a tent on Tacoma's tideflats to an apartment in Puyallup. The journey literally almost killed him. For me, it was a lesson in how people can get lost in the interlocking systems that touch their lives. But it also showed how even people facing some of the most daunting obstacles can escape homelessness. (This story originally aired March 14).
After five years on the streets of Tacoma, March 2018 marked a turning point for Jayson Chambers.
He had moved from a sprawling encampment on the tideflats into a city-sanctioned tent community, where a team of caseworkers prioritized moving people out of homelessness.
He had opened up to one caseworker there who helped him get on methadone, an opioid prescribed to replace heroin in people trying to overcome addiction. And he was on his way to securing a home through a nonprofit.
"The light at the end of the tunnel is definitely seeable," Chambers said at the time.
But getting there took more than he ever imagined. A year after that first glimpse of light, Chambers has finally moved into an apartment, his first home in more than half a decade.
KNKX reporter Will James, who met Chambers last year, followed up with him recently to learn about what it takes to escape homelessness. For Chambers, it required navigating addiction treatment, housing programs, and the criminal justice system.
The path was marked by setbacks, a stint in jail, and a near-death experience.
Chambers, now in his late 30s, said his mother introduced him to drugs when he was a pre-teen growing up in Tacoma. Drugs, primarily heroin, pervaded his life.
His first task on the path out of homelessness was to take care of a warrant related to a 2015 drug possession charge.
Over the years, police picked him up on the warrant again and again. They would jail him for about 30 days, then release him and order him to report to a corrections officer in Mason County. Chambers had an old address there.
But Chambers, who was homeless in Tacoma, had no way of traveling the 50-plus miles to the state Department of Corrections office in Shelton. He'd fail to report there. After 24 hours, he'd have a warrant out for his arrest once again.
Chambers estimates he was jailed five times as a result of the same charge. Until he dealt with the warrant, it would keep happening.
This time, he had help from his caseworker, Dawn Bohl, an employee of Catholic Community Services. The nonprofit runs the City of Tacoma's tent community.
Bohl, who has dealt with addiction herself, left a corporate job in international logistics for what she saw as more meaningful work, helping people like Chambers. She has about 20 clients in the tent city at a time.
Bohl and Chambers came up plan to have him report to jail, serve his time, then transfer his community supervision to the corrections office in Pierce County.
But, before they could execute the plan, Chambers was stopped by a Tacoma police officer one night for jaywalking outside the tent city. The officer saw his outstanding warrant and booked him into Pierce County Jail.
Pierce County does not provide methadone to jail inmates. Without the medication for the first time in months, Chambers began to go through the painful process of withdrawal.
"Day three sets in and I was talking to Mickey Mouse," he said. "I was a mess."
With no contact with the outside world, he worried that he would lose his referral to a housing program and perhaps even forfeit his spot in the tent city, which is usually at capacity with a long waitlist.
"I'm sitting in there the first couple days thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm going to be homeless again," Chambers said. "'I'm going to be under the bridge again.'"
Bohl, meanwhile was trying to transfer Chambers' community supervision assignment to Pierce County, but was told over the phone that the state couldn't do that unless he had an address in the county. Because he was homeless, there was nothing they could do.
Once Chambers was released, Bohl drove him to the corrections office in Shelton to plead their case in person. It worked. Chambers would do his community supervision close to home.
But the victory came at a cost. Chambers lost his referral to a housing program while he was in jail. He also lost his spot in the tent city, and had to return to the streets for a few days before he was allowed back in.
Chambers had another problem. He had to get back on methadone quickly. He feared that, if he didn't, he would fall back into heroin use.
When he returned to the methadone clinic in Lakewood, after a month in jail, he received his first dose in weeks. But he left the appointment believing he would have to provide a dirty urine sample — a sample that tested positive for heroin — if he wanted to continue in the program.
Amy Creaser, the manager of the Northwest Integrated Health clinic in Lakewood, said that's not a requirement of the program and it's possible Chambers misinterpreted what he was told.
Either way, Chambers bought $5 worth of heroin and snorted it at a bus stop before walking back to the tent city. That's where his memory stops.
"I remember sitting down for a minute, talking to somebody, then coming to my senses with the EMTs surrounding me, cutting off my jacket," Chambers said.
After a month detoxing, the combination of methadone and heroin was enough to cause him to overdose.
"I heard about it the next morning," Bohl said. "To my understanding and to everybody there, he was blue. He was OD'd. Everybody thought he was dead."
Chambers said it took five hits of the overdose-reversal drug Narcan to bring him back.
When he woke up, what he felt was humiliation. At the tent city, he had developed a reputation as a mentor for residents in recovery and had convinced others to enter the methadone program.
"I just remember looking up and looking over and seeing staff and going, 'No, no, this is not happening here,'" Chambers said. "And I just wanted to die."
Chambers was kicked out of the tent city again, because supervisors believed he broke the rules by using drugs on site. He was back on the streets. But, after Bohl explained that Chambers used the heroin off site, he was again allowed to return.
Chambers continued living in the tent city, reporting to his corrections officer, and taking methadone daily. He eventually got word the nonprofit Share and Care House could provide an apartment for him in Puyallup. Because he had no income, it would be rent free.
He moved there in February, shortly before snow blanketed the Puget Sound region.
"I'm inside," he said, looking out his bedroom window one snowy day. "I'm not outside in the elements no more. So that is an amazing feeling."
The apartment is a simple space, a one-story home in a row of identical ones. The only items in the living room are a stand-up lamp and a recliner where Chambers sleeps.
Nearly 200 people have passed through Tacoma's tent city, according to numbers provided by Catholic Community Services.
Nearly 40 percent, like Chambers, have moved to a home. But 60 percent either returned to the streets or disappeared without saying where they were going.
To Bohl, Chambers's case is an example of how steep the climb out of homelessness can be, and how bureaucracies can make it even steeper.
"All the steps that he was trying to take to stay in compliance with everything is also what caused him to overdose," she said.
To Chambers, his story points to the necessity of having an advocate like Bohl. He credits moving to the tent city, and meeting her, with saving his life.
"I probably would be dead already," he said. "I'd probably be underneath one of them bridges, overdosed."
Challenges remain. Chambers is still getting used to living indoors.
"It's different," he said. "Kind of like that feeling you get when you stay the night at a friend's house as a kid. Listen to that — It's quiet. That, in itself, is something I'm not used to."
The first night Chambers stayed in the apartment, he said, he stepped outside and almost walked back to the familiar noise and chaos of the tent city. Before he did, he paused in the cold to look at an icicle.
"I had a flashback of all the nights I been outside with no blanket and huddled up underneath a doorway on Tacoma Avenue or wherever freezing to death, thinking, 'Am I going to die tonight? Am I actually going to freeze to death tonight?’" he said.
"All that came to me. I remember that. I was like, 'Wow. Yeah, it’s over now.'"
He said he went back inside, locked the door, and fell asleep on the recliner.