Surviving the streets: Former homeless woman appreciates system of support


Tessa Skilton started taking care of herself in a local shelter and now has her own apartment

Tessa Skilton has a small backyard, just outside the sliding glass door of her apartment.

“It’s like my little Eden,” Skilton said. “I can’t be kicked off. I can’t be told to leave. I can enjoy it the way it is.”

After 10 years of living on the street, after years of addiction, Skilton has a place of her own.

Tessa Skilton, left, and her friend Alicia Stanard are thrilled that Skilton has her own apartment. Skilton spent 10 years on the streets, homeless. Photo by Mike Schultz
Tessa Skilton, left, and her friend Alicia Stanard are thrilled that Skilton has her own apartment. Skilton spent 10 years on the streets, homeless. Photo by Mike Schultz

“Get on the list. Definitely get on the list,” she said. “Contact the resources. They are there for a reason. Somewhere, there is someone who can help you.

“There are so many displaced people in our society who are just wanting to be productive members of society,” she added. “They just need a hand up, not a handout.”

Skilton got into the system, and soon after, she was placed in a shelter for women at St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church.

It likely saved her life. 

“I was suicidal. I was just at my wit’s end,” Skilton said. “I had spent 10 years out on the street. It just gets to you. A person can only take so much. When I got the opportunity to get into a shelter, I jumped on it.”

While in the shelter, she took advantage. Showers. Bathroom. Electricity to charge her phone. A mailing address. From the shelter, she was able to sign up for more programs, to seek more aid. Eventually, she received a voucher for housing.

That’s when she found her apartment. It has been a year now since she has been living in her little piece of paradise. 

Earlier this month, the Vancouver Housing Authority, the city of Vancouver, and Clark County gave notice that the Howard Johnson Hotel near Vancouver Mall would be purchased and turned into a 24-hour shelter. Some local business owners expressed concern over the plan.

Skilton, on the other hand, said Southwest Washington needs more shelters. She is living proof that the system can work. Emphasis on living.

Available resources
There are several resources available for a community member who wants to connect a homeless person to assistance, according to the Council for the Homeless.
• Call a homeless street outreach team from SeaMar Health at (360) 831-0908 (option No. 2).
• Call Share at (360) 980-0040.
• Call the Janus youth program, for those under 25, at (360) 314-5716.
• If in a mental health crisis, call 1 (800) 626-8137.
• And for access to shelters, call (360) 695-9677.
• There is also a toolkit on the best ways to talk and offer help to the homeless.
https://www.councilforthehomeless.org/business-toolkit/

The Council for the Homeless also reminds folks to be kind. They are in a crisis.

“It would be a good stepping stone for a lot of people,” she said. “Once they get into a shelter, they have the opportunity to reach out to other resources. You don’t when you’re on the street. You’re very limited on the street.

“Having a phone, being able to be directly contacted, that was vital. A mailing address, too.”

Kate Budd, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said she is proud of Skilton, for enduring, for surviving, for accepting the help.

“We know the need is there,” Budd said. “Most folks are trying to increase the quality of life and get into housing and get out of the crisis that homelessness has put them in.”

The shelter at St. Luke’s was not extravagant by any means. Bed. Electricity. Plumbing. That’s all Skilton could hope for after so long on the streets.

It gave her a chance to start working on her own self care, though. Drug use is prohibited while in the shelter. No drug paraphernalia is allowed. That does not mean Skilton, 41, was 100 percent clean. She acknowledged she slipped when she was away from the shelter during the day at times. (Back then, St. Luke’s shelter was not a 24-hour residential shelter. It is now.) But she started to see the benefits of sober living.

“In my opinion, most people who are in the shelters are trying to get away from drug use,” Skilton said. “It’s a process.”

Many who get into shelters are then added to a list to receive housing. Budd said priority is given based on the level of vulnerability. In Skilton’s case, she received a housing choice voucher within a few months. It can take a year or more for others. 

“I kind of won the lottery, I guess you could say,” Skilton said.

She was in Tacoma when she first found herself without a home. She spent seven years there before returning to Clark County, where she was raised. She was on the street for almost three more years.

Her experiences were horrific. She recalls in vivid detail her worst night.

“Don’t hesitate. If it’s bad enough to pull your knife, it’s bad enough to use it,” Skilton said.

Instead, she hesitated. The man got her knife. Skilton was raped.

When the attack was over, the man returned the knife to Skilton, then fell asleep. She had the chance to kill her attacker.

“All the many thoughts that went through my head at that moment were not good. None of them were good,” she said. “I had to seriously, with the help of God, force myself to leave.”

She found a police officer instead.

Tessa Skilton wants other homeless people to understand there are resources available. The system can work, she says. Photo by Mike Schultz
Tessa Skilton wants other homeless people to understand there are resources available. The system can work, she says. Photo by Mike Schultz

Looking back, she said her attacker probably was treated better by law enforcement than he would have been by Skilton’s friends. Homeless people, she said, usually have each other’s backs.

“If someone’s got food, we share,” Skilton said. “We share what meager amounts we get.”

Skilton was known for having peanut butter and jelly “on the regular,” so she made sandwiches for her and her friends whenever bread was available.

“There are a lot of good people out there,” she said.

That includes those who help the homeless. There was an older couple from a church who always brought food for her cat. For Skilton, taking care of Meow-Meow Momma was a higher priority than taking care of herself.

“She was my partner, my best friend. She didn’t have to be there,” Skilton said. “She was a great ratter. I think I was the only person in Tacoma who was homeless with a rat-free camp.”

One day on the streets in Vancouver, Skilton was sleeping under a tarp on the muddy ground when Charles Hanset walked by and tripped over her. The two started talking.

Today, Hanset is the Community Resource Coordinator at Recovery Cafe Clark County, a school for recovery. Back then, he was about to be inspired.

“He asked me my story,” Skilton said.

From that conversation, Hanset vowed to organize a group of people to start helping the homeless.

“I remember thinking he was going to get his heart broken when he didn’t achieve it, but he did,” Skilton said.

Thrive to Survive Drive started after that talk with Skilton. 

“Tessa is one of our miracle stories,” Hanset said. “She’s the reason I started doing homeless drives and outreach, and now she’s part of my nonprofit.”

There is a reason for everything, right?

“I helped hundreds of people, which means a lot,” Skilton said. “It wasn’t all for nothing. All the struggles I went through, it was not all for nothing.”

Today, she is living off of social security income. She has been out of the job market for so long, but the goal is to take occupational skills training offered by Goodwill and find work. She is proud to say she has been clean of drug use for nearly seven months. 

She has a new confidence.

“I just got my teeth, too, a couple weeks ago,” she said with a smile, flashing the new teeth to take the place of the 13 that were pulled after years of meth abuse.

“Instead of chasing bags of dope, I was chasing dental appointments,” Skilton said. “Finally, I was responsible and took care of me.”

Tessa Skilton said asking for, and accepting, help likely saved her life. She got into a shelter, started working on taking care of herself, and today she has her own place. Photo by Mike Schultz
Tessa Skilton said asking for, and accepting, help likely saved her life. She got into a shelter, started working on taking care of herself, and today she has her own place. Photo by Mike Schultz

Her first dental appointments, by the way, came when she was in the shelter. Yet another benefit of asking for help.

One of the best days of her new life came when she was approved for housing, and Skilton went searching for a place to call her own.

“You don’t find many apartments with a yard,” she said.

She applied immediately.

For the first time, she was going to be on a lease all by herself.

“It’s amazing. I didn’t realize there were so many pages to sign. There’s a lot to go into a lease. I was getting tired of signing my name,” she said. “Am I signing my life away?”

On the contrary, she was starting a new life. 

“It’s like I’m finally exhaling, finally breathing, like I’ve been holding my breath,” Skilton said. “You’re constantly on guard in the streets.”

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About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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