How one woman finds hope when 'nothing good ever happens'
When Kamla Patton approached bottom last week, she was in familiar territory. She had scraped it a time or two or three before. Actually, she was so familiar with tribulation, she knew immediately there was a lower level to which she could have sunk.
“I wake up every day just thankful I’m alive,” Patton says.
Because there’s still that alternative — not being alive. And Patton says if she had followed her usual course, she probably would have ignored the electrical short emanating below the glove box, right in front of her daughter, Damiana, whom she was driving to school. She probably would have kept on motoring down Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
But something in Patton’s gut told her to pull over and rush her daughter out of the sputtering vehicle. As soon as they exited, the car burst into flames. Already homeless, they lost everything but each other.
“I think all the time about how close I came to not being here today, how my baby … ,” Patton says quietly, her voice cracking. She quickly, almost furtively, dabs a tear welling in the corner of an eye; it seems an oft-employed gesture.
We all know folks who say, as Patton did during a recent conversation at her niece’s Rainier Beach home, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.” But how many of us know someone like Patton who embodies that sentiment? And how many of us are just a toss of the dice away from the vortex of misfortune that swallows up people like her?
Patton once dreamed of becoming a sign-language interpreter but, at 55 years old, has gone the wrong way at too many forks in the road of life. She survived having been in the backseat with her brother when a drunken driver T-boned her mother’s station wagon. She overcame learning disabilities enough to earn her GED but not continue her education any further. She cleaned houses for more than two decades with her sister’s company. She endured her second son’s abusive father, finally wriggling from his rage with a permanent restraining order.
All of that perseverance paved the way to a one-day-a-week, part-time job as a nutritionist in Seattle Public Schools and, five years ago, a moldy apartment in Kent. Patton started complaining about the mold immediately. She found some in her dishwasher; the complex’s maintenance director said it was paint from her plates.
Her downstairs neighbor, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Hasoni, for fear of legal entanglement, also found mold. Another of their neighbors crashed his car through Hasoni’s unit, exposing mold everywhere. They and every other neighbor who complained were advised to spray the mold with bleach, keep their units well-heated but sleep with the windows open at night.
After a petition from tenants, several denials from the complex’s management, and many complaints to the City of Kent, Patton could not take it any longer and moved out at the end of January. She has a photo of herself and a badly swollen eye she says is the result of exposure to the mold; she has respiratory ailments that persist. Hasoni moved out months before Patton, and rasped and wheezed through a recent telephone interview. She says she had to purchase oxygen machines for two of her three children. Meanwhile, the new maintenance director at the complex said Patton’s apartment checked clean for mold, that he has photographs. But so do Patton and Hasoni, and they are putrid and telling.
Moving from the Kent apartment felt to Patton like a new beginning. She was granted a monthly Section 8 voucher for $1,800 and thought she found a two-bedroom condominium in Rainier Valley, where her daughter is in the fifth grade. But she either misheard or misinterpreted the landlord; the rent was $700 more per month. Patton is on leave from a permanent part-time job in the lunchroom at her daughter’s school, so $700 placed her new beginning beyond reach.
While reciting certain details in her life’s narrative, Patton likes to interject, “But that’s another story.” Having her tell those stories is like peeling away one layer of suffering, only to reveal yet another. The permanent job was such an example. Patton totaled her car in an accident on the way to her very first day of the new gig. She later developed difficulty walking and standing, major requirements in a grade-school cafeteria, and was diagnosed as needing a hip replacement, forcing her to take a medical leave.
“I’ve been to hell and back, hell and back, hell and back,” Patton says. “I don’t even have time to breathe, and something else bad happens.”
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Her Section 8 voucher burned in the car fire earlier this month. While Patton awaits a replacement, she cannot investigate housing alternatives because she has no vehicle and cannot walk, so therefore cannot take mass transit. Losing her car also meant losing the place Patton spent many of her nights since moving back to Seattle. Fearing for her daughter’s safety and health, she found Damiana a place with friends or family every night. Patton slept in her car in the parking lot at Bear Shiva Park, across from Rainier Beach High School. She said the first few nights were “cold and scary.” But she made friends, including homeless men who, like her, loved to fish and looked after her car at night and made her feel safe.
As Patton navigates what she believes are her darkest hours, she cannot help but sense a shift in the cosmos. While NIMBY-based objections have crippled approaches in Seattle and other major cities to homelessness and other personal disasters, Patton’s community instinctually unfurled a safety net to catch their falling neighbor. Someone posted a photo of her burned-out car in a community Facebook group. Someone urged Patton to start a fundraiser; when she did, people pledged more than $3,000 in a week.
Still others organized contributions of clothing and supplies; her daughter’s school also came through with supplies and support. The Japanese Presbyterian Church in Seattle is setting up a donation station.
The other day, Patton experienced something that felt a lot like faith — not necessarily in a higher being, but in human beings.
“Nothing good ever happens to me,” she says. “But this is totally different. It seems like it took something bad for something good to finally happen.”
And the good, Kamla Patton admits, is totally deserved.