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Parents of woman who died in RV: City owes the homeless a better solution

A homeless RV in Seattle's SoDo lot. (KIRO 7)

On April 5, Tommi Tate and Kellie Sevier of Spokane received the worst news that a parent can imagine hearing.

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Their 27-year-old daughter, Sabrina Tate, died in Seattle’s “safe zone” — the city’s last homeless RV park, located in SoDo. Sabrina likely died of a drug-related leg injury.

Road to addiction

Growing up, Sabrina would have seemed the least-likely candidate to go down the path of addiction. Speaking to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show, Tommi described his daughter in her childhood years as an animal lover and an avid musician. She played the violin and guitar, and enjoyed listening to ’90s bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt.

When Sabrina was 12, however, her parents divorced. The early teen years, a struggle enough on their own, became even more difficult for Sabrina because of her family’s struggles.

“Of our three girls, she took it the hardest,” Tommi said. “That’s one thing, looking back, that I wish I could’ve done differently … There are a lot of things I could have done, and maybe all of us could have done. We’re learning from that; we’re hurting from that.”

In her high school years, Sabrina began experimenting with meth and other drugs, and eventually dropped out of school altogether. Tommi and Sevier held an intervention with their daughter to come up with answers.

“We all got together as a family and talked about, ‘What can we do,'” Sevier recalled.

“We thought that our family structure was strong enough that conversation and love would help get us to that solution,” Tommi said. He feels now that he, at the time, was “naive about the services out there,” instead believing that “family, church, and religion” alone could be the solution.

“That was probably the best possible moment that we could have changed the course of her future,” he said.

Sabrina did turn her life around for a few years — she enlisted in a job corps program in Moses Lake, which her parents said was successful while it lasted.

“She took on a lot of responsibilities, was sober to the best of my knowledge, went through the ranks there, was there for two to three years, and by 2009, was in a position of responsibility,” Tommi said.

However, it was in 2009 that Sabrina chose to leave the job corps and live on the streets of Spokane, and later Seattle. She maintained to her parents that she was not addicted to drugs, but they found evidence to the contrary.

After Sabrina was arrested for vandalism, police brought her belongings to her parents. Tommi was shocked to find hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia in her bag.

“She swore up and down that it was somebody else’s, that it wasn’t hers,” Tommi said.

Sevier pointed out that Sabrina “was away from home, she was over 18, and an adult.”

Additionally, Sevier said, “The majority of the time, I had no idea how to reach her, unless she were to call me.”

Visiting the “safe zone”

Last week, Tommi and Sevier visited the homeless RV park that had been their daughter’s only kind of home for the past few years. The conditions of the encampment appalled Sabrina’s parents.

“I was horrified at what I saw … it was not what [Sabrina] described to me,” Tommi said. “It’s only a safe zone, first of all, if it’s protected … The word ‘safe’ is not something that ever came to my mind.”

The RV park, Sevier said, consists of a fence-less gravel lot full of potholes. There is no electricity — unless residents provide their own generator — and no running water. The only restrooms onsite are port-a-potties.

“It’s just not someplace that even looked to be remotely safe,” Sevier said — a far cry from the friend-filled “RV park” that Sabrina had described.

Government solutions

While Tommi and Sevier both feel personal guilt for not being able to help Sabrina find a way out of her situation, they also believe that the city government could have done a substantial amount more to help those residents who cannot help themselves.

“At the end of the day, we all have responsibilities … it’s every city’s responsibility and accountability to make sure that they do everything within their means to try to preserve the safety for people — not just people that have houses — to promote the health and welfare of these people … and to funnel as much money as possible into these things,” Tommi said.

Tommi said that the question that he is “struggling with the most” is why Sabrina had to live on street for eight years with no possibility of city-sponsored housing.

“They say it’s the addicts’ fault. The addicts make choices — we all make choices. But when we lose control, the compassion of a society … is how we take care of those people that cannot always take care of themselves,” he said.

Both Tommi and Sevier said that they would have supported a system in which the government forced Sabrina to get treatment.

“It’s a fine line between enabling when you have a child who is addicted and giving them support,” Severe said. “And yeah, I mean, Tommi and I both feel that we failed her … there had to have been something that we could have done, and that’s something that I know I will live with the rest of my life.”

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