When it comes to telling a story, Tai Powell, Wellspring’s Baby Boutique Manager and Volunteer Coordinator, has some experience. Last year, he shared his past of homelessness as part of Seattle Time’s Fund for the Needy. This year, he got up on stage at Wellspring’s Lasting Change Luncheon to speak about his transition out of homelessness. More recently, Tai and his family were selected to share their story as a part of the Pearl Jam Home Shows to highlight the complexity of the homelessness crisis in the Puget Sound area.
When you talk to Tai about his past, three things jump out and they’re all connected. His daughter, Taylor, his partner, Shawn, and one word: hope.
Three years ago, Tai was living with Shawn in a tent, his daughter was in foster care, and hope seemed in short supply. But Tai did have hope. “If it wasn’t for my daughter, I don’t know what we would have done. I knew above everything that I had to get my child back. If that meant getting an apartment and getting a roof over our heads, that’s what we were going to do. That was the biggest motivator for me. That was my hope. When I didn’t have any hope, I got my hope from her. She motivated me, she pushed me.”
But on bad days that hope seemed far away and harder to see. It was then that Tai’s partner Shawn stepped in, “She made me keep my eye on the bigger picture. She told me different things: ‘our daughter’s going to be back, we’re going to have a place to live, we’ll have a car, and we’ll have jobs. Just keep your hope alive.’ That’s what I did, some days that’s all I could do, is keep my hope alive. I was barely holding on to my sanity, but I did do that part and it’s all been worth it.“
Looking back, Tai can now see how important hope was for him. But he also understands that for many people experiencing homelessness, losing all hope can be easy. They may not have a partner to support them through low moments, or a daughter to motivate them. They may fall into hopelessness. He believes that by sharing his story he can provide hope to others, to show those experiencing homelessness that it can get better.
“That’s the biggest thing for me is giving back and reaching out to other individuals who are experiencing homelessness and passing off a sense of hope. Cause there weren’t a lot of people around that were saying to me, ‘You’re homeless, it’ll get better and this is what it looks like.’ There were a lot of people that had just accepted defeat.”
While Tai is now Wellspring’s Baby Boutique manager, at one point he was a customer. He’s gone from receiving free clothing for his daughter, to helping other families get clothing for their children. Tai’s background gives him a unique perspective whenever somebody comes into the store. He knows what they’re experiencing, and can tell them it will get better. He can be their hope.
He takes pride in working for Wellspring Family Services because it is an organization that once helped him. “After being given the opportunity that I’ve been given, it’s been very easy for me to give it back. I know how important it was to receive it, how it’s changed my life. The only right thing to do is give it back, pay it forward.”
While sharing his story with others is important to Tai, he’s found that telling it has been a way for him to process his past. To gain perspective on the trauma he faced. This was especially true of his participation in Wellspring’s luncheon, where Tai and Shawn stood up to share their experiences with over 600 guests. “In ways, it was another life-changing event for us. It was a big relief that we could let go of that story, just processing it, and wiping that film of experience away. It was kind of relieving. Every time I get to tell this story, it’s another deep breath I get to take and let some of that go, because it’s a burden. I don’t want to carry that all my life! But the more I talk about it, the more I put it out there, the less heavy it feels on me.”
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Tai volunteered again recently to share his story as part of Pearl Jam’s Home Shows. Julissa McWashington, a member of Wellspring’s Board of Directors, mentioned that her employer, Starbucks, was looking for stories about people that had experienced homelessness. The stories would be used to help raise awareness in conjunction with the benefit concerts. Tai and Shawn jumped on the opportunity.
Tai is a huge Pearl Jam fan and had already bought himself tickets for the concert. Music is another way that Tai found hope when he was experiencing homelessness, “I spent many nights in my tent listening to Pearl Jam and that’s what got me through, their music. To be able to do something like this…it was like once in a lifetime. Just the fact it was Pearl Jam, I would do anything for them. That’s the kind of impact they’ve had on my life. That’s why I like them so much, it’s because they’ve influenced me, and my thinking and my feelings. My life.”
As Tai continues to share his story, he’s learning how far he’s come over the last two years, he says it feels like it’s been a lot longer. “My dad always reminds me, I called him up one time and I said that I was standing at a bus stop and I had nowhere to go, and there were all these people getting on the bus and they were all going places and I didn’t have anywhere to go. That’s not my life today. Today I have baseball games to go to, I have Pearl Jam concerts to go to, it’s a big difference man, it’s HUGE!”
“Every day I wake up and think, “Damn, I’m not waking up in a tent, there’s no snow collapsing on my head and I’m not freezing to death.” My daughter has her own bedroom and she has all her toys in there. It feels good. There was a time when we didn’t have that. We had a tent and she was in foster care. All the hope that I’ve gained from this experience has to be given back.”
By sharing his story, Tai wants people experiencing homelessness to have hope too.
“I can tell them it does get better with time and hard work. If you have to start with just one day, start with today. Today is a better day. Just get through today and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
“Keep your hope strong, keep your hope alive.”