Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Two: Neighborhood Watch)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 16th, 2012

This piece is part of a series:

- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter One: Honeymoon Phase)
- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Two: Neighborhood Watch)
- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Three: No Contact)
- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Four: Three Strikes)

A motel provides a not-so-safe haven as pregnancy and violence complicate Brandy and Richard’s relationship.

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Brandy Sweeney heard something hit the side of her tent. She sat up in the dark, listening.

Plimp … ploomp … ploomp.

She thought, maybe … But it couldn’t be. Then she heard her name. Brandy. Brandy.

She knew the voice. Richard. Ploomp. He was throwing rocks at her tent. How did he get past the 24-hour security staff?

For the past few weeks, Brandy had been living in Tent City 3, a free, legal encampment of close to 100 tents staked into the south lawn of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Shoreline, north of Seattle. She had moved into a tent with her partner, Richard Duncan, after a long bus trip from Boise, Idaho. Both agreed they wanted better lives, betting it could happen in Seattle.

But the drinking and drug use pulled them in a different direction. They fought and yelled and kicked and punched — particularly Richard, who, hours after learning Brandy was pregnant, hammered a fist into her stomach in a drunken rage. Days after that punch, another tempest broke, leading Tent City 3 staff to evict Richard in early February 2009. Brandy thought she’d be safe in the yellow tent then, but Richard didn’t let go that easily. He stalked her.

Come talk to me, Richard whispered.

Brandy stayed put. Even though she didn’t know if she could trust him, she still cared for him. And she was six weeks pregnant with his child. She had experienced his violent temper, but she wondered if he deserved a second chance. Didn’t everyone?

She remained in her sleeping bag, nervous. He threw more rocks at the tent; he called her name. She lay still, waiting, hoping. And 10 minutes or so later — silence. He’d left.

Richard came back the next day.

In Idaho, Brandy had told Richard about a Washington state program called GA-U, Government Assistance-Unemployable, which provided $339 every month. Because some recipients had mental health diagnoses, people nicknamed it “crazy money.” Brandy received it, and she thought Richard could probably get it, too. A couple days after being evicted from Tent City 3, his GA-U came through. Now he had crazy money to burn.

Richard bought a cell phone with pre-paid minutes and called the Tent City 3 phone and asked, Can I speak to Brandy? Brandy picked up the line.

I’m sorry, Richard said. We need to be together, forgive me.

Fearful, Brandy wouldn’t commit.

Those people at Tent City are poisoning your mind, he said.

Brandy hung up. Richard called again. And again and again. He phoned her so much, Brandy lost count.

He stood outside Tent City 3 and, like a modern-day Stanley Kowalski, yelled her name. Brandy! Braaannnddeeee! The 24-hour security staff shuffled Richard away. When he saw people entering the encampment, he’d ask, How’s Brandy? Can you tell her I really want to talk to her? They kept giving him noncommittal replies: She doesn’t live here anymore, or,  Sure, I’ll let her know.

Richard knew Tent City 3 security could turn him in for trespassing, and he shied away from any interaction with police. He had a lengthy prison record from Nevada, marked by violent felony assaults. In November 2008, before meeting Brandy, he’d been released from prison for assault with a deadly weapon. So Richard hid in nearby bushes, watching out for her. At night, he slept on the gravelly shores of Richmond Beach, three miles away. Every day, he returned to pursue her.

It started to wear Brandy down. The rocks, the phone calls, his yelling her name, looking at her from the bushes, tailing her whenever she left: Richard was obsessed. What would it take for him to stop?

Tent City 3 provided residents with bus tickets, and one day in early February, Brandy walked to a bus stop. Richard popped out from a nearby apartment building, surprising her.

I’m really sorry I hit you, he said. I’ll get help. Tears spilled from his eyes.

Brandy realized Richard had never apologized before, not like this. But could she believe him? Were his apologies sincere or a form of manipulation?

Richard’s tears magnified into sobs. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he said. Don’t leave me. He looked so pathetic, Brandy’s resolve collapsed.

All right, she said.

Richard dried his eyes.

Brandy told him they’d get back together. After all, her options seemed few: There she was, pregnant, living in a tent in the winter and broke. Richard promised he’d find somewhere better, that he’d protect her. “I just kinda got sucked in,” she says.

It took her some time to fully commit, but she abandoned Tent City 3 less than a week later. Most of what she had, she left in the tent as she struck off to be with Richard and their baby. To make a family.


On Jan. 30, 2009, a few days before Brandy left Tent City 3, volunteers with SKCCH, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, performed an annual One Night Count of homeless people. They found 2,827 people on the streets or without shelter. The King County Department of Community and Human Services surveyed 65 emergency shelters the same evening, finding 2,552 people. Too many people, not enough beds.

But cold weather provided something of a boon. When the weather dipped below freezing, city hall opened as a winter response shelter. Brandy and Richard spent the night there on mats, women and men sleeping in different spaces. The city hall shelter closed at 5 a.m., which forced everyone back outside.

Out in the cold, Brandy and Richard migrated to a green space a couple blocks away called City Hall Park. They sat on a bench, shivering. As they huddled together, a man who cut through the park walked up to them. He carried a backpack, hard hat and tool belt.

Hungry? the man asked.

Brandy and Richard nodded. He handed them trail mix and power bars.

He asked what they were up to.

Planning to leave Seattle, Richard said.

Well, if you want work, come with me.

Brandy and Richard knew GA-U and food stamps couldn’t lift them out of shelters or get them off the streets. After he told Brandy to stay warm at a day shelter, Richard followed Mr. Hard Hat. Barely a half block away stood the office of TLC, Trades Labor Corporation. They walked inside.

A temp agency, TLC connected employers with blue-collar workers including construction laborers, drywall technicians and carpenters’ helpers. Anyone possessing these or other skills might find work: All you had to do was show up after 5:30 a.m. when the office opened.

Once Richard completed his application, TLC hired him out to a construction site near the University of Washington and gave him bus fare. He rode through the predawn dark, proud he could support Brandy and the baby-to-be. Not that general labor offered excitement or good money. “I get paid minimum wage to push a broom,” Richard says. Eight hours of work, $8.55 an hour.

Family meant a lot to Richard. In the Nevada prison system, he had become involved with Odinism, a spiritual practice that followed the teachings of the Norse god Odin. His fellow Odinist inmates also embraced white supremacy. Tattoos on Richard’s body spoke to that belief: a swastika on one pec, a profile of Hitler on the other, and across his fingers, “SKINHEAD.” His practice taught him a man provided for his kin. At the end of the workday, TLC would cut him a check to support his family. Richard picked up a broom and swept.

As the workweek progressed, the pair found a rhythm. In the morning, Richard would head to TLC, and Brandy would find a warm drop-in center; in the early evening, they would reconnect for dinner and a beer; at night, they would enter male and female winter response shelters at city hall; in the morning, they would repeat the cycle.

By the weekend, Richard had saved up enough money for a motel room on Aurora Avenue North. The room was small and dingy, but it had a shower and heat. “It was like a suite at the Hilton,” Richard remembers. But even a low-rent Hilton has a checkout time, so they returned to the shelter routine.

Richard wasn’t too keen on Brandy walking around Seattle all day, alone. He also didn’t want her to work. Ever. He had the job, so he would take care of their needs. He put finding a place where they could live on the top of the list. 

One evening in mid-February 2009, Richard stepped up to the front desk of a motel located at 8801 Aurora Ave. N. Rooms went for $245 a week. That amount trumped what Richard had on him, so he spoke to the manager, showing him pay stubs. He told the manager Brandy was pregnant. Look, Richard said, can I owe you for one day, then I’ll pay tomorrow?

Sure, not a problem, the manager said. He got Richard’s signature, then handed him a key.

Brandy and Richard walked across the parking lot and up to the second floor. Richard unlocked the door to Room 16. They stepped over the threshold and looked around. Wood paneling, hard mattress, leaky showerhead, running toilet, TV bolted to a rack on the wall, noises from the room downstairs.

Welcome to the Georgian Motel.

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