Thao Nguyen has an infectious laugh, a sparkle in her eye and a certain charisma that is absolutely undeniable. She adores fashion and holds on passionately to a unique sense of self. Only a few years ago, though, many people would not have known these things about Thao. Struggles with homelessness and living with untreated Bipolar Disorder tend to mask the true individual and their passions.
Today, Thao lives at Gossett Place, one of Sound’s supportive housing residences. Gossett Place provides a place to live, a home, to people who would otherwise be living on the streets or in a series of shelters. Sound’s supportive housing ensures that people can get out of homelessness, experience stability, support and friendships so that they are in a better position to seek treatment and case management services. For Thao, who has lived at Gossett Place since 2016, a home has meant that this vibrant 20-something can be free of anxiety, hyper vigilance and the inevitable depressive episodes that comes with homelessness.
Born in Vietnam, Thao came to the United States at the age of three, living first in New York before moving to Seattle. At a young age, her parents divorced, which devastated Thao, resulting in rebellious behavior, social isolation and, later, a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder from Seattle Children’s Hospital at the age of six.
By the age of 18, she left home, escaping what she calls an abusive, unstable home life. For her, living on the streets, with all of it’s uncertainly, seemed to a better option than staying.
“I wasn’t in a safe place,” she recalls. “There was emotional abuse and I wasn’t happy.”
So she left home, launching a more than three-year struggle with homelessness, the turmoil of shelter life and a strong sense of instability.
“When I was homeless, that really impacted my life, it impacted how I felt, it impacted my sleep schedule,” she says.
For her it was the wake-up call.
“That’s the first time I became aware of my struggles. I’d think ‘hey, I’m homeless, and I don’t have all these resources that I used to have and be grateful for those things I have.’”
Her ongoing struggles eventually brought her to the University District Youth Center (UDYC), which engages struggling young people and directs them to lifesaving resources. She came to learn about Sound’s supportive housing through UDYC, which also helped her complete a housing assessment.
She remembers the exact date she secured housing through Gossett Place. Her simple words about it says it all. “It was July 11, 2016 at 11 a.m.,” she says. “That was the exact date and time that I was no longer homeless.”
What did having a home mean to her?
“The day I moved in, I was really happy. A home means safety, stability; its somewhere that is a safe place. It’s a place I can do what I need to do to feel good and happy and healthy.”
Being homeless from a young age can deny young people the opportunity to learn basic life and self-care skills, things that most of us take for granted. According to Lenea Kelchner, her clinician, when she first arrived at Gossett Place, Thao was unsure and hyper dependent on case management services at Sound, naturally uncertain about essential life skills and her own self-care.
“Now,” says Kelchner, she is very independent. She takes initiative around things that she needs to get done…she is more extroverted. Just living and being has allowed her to open up and just be more comfortable with herself.”
Kelchner also believes that housing gave her sense of stability, where she could start focusing on taking her medication daily, partnering with her case manager and getting her paperwork completed.
In addition to the housing, Thao is receiving case management services and medication. She is currently on the waitlist at Sound for a DBT (Dialetical Behavior Therapy) group class.
DBT is an innovative cognitive behavioral therapy that helps change negative thinking patterns and pushes for positive behavioral changes. Things are looking up for Thao, now that housing has provided the foundation that she did not have before.
Thao is clearly invested in her recovery and in taking control of her life. She has become dedicated to sharing her story and becoming a symbol of hope.
“I want to share my story with other people,” she says. “I really I want to give them hope, that word ‘hope’. I want to give them hope and resources.”
She adds, “I want them to know that they have hope that they’re not going to be homeless forever. You’re wicked and you have strength and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Kelchner thinks so, too.
“We are talking about her and her story now,” says Kelchner. “But it can be applied to other people in the community that need help and services. That they are not lost causes that with some guidance and support they really flourish and thrive into an independent person.”