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Originally published December 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 3, 2008 at 7:39 AM

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From homeless to artist, woman finds her way

Deep breaths, she told herself. Try not to cry. Ruanda Morrison stood before the crowd gathered inside the Pioneer Square art gallery. Her donated suit was...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Path With Art

For more information on Path With Art, visit www.pathwithart.org

Deep breaths, she told herself. Try not to cry.

Ruanda Morrison stood before the crowd gathered inside the Pioneer Square art gallery. Her donated suit was pressed, her nails painted, and dreadlocks neatly coiled. Not even tonight's blustery weather could mess with her.

She had prepared for this moment, recited the poem aloud in her room at the YWCA, even broke down reading it the other day. She hoped emotion wouldn't get to her here. But the words held a power that sliced as deep as they did the night she scribbled them in a worn notebook two weeks ago.

Now, an audience waited to hear what she had to say.

"Worthless," she began.

I know the feeling in worthlessness.

And find it hard to describe because

I've swum in the sea of worthlessness.

Years ago, Morrison, 48, could not have imagined standing here, voicing her pain as a homeless woman, while other people listened. For so long, she had lived with it in secret, trying to cover up from potential employers her disheveled appearance, or the nasty colds she caught sleeping outdoors.

Everyday, everywhere, she saw judgment in people's eyes. Somehow, they always knew.

It's been two years since Morrison was on the street. She's now in transitional housing at the YWCA on Third Avenue. And through that stroke of luck, she said, she discovered another label she's proud to wear: artist.

A year ago, Morrison heard about a local nonprofit called Path With Art. The program offers painting, poetry and other workshops to adults who have suffered through homelessness, mental illness or addiction.

Teachers encourage students to channel their personal experiences into art. And twice a year, an exhibit is held to honor their work.

For Morrison, the workshops "opened the floodgates to my creativity." She started snapping pictures of life on the streets. The poetry came to her at night, forcing its way onto paper.

She would write in bed, books scattered in piles, newspapers on the floor, pushing her pain into words.

There was so much buried, it was hard to know when to stop.

Morrison had written poetry and stories as a child. But as she grew older, she said, life got in the way. She made bad choices. Ended up in bad relationships. Entered alcohol recovery. Wound up homeless.

That last blow seemed to strike harder than the rest.

"I always had a home, always had a roof, always had people I could go to for help," she said. "I felt a certain shame in being homeless."

The first time came in 1987 when she was 28. Morrison had just gotten out of the service in Hawaii and moved to Seattle to be with her then-girlfriend. But once she arrived, she said, the girl was with someone else. And Morrison was left on her own in a new city.

She found work as an auto-body mechanic, security guard, utility installer, even a food-service worker in the circus. No job lasted long. Morrison wandered in and out of homelessness for years, swinging out from the bottom only to sink back down again.

"It's a whole other world when you're homeless," she said. "You may see those people and think 'My god, why don't they do something better for themselves?' But we run into medical bills we can't pay off. We hold jobs and then no longer have them.

"When something big happens, you're not always guaranteed you have some place to go."

For a while there, things got worse before they got better. A car accident left Morrison with limited mobility, and in 1999, her health spiraled. After a visit to the emergency room, she found out she had ovarian cysts, she said.

She couldn't work in physically demanding jobs anymore. With nowhere to turn, she said, she applied for aid from the Department of Social and Health Services.

The $339 she gets every month helps keep her room at the Y. But that's not where she sees herself forever.

She has dreams, she said. Big ones. The Path With Art classes have given her a glimpse at what's possible out there. She wants to be a librarian, perhaps even a law librarian. It's a natural fit, she said. She loves words; and they, in turn, have helped her heal.

She was accepted to Seattle Central Community College and plans to start next month. Her goal is to finish her master's degree at the University of Washington.

Tonight though, as she reads to the crowd at the exhibit, she has one wish: to tell a story. Her story.

"I have drowned in the sea," she says, "and I have been resurrected."

She nears the end of the poem, her voice growing stronger with every word.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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