Twice in my life I have been without a home. This letter focuses on the first time. I may write more at a later point about my experiences while pregnant at age 23. But for now…
In my youth, I was without a home. My memory from that time is still foggy, so the exact ages are somewhat difficult to recall. There was a lot that happened in the time frame between ages 14-16 for me. I’d prefer to not get into the story behind how this came to be too much, as it would leave others involved open to criticism, which is far from the intent with which I write this. We’ve all made mistakes. I will disclose that it was initially not on me, though my decisions as my case went on contributed. I was a broken child. I did not initially break myself. It was not my choice.
Most of this I try to leave in the past, some of it I refuse to leave behind. Those times in my life are part of what makes me who I am today. I don’t regret my experiences, nor do I hate life for throwing them at me. They made me strong and helped me to “find myself”. They taught me so much that some of you may understand, while others may never begin to grasp it. Both of which are okay.
I do want to share some pieces of that time with you. I am hoping that through passing on the bits I can say I know, as I experienced them, then maybe one person’s opinion will be changed, or their hearts will soften just a little the next time they run into someone down on their luck. My small contribution to the de-stigmatization we need so desperately. So I write.
I never wanted to be where I was. I just somehow arrived there, and then didn’t know what to do. I slept on the couches of friends. I recall sleeping in a very nice boat that was for sale, some parks, and a few empty houses. Different family members housed me at various points. It never worked out, but somehow it also always did. I stayed at Safe Haven (a youth shelter), when it was housed with ROOF (now OneROOF Youth Services).
I kept thinking it wasn’t right, that I could keep falling through the cracks of life. It helped that I had grown up poor, both of my parents were “on the system”; I first learned about food hampers and other organizations from them. I swore from a young age that I would do better. I learned young, the value of persistence and how it paid off.
At various points I saw the spirals that could have carried me further down. There were options to develop any slew of addictions to escape the emptiness and hurt. I witnessed some choices being made to gain the funds to survive, which many were pushed into, and it could have been me. But, I was a kid. There was compassion for me, so there were some community resources. When I started to reach out, people actually wanted to help. Few blamed me for my homeless situation, though some tried to help themselves, using me in some way. Those I learned to avoid. I was never far from being any one of them. Again, I understood them. I also met many people who had been beaten down and rejected by society. I understood them. I felt it too.
I have begged for money at the Delta. I used it for food and bus fare. I am grateful to all those who understood and offered a little bit. I felt ashamed for asking, but I didn’t know what else to do. It was a way to survive.
What we often fail to notice is the effect on the person and the healing required to accept the help to fix what brought them there in the first place. It took a lot out of me to be without shelter. When I was young, it made me think and I had questions, like: why was this happening; how did things get to this point; had society forgotten me; was this all I deserved; had I done something wrong; and how could all this be fair? The questions came from my pain and shame. It was often compounded by knowing I was different; a feeling that somehow I might deserve this. More than a few times I let myself enter into what I now recognize as dangerous situations. The outcomes didn’t matter; I didn’t think I mattered. There was a loss of self-esteem, compounded by hunger, and uncertainty about what would come next and how I would get through it this time.
It wasn’t until I was 15 or so that I started landing solidly. The organization Safe Haven sheltered me; between them and oneROOF services, I was able to navigate the system. I spent my days at the library reading books, I got a part time job and a room in a rooming house. My brush with homelessness ended for that time and I got out safely. Getting on my feet took more than just the resources to do so. I had to rebuild myself; reanalyze and determine my own value.
Although the stigma of homelessness may be lessening, as more people feel the strain of living on the edge, the struggle is increasing for those in these situations (higher cost of housing and lower incomes), making the leap of exit more distant. Plus, economic uncertainty presents itself in more and more peoples’ lives, leaving donations and financial assistance more difficult to find as people have less to offer. Although there are some people who do choose to be homeless, they are few. None should ever presume that a person somehow deserves such a fate. We need to recognize the existence of homelessness as evidence of our failures as a society to ensure that there are not only a full span of existent supports, but supports that can manage the increasing capacity of need that they are faced with daily. We need to support those seeking to aid these individuals, that have insight into their needs. We need to create solutions, not bandaids. We need to actively seek to resolve the injustices of poverty instead of laying blame and judgement upon those who suffer them.
I have been on my feet for years now. Its been a long road of stepping stones. It continues everyday. I still realize how close I am and could be at any time to finding myself in such a situation again. Even when I don’t remember the proximity of such trials I do remember the pain they caused and the healing it took and still at times takes to have made it through. I can’t imagine in this day and age that I may have come out so well. It would be harder.
Every night I am able to tuck my kids into a bed, with a roof over our heads, and food in the fridge. If it is cold, we have heat. If it is wet, we are dry. At times it is hard for me to imagine what I would be faced with if such privileges disappeared. Could you?
I am passionate about social justice because of what I have seen and experienced. It isn’t just a hot topic for me, it is what has kept me going. It’s who I am.