The New Homeless
By Mary Strong Jackson
I first met Martha a few months ago, when she sought help from The Life Link Santa Fe Clubhouse and Wellness Center, where I work. Together, we drafted an article for the Santa Fe Reporter [cover story, Jan. 25: “Homeless in Santa Fe”] describing Martha’s challenges in overcoming homelessness. Before we finished, Martha had found a temporary place to live at a sustainability complex outside Santa Fe, where she could work a few hours each week in exchange for reduced rent. There was no flush toilet and limited use of water and electricity.
“It’s sort of commune-like,” Martha told us after she moved in. “My brother told me not to drink any of that funny Kool-Aid if they start passing it out.” She had a roof over her head, and the area was beautiful, but living 30 minutes from Santa Fe made coming to town for support, job searching and socializing another catch-22 in the struggle to become and stay healthy.
Before submitting our first article, Martha and I talked about putting her life down in words.
“I don’t think I’m ready to write about what’s happening to me as I’m living it,” she told me. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid everything I write will come out whiny or angry. Maybe that’s OK, but I need some time and distance before I do it. And my stupid computer battery only lasts about 15 minutes, and I can’t stay plugged in where I live because of limited electricity use.”
The end of March came quickly, though, and Martha had to move again. Early one morning, she came into the clubhouse—which is not a clinical facility, but rather a resource where members can take yoga classes, learn coping skills to ease anxiety and depression, work toward their General Educational Development certification and receive help finding, applying for and maintaining employment—looking completely exhausted. She had found a new place that was closer to town, but she still didn’t have a flush toilet.
Some days, when the fear starts to crawl up Martha’s spine again and the what if’s begin to fill her gut, she’ll say, “It’s going to be all right, isn’t it? It is, isn’t it? Just tell me it is, OK?”
I say, “It is going to be OK.” But we’ve both lived long enough to know that OK doesn’t mean easy, and OK today may not be relative to what it used to be. OK means you have people who will not give up on you.
Janet, another clubhouse member who is homeless for the first time in her life, is struggling to find even that kind of OK.
A few months ago, Janet turned down an opening in a reduced-rent housing complex for homeless people because she believed that she would have a job and be on her feet. She was wrong, and she regrets her decision. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of Feb. 2012, the average duration of unemployment in the US is 40 weeks—40 weeks to become more and more discouraged, which makes a perky, can-do attitude harder to fake at job interviews. (Fortunately, seven of our 40 members who are actively searching for jobs found them in just one or two months.) Janet sits for hours each day, using one of our computers to search for work and fill out applications. She has spent months going to interviews and creating different résumés for different jobs.
It’s easy to characterize homeless people as those who made egregious errors such as neglecting to save their money or becoming addicted to drugs. But Janet used her savings to move to Santa Fe with the promise of a job—only to find, when she arrived, that someone else had taken the position.
“I didn’t move three blocks away from home; I moved 2,000 miles,” Janet says. “I have no family that can help. My mother died before I moved. My children are struggling with their own bills. I don’t want them to know what’s happened to me. Why should I worry them?”
Janet is of the age when the old cliché about feeling comfortable in one’s own skin should be true. She is mature enough to appreciate the experiences that life has provided and young enough to look forward to spending her retirement perfecting that truffle recipe or taking a pottery class. Instead, she stays at the clubhouse, fine-tuning her résumé and continuing her frantic job search.
One day, when Martha and I return from volunteering at the animal shelter, Janet is still at the clubhouse. She has a doctor’s appointment at Healthcare for the Homeless, and she’s late. I promise to drive her, but we are both relatively new to Santa Fe and head in the wrong direction. When we finally arrive, Janet searches through the large trash bag that holds her life, then thanks me for the ride.
“What will you do after your appointment?” I ask.
“They told me that someone would give me a ride back.”
“Back to where?” I know this will be Janet’s first night in the Santa Fe Resource and Opportunity Center (also known as Pete’s Pets), but it’s 3 pm, and the doors don’t open until 6 pm.
“To the shelter,” she says. “It’s good to get there early and wait outside for the doors to open so I know that I’ll have a place.”
I wave goodbye and turn on my car heater. It blasts warm air that I can count on to arrive, as expected, when I’m cold. It’s freezing outside, and Janet is so thin and scared. My eyes tear up on the drive back to the clubhouse.
The next day, Janet is there. The warm Ugg boots she scored from a donation clothing room bring a smile to her face. This time, her feet will be warm while she waits outside for the shelter doors to open. Knowing that she can survive at the shelter helps ease her worry a bit. She shows off her new boots and shares thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe and memories of taking her little daughter with her on yoga retreats years ago.
Janet’s luck continued beyond scoring Ugg boots. After reading the first articles Martha and I wrote, a generous couple contacted me and offered an extra bedroom in their house. The couple had reliable references and, after meeting with Janet and friends, they welcomed her into their home, where she has been living since early February.
I came to Santa Fe last May, believing that I would find employment. I did. Today, I realize how easily it might have been otherwise. Today, I know Martha. I know 10 other women my age—some a little older, some younger—all searching for work. They’re bright, attractive women whose lives took turns here or there.
Maybe they took the road less traveled and now find themselves without a home or job. Some of their lives began or continued on a road no one should have to travel.
My own questions continue. Was it Martha and Janet’s poor choices that made them homeless? Who doesn’t make bad choices, whether it’s choosing the brownie for breakfast instead of the banana or picking the life partner who lasts much less than a lifetime? Are they in some way more flawed than I am because I have a job and a place to live? Hardly. In Martha’s case, is it being gay? Coming of age with feelings not OK to voice at the time she was a teen—a phenomenon that endures today, depending on where one lives or what type of support network one has? Did this limit Martha’s choice of good partners and increase her rage at the world? But how is that different from my own idea, as a young woman, of my own limited and visionless future? Do you have regrets, Martha? Do I?
Poor People Have Poor Ways
A cop friend of mine back home says, “Poor people have poor ways.” I didn’t like that saying then; now, I loathe it. By federal standards, I am now poor and homeless. I see firsthand the missteps that poor decisions can bring, and how these missteps can take you down.
That thoughtless, arrogant saying is emblematic of the way a lot of people in America see the homeless. This judgment allows us to look the other way with impunity. When a homeless person crosses our path, we say to ourselves, “They must have done something really stupid to get in that situation. I will never be like that.”
I guess the 25 people who froze to death on the streets of Santa Fe in the winter of 2006 had poor ways? Sure they did. Most likely they had given up on waiting for shelter, waiting for answers, waiting to heal from their own anger, emotions and addictions. Or maybe they were just like me: They didn’t see the train wreck coming. Sure, they saw the light at the end of the tunnel. They just didn’t realize it was a locomotive bearing down on them at top speed.
I should have seen a lot of the red flags in my life. I chose to ignore them. I didn’t want to believe what was happening—my business partner and her shift in emotions and behavior, the way she hid the financials and her borrowing schemes. I should have stepped in when the banker gave us an almost $1 million dollar loan. I should have read and reread the fine print. Were these oversights or poor judgments or greed? I should have. I should have. I should have.
In the past year, I have learned how to exist as a homeless, poor person. I have many homeless friends, and I now realize that poor and homeless people are manipulators, drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill and rage-filled—just like a lot of people in society. And yet, the homeless people I know are also amiable, funny, smart, fiercely loyal and incredibly determined. They will not give up, even when many of their friends and family have given up on them.
These people see through your crap, and they will not put up with arrogance and belittling. They know when you are being insincere, and they’d rather just walk away. They know that your unhealed heart and your ignorance aren’t going to help them any. And most of them are not in a position to help you on your way.
A lot of the homeless people I know are also very prayerful and spiritual—as much as or more than my church friends. But their prayerfulness is also not born out of hopelessness; instead, I view it as a resolve of their situation. Some are amazingly close to the angels.
An example of this is my new homeless friend, Bridget, who was living at the center. She kept her few remaining possessions in a storage unit down the street. She sang for tips on the Plaza. When we met, she just beamed as if sunlight followed her. She’s very pretty, with bright blonde hair. She knows how to dress up nicely, even with clothes found in the shelter boxes.
One afternoon, I drove her to the shelter, and she told me she had a message for me. At first I thought, “Oh, greeaat! Here we go…” But it was unlike anything I had ever heard. She said God told her I needed to know a few things in order to stay safe on the streets.
“First,” she said, “know that God is always with you. Always. And also know to expect his help.”
Then she told me a story about sleeping in her car, in a parking lot, with her husband. They had been living on the street for a couple of months; her husband, a former heroin addict, was in a drug treatment program nearby. One night, a group of young thugs surrounded their car with their trucks. Bridget remembered a story that Billy Graham had preached years before about a family in trouble that had prayed, and God sent down 10-foot-tall angels in armor to protect them. So Bridget prayed, too, and narrowly escaped by red-lining her car’s engine and screeching through a hole that was barely two feet wide. When the three vehicles tried to pursue her, they all ran into each other.
“Ask—and I mean fervently ask—for God’s help,” Bridget said to me that afternoon. “Demand it. You will receive it.”
Then she added a word of caution: “Trust no one,” she said, “but trust everyone, if you know what I mean.”
One day, Bridget came to the clubhouse, sick as a dog, wearing every coat she owned. Sweating and shivering, she laid her head on the table and looked up only when she needed to. She had the flu. The center kicks you out at 6 am, and you’re on your own until 5 pm that night. That day, I wished I could have been a 10-foot-tall angel and offered her a motel room and a bottle of NyQuil.
I don’t know how she is doing now. I don’t know where she went. The last time I saw her, she was walking down Cerrillos Road, dressed like a polar bear.
When you are without a home, you get bounced around a lot by the police, by your situation. You go where there is help, where there is food, where you are safest, where you are warm or cool, depending upon the season. Everything is dictated by your needs and your “haves”: One day you have a cell phone; the next, you don’t. One day you have a car, and the next day it won’t start. One day you have a little money, and the next day it’s gone. One day you feel OK, and the next you are sick.
Everybody asks me how I ended up in Santa Fe. I tell some that I thought the sign said Santa Claus. Others I ignore because I know they are just prying and don’t truly care. But here is part of my story.
I came to Santa Fe late last summer with a friend. We were both out of work, but not yet out of hope. I had lost my business, home and property. She had just graduated with a BFA and had been thrown to the job market. We were relying on each other for emotional and financial support. She was a brilliant and talented photographer; I had planned on promoting her work. What a splendid town to do that in we thought: Santa Fe, the international art city. We were wrong.
We learned right away that, in Santa Fe, every other person is a photographer or an artist. Before long, we couldn’t keep our heads off our chests. We had been looking for jobs for months. We both were depressed. Two weeks later, my friend left me in the woods, in a campsite with little food, little money and no cell phone. Things were so bad that she had decided to go home to her ex-husband.
Fortunately, I still had a running car—a lot more than some of my other homeless friends had. I was crying almost nonstop as I went from one social service agency to another, collecting the things they had to offer.
One gave out lunch; another offered free showers on Thursdays. One agency even gave me a strange, hand-drawn map of help centers, much like one you would use during a grade-school treasure hunt. I finally found The Life Link and was placed on a three-week waiting list for intake.
When I arrived for my intake, I signed up for the smorgasbord: therapy, housing assistance, medical assistance. I also applied for food stamps.
But like a lot of the new homeless, I had waited too long to ask for help. My money was all gone, and my luck with it. I had deluded myself into thinking that I was magically going to climb out of the hole I had dug for myself and be right back on my feet. That’s what I’d always seen in my favorite films and what I was taught to pray for. Well, I was praying all right—praying for my tears to stop and my pup to stay healthy and my car to keep running. I prayed that I’d remember what color light meant to stop at an intersection—green or red? The fear was making me a basket case. When your safety net disintegrates below you, you flail around, trying to find some kind of foundation. But there isn’t one; it no longer exists. That’s when I started shaking. At my first Life Link meeting, my head was shaking so badly that I must have looked like I had Parkinson’s.
When you are out on the streets for the first time, you start looking at strangers and sort of sizing them up. In your head, you say things like, “Can I talk with that person and ask for help? She looks really nice.” But no one even makes eye contact. It hurts. It makes you horribly sad.
You stay sad a lot when you’re homeless, and you’re terribly aware of how you look. You aren’t naïve. Before you were poor, you know that society is distant and cold—but back then, you were immune. You could look the other way.
At Life Link, the intake counselor told me about the clubhouse—a bright, cheery place, with several sitting areas, computers, a fabulous commercial kitchen and some offices. I wasn’t sure what I had walked into at first, but Mary was so affable and friendly that it could have been a whorehouse and I would have signed up.
I had lost my voice, physically and emotionally—but at the clubhouse, I started talking again. I was thrilled to converse with the chatty bipolar woman and the slow-talking, gray-bearded man who stared at his hands a little more than normal. I even loved the sunburned young kid who talked in circles for hours about his job at the CIA and his position as a presidentially appointed spermicidal researcher. These people were just like me—broken, lonely and afraid—and somehow, I felt loved by them. At times, it was a little too much like fantasyland, but it was safe and warm; it gave me a chance to answer emails, write a bit and eat a healthy lunch.
This was the environment in which I was able to weigh my biggest issues: What do I do next with my life? How do I start over? Can I find a job? What employer will hire me if I show up crying? Who will hire me if my head shakes all the time? How do I stop thinking about all that I have lost? How do I begin to trust people again?
This issue of homelessness is not political. It is about people, and people are complicated. It is not about the one percent or the 99 percent, or the Republicans or Democrats, or the Tea party or coffee party; it is about you and me and our understanding that homelessness has to do with being human and walking down the wrong path that you were sure was clearly marked until you can’t figure out how to make it back home. You look and look for the morsels or stones you just know you left out on the road, but all you find are other people looking for help, and your fellow human beings, the ones with the homes, are no longer talking to you because you look tired, afraid and dirty. Your fear is making them afraid.
Every homeless person you see is a symbol of how complicated life is. If you don’t talk to them, how will you find out why they are panhandling? You may discover that they have issues just like your own, or wonderful stories to tell.
Once, I was a reporter in a major metropolitan city, where I covered the issue of homelessness many times. I would post my story and then drive home wondering which steakhouse served the best bloody marys. I didn’t think again about the worn-out, ragged old man I had talked with that afternoon. I didn’t consider that his story never ended—that he was cold and scared and hungry right then, and most likely would be the next day, too. I didn’t think for a minute that he was anything like me.
By maintaining our comfortable lifestyles, we separate ourselves from an extremely difficult and scary idea: that I could be without at some point, that I may be more like this person on the streets than I previously thought.
I now live in a little garage home close to Santa Fe. It doesn’t have a bathroom. I still remember the Jacuzzi tub I once lounged in—how could I forget? But I am truly comfortable. I sleep well at night. My pup sleeps well. I am not too cold. I am safe. I eat well. And I am gaining weight again…damnit.
I see houses differently now. Before, they seemed welcoming, beautiful places where I could see myself living or visiting. Now, I see them as fortresses where outsiders are unwelcome.
When you don’t have a home, you have little (if any) privacy; everything in your life is played out on center stage, in the libraries or public parks or on the street. The closest you get to privacy may be your few visits to your therapist’s office, if you’re lucky enough to have one.
The issue of privacy also extends to the paperwork you must fill out—the zero-income reports, the don’t-have-a-cent-to-my-name reports, the I-guess-I’ll-file-for-general-assistance-since-I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do forms. The case workers, social workers and bureaucrats all want to know everything about you except how many times a day you go to the bathroom and, honestly, that’s what you want to talk about. How do I find a clean bathroom and a shower? Can I linger on the toilet somewhere and read like I used to without someone pounding on the door, wanting to know what I’m doing? Is there a hot bath waiting for me anywhere on Earth?
Maybe I will start saying rich people have rich ways, but that is not any closer to the truth. We really are all the same. We just don’t believe we are. SFR
As SFR reported April 4 [news: “Friends in Deed”], Martha is spearheading an effort to unite needy people with Santa Feans who can help them. To learn more about Santa Fe Need and Deed, visit facebook.com/SantaFeNeedAndDeed or email Martha at SantaFeNeedAndDeed@gmail.com