I have been thinking a lot lately about my life’s journey and homelessness. I had a wonderful upbringing. I come from a two-parent family (and those two parents love each other and their children very much), we always had a home and food on the table, my brother and I were able to participate in sports, music, and other extra curricular activities. I always had a dress for the prom or winter formal, I had great friendships, I had a car to drive when I was old enough, my university education was paid for (in part my scholarship…pat on the back…but mostly by my mom and dad). In short, I was given many opportunities that helped shape my childhood and guide me into a successful adulthood. However, I have a history with homelessness.
When I was young, around the age of 5, the first Monday of every month, my dad and my grandpa would take my brother and myself with them to serve the food our church had collected to the men at a homeless shelter in South Tucson called Primavera. I remember the long drive across the hot and dusty streets of Tucson, and pulling into what looked like a big shed in the middle of nowhere. We were always greeted by helping hands. My brother and I would wait inside while my dad, granddad, and helpers unloaded the food into the men’s shelter. I was never afraid of the men there who would say hi to us. As we waited, I would watch them talking in groups, sitting on the aluminum picnic tables, awaiting a hot meal at the end of the day. I remember off to the left I could just get a peak of the large area lined with cots so close together. I thought it would be fun for them to have such a big sleep over.
Once the food was ready, the workers at the shelter would suit my brother and I up in our plastic aprons and gloves. The gloves were so big that the finger spaces extended a good three inches beyond my actual fingers. I was given a step stool and was always told to “be very careful” to not fall off while serving the food. They would hand me a large slotted spoon and direct me to give one scoop to each man. I was warned that some would ask me for more but it was very important I only gave one scoop to each or there would be nothing left for the men at the end of the line. The thought of men waiting in that long line only to have nothing to eat at the end of it made me very sad, so I was sure to only give one scoop to each person. Maybe it is the perspective of a young girl where everything seems so big in comparison to myself, but I remember it taking at least 30 minutes to serve the whole line of men. The line seemed so long…I remember thinking it stretched on forever and ever.
So, the men were called to eat and they lined up and each was given a tray with a plate, a cup and utensils. They always had a smile for me and told me how pretty I was. They always said thank you, sometimes, “Thank ya darlin”. Some wore dirty clothes, some were clean, but torn. They were old and young, white, Mexican, Native American, Black. Some had beards and some were clean-shaven. Some asked for a little extra, or for two scoops and said they wouldn’t tell on me, but I stuck to the rules; there were still so many men left in line. I remember looking down the line. It wove around the big warehouse like a snake and I could never see where it ended.
One man who came to me for his scoop of mashed potatoes or corn or whatever it was that I was serving that week told me to pull his finger. I stared at him and laughed that I would not because I knew what he would do and I did not want to get in trouble for encouraging someone to fart in the food line! But, he egged me on and said to trust him, stretching out his long, thin finger, black with dirt and fingernails long like a woman’s. I pulled it and he popped out his teeth! His gummy smile expanded across his face and his eyes sparkled and I began to laugh. It was always fun to go to Primavera…it’s no wonder I would always ask my dad when we got to go. I pulled on my dad’s sleeve to show him the man’s teeth and he laughed, too.
That was the end of it. The line was done. My tray of food made it through to the last person and some men were even able to come up for seconds until the tray was empty. My gloves were taken off of my hands and the apron untied and pulled over my head by a nice lady who tried hard to not mess up my ponytail while she did so. The workers always said they’d take care of the dishes and for us to go on home. My dad, granddad, my brother and I would go to the car and drive off. I always looked back at the big metal warehouse with one light on outside. If you didn’t know what was inside, you would never think to look twice at it. The sun was setting and I would fall asleep until we arrived home and dad carried me to bed. I wondered what the men did before they fell asleep.
Once, we went out to Primavera when the weather was turning ugly. We went even though it was windy and there was lightning everywhere. I remember being a little bit scared to drive, but I had my dad and granddad with me and I knew nothing could happen to me when they were around. We arrived and everyone was setting up to serve the food. The wind became so loud that the men were all looking around outside. It began to pour rain and the walls started to shake. My dad held onto my brother and my granddad held onto me. The men were shouting to keep the back door shut and that a tornado had touched down. My mom and dad were from Kansas and I knew what a tornado was but there had never been one in Tucson! We didn’t even have a basement! There was a man left outside and the other men were yelling at him to come in quickly, but he shouted to leave the door shut. The men on the inside did what he wanted and held the door shut. It took three men pulling on that door to make sure it didn’t blow open. The aluminum roof was shaking and I remember thinking the whole building could blow down, just like in the Three Little Pigs. I was so scared but the men around me were telling me it was alright; they were reassuring me. I was scared for the man outside—they said he would be okay but I could see how frightened and unsure the men near the door’s eyes were. There was lightning and thunder, so I shut my eyes and held onto granddad until it passed. One thing about the Tucson monsoon is that it comes and goes and if the trees didn’t turn greener from the rain you would never know it had been there. The sky turned hazy gray and the air heated up. The lightning moved into the distance and the rain and wind were gone. The men threw open the door and the man who had stayed outside said he had hugged the big tree out back and he even saw the aluminum picnic tables get moved around by the wind. He was covered in rain and laughing. The men inside were slapping him on the back and everyone was in a good mood because the storm was gone and the man was in one piece. I later realized that if the man had opened the door, the wind would’ve whipped in and it could’ve collapsed the whole building. I think he knew this and that’s why he made sure that the door had been kept shut. I loved the men at primavera. I was too young to realize that when all was said and done, I was going home to my warm bed and loving family and they were staying there for the night on a cot, in a room full of hundreds of men, only to start all over again in the morning.
Another church group took over going to Primavera shortly thereafter and so I would think about it at times, but I never went back.
My next experience with homelessness was in high school. We had to do a project on bettering our community. A lot of my peers collected trash or studied the politics of our city and how we could change legislation to make it better. I decided to interview the man that stood on the corner of River Rd. and Sabino Canyon Rd. that I passed often. He always seemed so upbeat and his signs were designed to make people smile. I wanted to know his story and why he had been on the corner for so long. Surely someone had helped him by that point or there was somewhere he could go. Why did he stay?
I brought my dad with me and offered the man $20 and a Gatorade in exchange for an interview. He agreed and was thankful for the company. The things that stood out to me about his life story was that he had been married several times. He even had children and stepchildren. Why did none of them help this man who was on the street? One wife, he said, had accused him of molesting his daughter, so he’d had to leave. I didn’t ask him if it was true and he didn’t offer it up. It was just a statement, a fact, and that was that. That incidence had put him on the street for what was his second time. He had had a problem with alcoholism that had in turn perpetuated the cycle of being on the street. He had been fired from a few jobs, sometimes for drinking. He didn’t like to stay in shelters that much, but didn’t really say why. He seemed like a nice person. I could sense that he was holding some things back or maybe telling me his life through rose colored glasses, but perhaps he thought the blunt truth would have been too much for a teenager and so he was sheltering me. Or maybe he was ashamed. I don’t know. His current sign had a small bunny stuffed animal on it and he had attached a stick form the back through it’s arm so when cars drove by and read his upbeat saying for the day, he could make the little bunny wave at them. He said he liked the corner at River and Sabino because the people were friendly and he’d even gotten to know some of them when they were stopped at the red light. I don’t feel like I understood anything more about homelessness, but I did listen to a man who was willing to tell his story. I tried to not to pass judgment on him, but I remember feeling like he had options but wasn’t using them. Why not rehabilitation for drinking? Why didn’t he like to stay at the shelters, really? If he was sober now, why didn’t he try to work again?
Fast-forward ten years and I am living in Canada with my husband of almost three years. I have been working as a case manager at a shelter for homeless women for seven months. This has been a new learning experience because I am old enough to understand the hardships the women are facing but they are so different because of the way homelessness has been caused through women’s issues. Women on the street are at so much more risk for violence. They sometimes have to work the streets for extra money or sleep with a man just to have a place to stay for the night. Some women are struggling with drug addictions—the lack of supports for their addiction causes them to spend their precious, limited amount of income on drugs or alcohol (which in Canada, alcohol has an 80% tax), making maintaining their housing that much more difficult. Many of them have been abused, in childhood, adulthood, or both. Sometimes the abuse of a partner toward the woman has caused child witnessing and children’s aid is now involved in her life. How does a struggling woman trying to leave an abuser with limited income expect to win over the hearts of children’s aid and get her children back? The woman is starting from scratch—she needs work, funding, housing, supports. On top of that, she is emotionally drained from the worry over where her children are and who they’re with, because God knows when she was in foster care she was molested or treated like she wasn’t even there. So when she was young she found solace in a bad boyfriend who perpetuated the cycle of abuse she experience from her parents, but to her, it’s what she knows so she’s not aware there is anything better for her out there. No one has ever loved her so why should she love herself? As far as she knows, this is love. In fact, her abuser keeps telling her he’s sorry and that she should come back and he makes promises about a life together that she’s always wanted. He tells her it was her fault anyway and so she thinks if she doesn’t make the same mistake with him she’ll be safe. Now we, as a society, treat her like she should know better and she should’ve left her abuser years ago. We think her children are better off without her. She just needs to get a job; she’s lazy and likes to be victimized. The same society that did not support this woman as a child is not supporting her as an adult, but we expect her to be a “normal” member of society and function the same. Why is it so easy for us to know what someone in that type of dire situation should do when we’ve never been there ourselves?
Yes, women can have addictions. Yes, women can work the streets. Does that make them any less human? Do they deserve any less? Instead of chastising them for what they’ve done or do, why don’t we try to figure out why they do it? What has caused this life for them? Then we might have a chance at really helping them move forward.
What about mental health issues? I would say that 90% of the women who experience homelessness have at least one mental health diagnosis. I would even go so far as to argue that every single person on this earth struggles with mental health wellness at some point in life. Anxiety, depression, ADHD—these are all mental health diagnoses. These diagnoses are becoming better known, but we still put a stigma on people who experience them. What about Bi-Polar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Paranoia, etc? Those words are so scary they are rarely mentioned among the public. It’s because mental “illness” is still taboo and we are not knowledgeable of it. It scares us. People are “crazy”, or “psycho”, or “weird”. We see them as menacing instead of in need.
Women who are homeless are often on, or must go on, financial assistance. Some landlords will not even show a woman a room or an apartment if she is on financial assistance. That is discrimination at it’s best. Canada is actually planning on cutting the funding that helps women who need to pay first and last months rent in order to secure an apartment, or helps them to get eye or dental care. The government must see these essential needs in life as luxuries to cut them so carelessly.
So here I am, a social worker. I truly enjoy it, although I do at times feel that burn out that it common in this profession, so I try to take care of myself of the side so that I can continue to serve the woman I work with the best that I can. I never want to become negative in my work. That does not serve me well, or the women I work with.
As a child, I felt sad for the men who had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. They made me laugh and I was never afraid of them. As I grew, I was able to push the thought of them to the back of my mind because society had pushed them out to a tin warehouse on the outskirts of town.
As a teenager, I interviewed a man living on the street. I was thankful for his honesty but bothered by parts of his story. I remember feeling like part of him had chosen his lifestyle—or like the saying goes, he made his own bed. I didn’t understand him or his struggles. What I understand now is that I had always had supports and options; he had not. Perhaps that is why I could never apprehend it.
As an adult, I am understanding the issues and more familiar with the supports, or lack there of, that exist. There are some great organizations and programs but there are not nearly enough of them. There is such a great need for more programs and shelters and financial assistance. There is a need for more good social workers that really want change for our community’s homeless people. There is not enough support out there for people in vulnerable situations, but there is certainly enough animosity. I know that no one chooses this lifestyle, and I feel bad for ever thinking that about the man I interviewed when I was a teenager. Nobody wants a homeless lifestyle, no matter how many times they finds themselves losing their housing and ending up back in shelter, or worse, on the street.
I thank my parents and grandparents for opening my eyes to social issues when I was young. I am grateful to all of the people I have served for being kind to me. I promise to always respect every person whom I serve and every night I pray to God for the strength and grace to do my job well. I pray to God for strength and peace to those whom I serve.