The Invisible Woman
An extended interview with Mary, who is homeless.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
One of the photographers of the Carl Cherry Center exhibition, Becoming Visible: The Face of Homeless Women in Monterey County, suggested talking to a homeless woman who asked to be referred to as Mary. Mary had a cell phone, was articulate, and had been homeless about five years. She lived out of a van, but was hoping to soon move into a trailer. We talked by phone twice. Her comments from both these interviews are reprinted below.
Sleeping and Waking
A lot of people don’t realize this but when you’re homeless you sleep with one eye open. Or you don’t sleep. It’s a sad situation. They get nervous. They worry about things, women especially. A lot of them end up with high-stress issues. I’m fortunate I have a van that looks pretty good. I try not to look homeless. I pick good locations to park, I blend in. I sleep pretty good but once in a while I don’t… you get exhausted easily. It’s a high stress situation. The women I talk to and a lot of the men have the same problem. People get frustrated, they’re looking for work, and they will drink. I’m not a drinker, I’m not a drug user. I walk to get frustration out and I learn to laugh at a lot of it. I grew up on the Peninsula and lived a sheltered life. I’ve learned a lot about the world. It’s unfortunate, but I’m stronger to have gone through what I’ve gone through.
I’m trying to think of things I would like to be. Almost everybody on the street has been physically, psychologically or sexually abused. I don’t want sympathy… well, maybe that’s the thing that will change the situation. There are so many things that go on in the world. Employers will treat you badly, work you to death, add hours and don’t want to pay you. There’s a million things that can go wrong that can cause people problems. The way the economy is. I’m very analytical, looking at the causes. I wish I can change the world, now that I’ve seen the world. Oh, I can help Pastor Michael [Reid] with this project. At least get some of the women off the streets. I’m about ready to move into a camper. I will soon not be homeless. I may have a place to park it. A driveway, not paved. It gets too wet in the winter. A safer, more protected location. I’m hoping that God will put me in the right spot
I don’t want to use my name. There are people who won’t hire you or do business with you if you’ve been homeless. Pastor Michael knows this. I don’t want to use names. It’s a small town. Their behaviors catch up with people. I want it to be about the women who need the help.
A lot of us worry about being exploited. I asked that my photograph not be used in the exhibit. The fella took a picture of me anyway. I’m going to be sure my photo’s not in that exhibit. I’m going to try to get a business started. I’m 61 years old. I have a little gray hair. People don’t want to hire me. That’s the reality in this town. I’ve been a supervisor on jobs. What’s come up for me is if you know more than your former employer, they don’t want you. Someone I know with a masters degree in my field, a guy, was told “I don’t need people who can think, I have enough little monkeys.”
I was fired from one job because [the employer said] “You didn’t tell me you had management experience.” I can’t afford to keep you.” I was due for a raise, benefits. Numerous people have left that company at about six months, when due for benefits. I almost lost an eye there. [The female manager] kept insisting I put in an electrical cord that had fallen into water. I worked for a law firm for a while, but it’s not my calling. I took some writing classes at MPC to work on my skills.
I’ve had physical injuries. I hurt my back. I fought through that. I walk through that, and walking up hills helps. I use Jefferson, Franklin. I took a few yoga classes. I fractured my wrist and decided to leave that job. I got disability and the landlady lowered the rent. I took the initiative to improve the living conditions, but… I do want to interject that I do have an ex. He wasn’t very nice to me. I need to get to the place I need to be in order to marry a man.
People who know you’re homeless, they won’t talk to you, even if they know you very well. They start assuming things. There are people who will park next to me, but as soon as they know you’re homeless, they’ll pull away and park someplace else. I’ve walked over to people and told them, “I want you to know why I’m homeless. It was a traffic accident.”
[The second conversation, when asked how she had slept the night before]
Actually pretty good. I fell asleep somewhere in a parking lot. Under a street lamp, sitting in [my] vehicle trying to read. I sleep pretty good there in this spot. I’m isolated from people. I slept in this morning. I attended church. There’s a church service across from McDonald’s, across Del Monte. It’s four homeless people. The Beach Church. Sunday mornings at 9:30am. Some picnic tables, near trees. Individuals donate toiletries, clothing, food. Sometimes the Episcopal Church in Carmel supplies food. One of the homeless guys goes to the food pantry and gets beans, someone with a house cooks it and brings the food. Pastor Brian Bajari does the service. No one’s judgmental.
This morning, Pastor Brian spoke a little bit, asked people to calm down and connect with God and the ocean and birds, bring a little peace into their lives. Asked people to speak about what they’re thankful for, asked a few people [if] they would like a prayer for anything. A guy from Santa Cruz found God in jail, a motorcycle guy. Looks pretty rough. A lot of the frustration in his life. Absent parents, three years in prison.
There’s a feed across from Naval Postgraduate School. The Salvation Army. There a couple of feeds at San Carlos Church. Bethlehem Lutheran Church does a feed. I can get my list out. I’m working a little bit so I printed out some copies for Salvation Army employees. It’s supposed to be translated [for the] Hispanic community. One of the pastors called me and thanked me. [She laughs]. At the Beach Church, people are donating their change and it’s going to East Africa for potable water treatment. Pastor Brian’s going to Africa in the near future. We are making a difference in the world. Some of these guys who panhandle are donating.
The Saturday feed. There’s scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. Water, toiletries, used bicycles. Some of [the homeless] get the bikes and sell them for money for drugs. Pastor Michael comes to that occasionally. I got money to help with my car because I didn’t pass smog. They paid for it and I passed smog.
I’m trying to get out of this. I have a lot of sympathy for people out on the street. I hand out food and toiletries on Sunday morning. I listen to people. If I can direct them to some kind of help, I will. There’s a lot of women who are depressed because they’re losing their sense of security. They’ve lost homes, jobs, husbands or boyfriends. I talked some people into rehab. One woman’s been clean and sober a long time.
People new to this, it takes them down into a hole. The sooner people get helped, the better off they are. I’ve tried to get help, but nobody wants to help you. If you have drug and alcohol problems, you can get help, but if not, nobody’s there to help you. I called a 211 number everybody tells you to call. They asked me what color my skin was. They said “We have to do a survey so we can direct you.”
A Woman From Fresno
A woman from Fresno, her husband said if she ever left, he would kill her. That’s very common with battered women. It’s happened. Women have been murdered by their husbands they’re trying to get away from. One of her kids told the ex that she was where she was and she had to move on. A woman from Texas, running away from her husband who had a lot of money. He threatened her. She felt like she couldn’t trust anybody. She wanted to go to Big Sur and disappear. I said there’s probably not any jobs down there. She said she didn’t care, that her husband probably hired some people to track her down. One day she was supposed to meet me and she never showed up. No one knew where she went.
I heard a story there was some suicide, [a woman in] a very nice car, dressed very expensively. She had lost her house. Someone at State Parks found her. There aren’t enough resources to help people. I’ve lost friends to drugs and alcohol. “Why don’t you find some guy to take care of you?” I know myself, I know where I’m happiest.
When you’re dealing with basic necessities, it’s a struggle. I’m fortunate I have vehicle, been able to keep gas in it. But there’s people who walk to the Salvation Army to take a shower and do laundry, they walk from Monterey. They go to the feeds, look for jobs. There’s people who’ve given up and go for basic necessities. The library for basic services, job search, Career Center in Seaside. Go down to the beach, sit and drink all day or use drugs. I do a lot of job searching. I’m not coming up with anything. Everybody’s kind of on their own.
Some people don’t want you to know they’re homeless. The hidden homeless. The ones who have given up, they’re drinking, sitting in the library. It’s a downward spiral. They’ll go into rehab. There’s a lot of help for that. There’s an organization, The Bridge, and they do a six month program. Some people never get out of that cycle. There’s a couple of women, they look bad, they don’t eat. One woman, using meth, ended up getting arrested and thrown in jail. Some people go through programs and get back on their feet and start using again. It can be a vicious cycle. I’m not sure what the percentage of women who aren’t drug and alcohol users is. I think it’s higher than most people would expect. I want to say half, but have some other issue.
There are people with medical issues, drugs and alcohol, people on the streets with diabetes. One woman ended up with an infection, a boil on the back of her neck. It may have been a spider bite. They were putting her in ICU. I wish I could get dental care, but Clinica de Salud won’t help me. They have a portable vehicle that stops at the Salvation Army twice a month. Once a month it’s for dental. A different group in Marina tried to send me to Castroville. I assume they don’t want to help me because I’m white. I told a counselor at the Y where I slept and two nights later, there were Hispanic kids behind my car.
I wasn’t raised to judge people by their skin color. It’s unfortunate that kind of thing is happening. If you are white and homeless, they assume you must be using drugs and alcohol. I tried going to counseling, and they will help you get housing. After those Hispanic kids showed up behind me, I stopped going to counseling. Maybe it was a chance thing, but I didn’t trust what was happening at the Y. One brown-skinned woman got housing right away. She got divorce settlement and bought a Lexus. They tell everybody you went to high school with, “Don’t invite her to the class reunion.” Somebody offered to pay for me to go but I decided not to go. I didn’t want to get belittled.
It was a traffic accident I got blamed for. It wasn’t my fault. I lost my savings, was fired, and had to move out of my place. I have family that helped a little bit. I tried staying with a sister in Carmel Valley and she nagged me. Didn’t have a moments peace and I think I was creating a lot of stress being there, so I decided to live in my car. Another family [member], I helped her with medical issues and she belittled me for being homeless. My brother-in-law owns three businesses and doesn’t understand me. I don’t understand the world. I tried to give a homeless woman a ride and she wouldn’t get out of my van. She wouldn’t get out. She asked if she can sit in my car. I said “No. I’ve got stuff in my car.” You can only do so much, then people have to take the initiative to do for themselves.
My cousin took money out of his retirement fund to buy me the camper. He owns a business in Souther California. I couldn’t live with him, but he’s a type A, short tempered. He would like to see me get to where I want to go. He sends me money for gas once in a while.
Mind and Body
The people who’ve been abused don’t have a lot of confidence or self esteem. That has to get built up. I read that there’s a high incidence of schizophrenia and I check in with myself every once in a while. The church group I go to says “You don’t seem like you’re homeless.” They donate to Saturday feed. I find work there. I’m coherent. I keep myself clean. I take a shower every day, very fortunate. I comb my hair. I have a smile on my face. I’m not dejected. I’m not miserable and unhappy and complaining. I’m looking for positive things in life. You have to. You can fall into a pit or you can spend your time and energy… you can gradually pull yourself out of a hole.
If I felt like I was having mental health issues, I would try to get some help. I’m going, “What did I do today? Am I functioning? As hard as the situation is, am I living a normal life? Taking care of myself, eating healthy? What is my attitude? Am I depressed?” I’m not. A nice walk in the woods is a good way to clear clutter and frustration. I do things to take care of myself and make me feel good.
There’s a lot of men and women who are bipolar and some of them can’t get their medications. They can’t afford to, or [can’t] get Medi-Cal. Some don’t want to take them because they say it doesn’t make them feel right. They should be in a care facility. Some of them self medicate with drugs and alcohol. That’s sad. There are people with physical injuries that are out on the streets. Women with injuries often get help, but sometimes the drugs they’re given are not the best thing for them.
I think when you’re homeless you need a lot of patience and kindness and understanding. And there’s not a lot of that in the world. It’s different for so many of us. It gets scary sometimes. I’ve gone past my being afraid. When you can’t sleep because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you. I fought through that. I sleep with a cross under my pillow. If I don’t feel safe, I move. I’m becoming a little more streetwise than I ever was. I’m learning what goes on in the world out here. I can’t be friends with a lot of these people. I can talk to them. But I’ve got to keep my guard up. You don’t know who to trust.
A Goofy Life
The process [of going homeless] started in 2007. I’ve had visits from angels. I know I have. I know I have protection, as hard as this has been [choking up], there are lessons I need to know about the world. All this has made me stronger. I caught somebody stealing and they fired me from the job. I can’t believe this. I had to move out of my P.G. place after the six month lease. I was reading business and psychology books, my wrist healed, I got another job. Its’ been a goofy life. Not everybody is honest and sincere.
I probably know some of the women. I went to high school with this woman, she worked for a large corporation in the area for 30-something years and they called her into the office in 2009 and said “We think you should retire early. We have to retire you.” She raised three kids and is [now] living in a camp in the woods. Worked all of her life. I worked most of my life. She can’t get retirement and social security until 62. There’s a young couple looking after her. When they get a place, they’re going to have her live with them. They worry about her. I worry about her because she’s not nearly as strong as I am. When I see her she’s in clothes that are dirty. She doesn’t keep herself up like she should. I didn’t know any of the homeless people until I became homeless. You meet them at Salvation Army, the feeds, someplace along the line of homeless resources.
Rest And Respite
I’m in the parking lot at MPC, under some shade. It was getting warm. I had to drive a ways to find some shade. Now they’re chasing people out of here. There used to be a lot of people that come here. There are people who are struggling, have been for a long time, and would like to have a somewhat normal life and go on to do better things in the world. I know there are people who are a lot worse than I am. I try to inspire people. I’ve got a lot of long term goals. Writing projects, [there are] grants out there. I’ve also got financial people, someone I know, who might be financial backers for the business I want to do. I have to have a business plan and show it to them. I know what I want to do.
Now I’m going to go take a shower somewhere. I didn’t take my shower this morning because I overslept, but I made it to church on time. There’s a place I go, it’s quiet, they have a restroom. I’ll have a nice picnic lunch. I have paperwork to do. I have a lot of scribbled notes to organize for the business. I have a lot of reading I’d like to do. Maybe a nice hike.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read Homer’s Odyssey. I know that we have to go through certain things in life that are going to make us a better person. [Choking up]. I have no doubts that I’m going to get to where I need to be and am supposed to be and want to be. There’s work to do. People are going to help me. There’s a business site in Monterey County that’s been sitting vacant. There’s a reason I have to do what I’m going to do. And I will. That’s what the writing’s about, educating people about things. That’s my day. Thank you. I have to go. I’m probably going to lose my charge, and I need an emergency phone call or two, just in case.
To see the Homeless Census, go to chspmontereycounty.org/HomelessCensusMOCO.06.15.11.pdf