The letter arrived Tuesday, June 1 – after the long Memorial Day weekend – in a red envelope bearing a San Jose postmark and addressed to the Weekly, but with no other identifying information included. The script on the message inside is old-school elegant, albeit a little bit shaky, learned at a time when students were taught penmanship in school.
The writer says she’s a 71-year-old woman and she makes it clear she doesn’t want to be found. She also makes it clear that even if we could track her down, it will be too late.
“I am a 71-year-old woman who just became homeless. My spine is collapsing. I’ve had five surgeries on my back and am in constant pain. Constant!” she writes. “I have contacted every program for housing in Monterey County for help. They all told me the same thing – there is nothing available. The waiting lists are 1-3 years long.”
She writes about the trash-strewn homeless encampments she has seen. She wonders why U.S. citizens aren’t prioritized for housing. She says that some homeless people don’t want to make their lives better, but most don’t want to live this way.
She doesn’t want to live this way.
“This is the decision I have in front of me. To go live in a trash filled unsafe homeless camp while being in constant pain,” she writes. “I refuse to live like that. Instead, with careful planning, I have decided to end my life. I am at peace with this decision. There really is no other choice for me… I have no future to look forward to.”
It’s a story of desperation that happens all too often, although in most cases, it doesn’t include a suicide. At Alliance on Aging, the Salinas-based nonprofit whose services include peer counseling, Executive Director Teresa Sullivan says when someone is in a housing crisis, it’s difficult to think about anything else.
“It gets triaged to the top of the list. It’s a huge challenge and unfortunately, money drives all of it. If she came to us, the first question would be, ‘What do you have?’” Sullivan says. She adds the letter writer may have assets she doesn’t know about – military or social security benefits from a late spouse, or social security benefits of their own. Without knowing more of her circumstances, it’s hard to know what could be done for her. Or what could have been done.
“Women in particular, it’s a reality check and it reinforces the fears we have that this is a housing situation we could be facing ourselves,” Sullivan says. “We have to try to be proactive and not let it get to a crisis.”
Gathering for Women, the Monterey-based homeless services agency for women, opened Casa de Noche Buena, its first shelter for women and children, in Seaside in 2020. Over 50 percent of Gathering’s clients overall are women over the age of 50.
Last year, it meant 200 women over the age of 50 came through Gathering’s doors. The agency’s oldest client right now is 80; last year, the organization helped a woman in her 70s who had been homeless since 2014 get permanent, stable housing.
“It’s not that uncommon (and) it’s an ever-increasing population,” says Staci Alziebler-Perkins, executive director of Gathering for Women. “Most are from this area and have had some sort of hardship, financial or loss of a spouse. They’re more vulnerable than anyone else, whether that’s illness or crime, you name it and they’re more vulnerable.”
Gathering has case managers on staff. Had the letter writer come through the doors, Gathering could have reached out to a crisis counselor to get her mental health assistance.
Alziebler-Perkins and Sullivan both referenced another possible solution in the newly launched (to Monterey County) Home Match program, in which senior homeowners or renters who have a room to rent are matched with older adults who need a place to live. Most rooms range in price between $700 and $1,300 a month, depending on the region, and eligible participants must earn no more than 120 percent of the area median income, which in Monterey County is $68,222.
If there’s one positive note in this morass of pain, it’s this: Monterey County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson John Thornburg says that as of the first week of June, nobody matching the general description of the letter writer (age, gender and death by suicide) has landed at the coroner’s office.
So if you’re still out there, letter writer, please reach out.