From her second floor studio apartment, Lillian MacDonald looks listlessly out the window. “This is my home,” she says of her humble abode, decorated from wall to wall with pictures, the smell of cinnamon and sweet scents from candles permeating the air. Most of the pictures are black and whites of family members and saints. There are three vials of holy water by the door and small wooden crucifix above her beautifully appointed burgundy bed.
At 50, Lillian MacDonald has experienced more life than most. She was homeless for four years, following some hard times and a short stint in jail. However, with much determination, a great deal of goodwill, hard work, and a little luck, she has now been housed for three years.
Though she goes by Lillian, there are many other names and phrases to describe her and paint a picture of her journey. So too, does the small apartment she calls home reflect her story.
Lillian. MacDonald was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the fifth of six children. Her father was a coal miner and her mother was a nurse. After the mines closed when MacDonald was three years old, the family of eight moved to Hanson, Massachusetts, where her father worked in the cranberry bogs at Ocean Spray.
MacDonald’s family was extremely Catholic and her mother named her Lillian in honor of St. Ninian. A picture of her patron saint hangs by the window as a comforting presence in her home, a small reminder of her childhood and her innate spirituality.
“Lily the Lister.” After high school, MacDonald dabbled in numerous jobs and academic pursuits. When her childhood desire to become a nun seemed far from reach, MacDonald enrolled in secretariat and modeling school.
She proudly handled worn photographs of her mother’s that showed a younger version of herself from that period, her long hair blowing in a mild breeze and freckles dotting her face. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun now, showcasing her pixie ears and tired eyes.
MacDonald later obtained a real estate license and worked for Coldwell Banker and Conway, where she earned the nickname “Lilly the Lister.” She was also a reggae concert promoter in Boston for a short while. “I always had two to three jobs going on at the same time,” she said.
MacDonald later enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, majoring in sociology and substance abuse studies. She also took classes in nursing.
Dreamer. A small dream catcher hangs above her desk, a representation of her wishful attitude. MacDonald has ADD, which has contributed to her free spirited nature. “I’m a bit of a dreamer,” she said. However, she has also struggled with depression since her youth, creating a paradox in her disposition.
Additionally, MacDonald has been afflicted with numerous health problems, a situation that quickly became perilous. She almost lost her leg to complications stemming from Hepatitis C, enduring many transfusions and surgeries on her ankle. She only learned to walk again this winter. Her reliance on pain medications for her various ailments throughout her life led to a drug addiction, augmented by experimental use as a teenager. “I’ve always struggled to clean up,” said MacDonald.
Alcohol abuse after reaching menopause led to two D.U.Is, which in turn landed MacDonald in jail, a stint that would lead to her homelessness.
Survivor. Seven years ago, MacDonald spent six months in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution for women in Framingham. “It was scary and very painful” she said. Because she could no longer attend school, MacDonald failed out of UMass.
Constantly proactive, MacDonald tried to keep busy for her six months in prison, joining the choir and taking college classes in an attempt to get back on track.
She was “released to the streets” with 75 dollars to her name and uniform blue shoes called “bobos,” a marker of the recently incarcerated. However, the conditions of her parole did not allow her to leave the state, preventing her from moving in with a sister in New Hampshire, and leaving her with no place to go.
Not only had she lost her home, but her personal relationships were strained as well. “No one wanted anything to do with me,” said MacDonald. “Your whole family treats you like you’re a criminal, like you’re a disease.” Admittedly, she had burned some bridges and “hurt people you didn’t mean to hurt” during her tough times leading up to her arrest, but MacDonald had never thought she could lose control of her entire life, livelihood, home, and support system.
MacDonald then began what she called the “shelter shuffle” for the next three years. “You feel like you have no self-worth,” she said of her time on streets. Her family quickly disposed of her belongings, leaving her with nothing but what she could carry on her back.
“You’re constantly losing your stuff,” said MacDonald. “All your worldly possessions end up being gone…every picture, every childhood memory…gone.”
She remembered an afternoon in the Public Gardens during a heat wave, when she had felt sick and fell asleep under a tree. She awoke to police rushing at her to move her along because her presence was unnerving others in the park.
“People look at you like you’re garbage,” she said of her experience being homeless. “There’s no rest and your feet are killing you, but there’s nowhere to go.”
Though MacDonald never actually slept a night out on the street, her cycle from shelter to shelter was wearing, complicated, and terrifying.
Of her “traumatic experience,” she said, “you just deal with it. You have to be really resilient, be a survivor.”
“I’m a go-getter.” After three years rotating in and out of different shelters, Lillian landed on the steps of the Sancta Maria House. She recalled walking through the unassuming door of the shelter and seeing a small statue of the Virgin Mary atop the staircase. “It’s like I died and went to heaven,” she said, instantly feeling that this place was different. She found a temporary home at Sancta Maria House and solace in its volunteers.
With semblances of regularity and a glimmer of hope, MacDonald, a self-starter, put her efforts into amending her situation.
Working with laws that require three years of continuously being homeless to qualify for housing aid, the process of getting oneself off the street proved extremely difficult. Stay limits at shelters, including Sancta Maria House, made it nearly impossible to correspond with different agencies and hold onto required paperwork.
For those who lack a permanent address, it is a vicious cycle, taken off lists for being unreachable. “You get so far, and then boom…you have to start all over again,” said MacDonald. “It’s so discouraging.”
By this time, MacDonald was sober and clean. She had graduated from Victory Programs, a rehabilitation facility and used every resource she could think of to achieve a better lifestyle. She received help from numerous advocates but noted that they can only do so much. “You have to help yourself,” she said.
MacDonald said her epiphany came when she stopped pointing fingers and blaming others for her woes and took responsibility for herself.
Though she was number 800 on a housing waitlist, she was placed in a space of her own in less than a year. “I got it because most people wouldn’t do what they needed to do,” referencing those higher on the list but who couldn’t remain “straight.” “I lost everything else but I had my papers!”
MacDonald has been in her apartment for three years. The only signs of her health problems are the medications she packs in an overnight case and scars on her legs from the surgeries to treat her Hepatitis C, which is now non-detectable. MacDonald also finished her college degree in sociology. She hopes to move into a one-bedroom apartment soon and is applying for jobs at organizations that aid the homeless.
“I remember the first night – no bed, no lights in the sleeping area, had a bed at Sancta Maria, but slept in my new home and cried with thanks and praises for the passionate people who helped me and the glory of our lord mother Mary to whom I have prayed after being at Sancta Maria.”
“White Santa.” While in college, MacDonald and a friend traveled to Jamaica looking for jobs on a whim. Seeing children at a hospital on Treasure Beach in St. Elizabeth, MacDonald felt a kinship with the tropical locale.
She goes back every winter and works with sick children at an orphanage, donating time and supplies. With each trip abroad over the holidays, she brings large bags of donated or cheaply-acquired stuffed animals to brighten the children’s spirits. Medical supplies and equipment, computers, and basic living items also make the trip with the “white Santa,” as the children she interacts with call her.
Giving back the community to which she once belonged is important for MacDonald. She volunteers at Sancta Maria House regularly, staying overnight to help guests and contributing to the shelter’s maintenance, working on an outdoor garden and organizing a closet full of donations.
“Now I try to pay it back,” she said, offering advice and guidance to women that find themselves homeless as she once was. “I really love the contact with the women,” said MacDonald.
A well-spring of donations, MacDonald’s creativity spills over into her acts of goodwill, her constant scavenging yielding found objects that could be of use to a disadvantaged someone, somewhere. “You shouldn’t throw anything out that’s useable,” she said. “Send it off elsewhere, someone could benefit from it.”
MacDonald hopes to someday author a book filled with photographs the faces and stories of the homeless. “People really don’t understand who they are,” she said, “that people from all walks of life end up here.”
An easel by the window supports an acrylic painting of a Martha’s Vineyard seascape. The brilliant blues of the water, the deep purple of a blooming bush that bursts off the canvas, and spatters of white clouds act as a backdrop to two white lawn chairs framing a champagne bottle.
“Dom Perinon,” says MacDonald, an inside joke for a friend in the hospital. The scene, which looks like the front of a postcard, clearly represents better days, optimism, and hope, all of which have brought Lillian MacDonald to where she is today.
“I really thought I wasn’t going to make it,” she said, but, “there is housing at the end of the tunnel.”
“Through the grace of God, I’m alive, and all you can do is change for the future.”