Every now and then in this seemly unending battle against homelessness, I come to a crossroads. I ask myself if I should keep fighting or if I should just fold up my tent and call it a day. I could call it a day; I have served on the board of directors of Spare Change for 10 years, been both president and executive director, and done all I could to help others. There are days when I look around and say, “For what?!” Homelessness hasn’t gotten better; it’s gotten worse. I’ve lost friends and family to the whims of the street. It seems I can’t pass a corner or even a storefront without encountering someone without a cup in their hand. I wonder how others who have been at it longer than I have keep going. Then, while I’m on the pity pot, life punches me in the face.
Long before SPARE CHANGE NEWS, the only time I had learned about homelessness was when I had been out of drug rehab for a little over a year and was in college studying to be (what else?) a substance abuse counselor. Our assignment for the summer was to work in an actual shelter. I was sure I would screw it up somehow. I only knew one side of homelessness at that point in my life, the one that I had been a part of. I had no idea how to work with homeless people. Also, the question came to mind: how could I work with people that I had at one point drank and done drugs with? As part of my internship at the shelter, I was assigned to work with people who were either dealing with substance abuse issues or in recovery.
It was then that I met Billy and his wife Marilyn, who I hadn’t met before. At the time, I knew nothing about family homelessness. I was also ignorant to the fact that not everyone that ends up on the street is there because of substance abuse or mental illness. Some people, like this couple, just got caught up.
Billy and Marilyn had been married for 10 years when I met them, but had been together for over 20 years. They had met in high school, made some typical teenage mistakes, and ended up having a child while they were young. But things worked out; Billy got a decent job, so did Marilyn, and they began to live a normal life, even adding on a couple more kids. Right after they got married, the building they lived in caught fire. They lost everything. They were both still working at the time, so they figured they’d be able to get back on their feet quickly. Wanting to spare their kids from living in a crowded hotel room, they moved them in with relatives. Marilyn only worked part-time, so she moved in with the kids. There was no room for Billy, though, so he had to stay at a shelter, which was fine with him as long as his wife and kids were okay. Back then, many shelters didn’t provide so-called saved work beds, so unfortunately Billy had to hustle back every day to make sure he got a bed. Sometimes, he’d go a few days without seeing Marilyn or the kids. It also caused a problem at his job, since he couldn’t work overtime like he used to, and sometimes even had to leave early.
The other problem they encountered was housing. Marilyn got laid off, but they both figured they would receive housing assistance of some type. That wasn’t the case; Billy made too much money, and also had a minor police record (housing authorities can be petty). Soon, Billy lost his job too, due to layoffs, and so began the monotonous task of job searching and dealing with housing day after day. The economy was in the tank as well back then, so finding a job was tough. When the only experience you have is factory work, and most factories are either shutting down or moving to other countries, you’re pretty much up against it.
When I met them, they’d both been on the streets for five years. Marilyn had elected to join her husband in the shelters; she didn’t want him to endure the streets alone. Their children remained with relatives. In that time, they had both become addicted to substances; that can happen when you’re trying to cope with the streets and cope with a system that’s supposed to help those who want to help themselves.
My task obviously was to get them the help they needed to get sober, but first I had to help them rebuild their self-esteem. In school, they told us to get people sober and then help them rebuild. The people who teach those things haven’t lived it. I used whatever personal experience I had to help them. It took a lot of time and effort, and I found myself caring a lot more than I should have. There’s another bit of nonsense they teach you from a book; don’t get too involved. But I did. It took all summer, but I finally got both of them into treatment.
So what did I learn? Many things—too many to put into simple words. But all that I did learn never came out of a book. I wish I could give you a happy ending to this story, but I cannot. After I got them into rehab, I never saw or heard from Billy or Marilyn again. I hope that not seeing them means that they made it out of homelessness. When I think of them, I get like this, and have to find a way to keep going.