The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless is a statewide public policy and direct service organization that’s presently working on expanding the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, a key homelessness prevention resource. The expansion of RAFT would make it possible for low-income individuals to receive financial assistance to help stabilize their housing crises or to exit homelessness—individuals such as Christine, who recently exited homelessness.
Recently, Tina Giarla, community organizer/legislative advocate with the Coalition, had an opportunity to sit down with Christine as she shared her story of homelessness, rehousing and hope.
Christine: I never in a million years thought being homeless would ever be a part of my story, but as John Lennon said, “Life happen while making other plans.” I was abused from a very early age in every sense of the word, and at the age of 19, I met and married a man who was physically, emotionally and psychologically damaging to me. After 17 years together and three children later, the marriage ended.
Tina: How did you manage after the marriage ended?
Christine: I remember a therapist telling me once, “Honey, you were never taught life skills, you were taught survival skills.” My children were and are the lights of my life, and my entire world revolved around them. There were days at the end of the month I went without eating to conserve food for them. Utilities would be shut off, and the rent would go unpaid. I often overspent on my girls in an effort to give them what I perceived as happiness. My heart was in the right place, but eventually that wave came crashing down, washing away all that once was.
Tina: When did you first experience homelessness?
Christine: February 2014. I was evicted from my apartment in Revere, in an area known as Beachmont. I couchsurfed for a few nights. After that, I came to the conclusion that I was not willing to allow my children to be homeless. The most heart-wrenching decision I ever had to make was to give physical custody to my ex-husband. I can in all honesty say to you that a piece of me died that day.
Tina: After you gave custody of your children to your ex-husband, where did you go?
Christine: I moved forward. I thought just like everyone else does: it will be okay, I will get into a shelter and rebuild. I went to apply for shelter and was very quickly told that no kids meant no help. With time, I found many of the shelters were unsafe. There were nights friends would give me a place to sleep. I was eternally grateful and am to this day for those respites from that reality, which seemed to always be nipping at my heels. I was a target when I was on the streets; I was taken advantage of, stolen from and sexually assaulted.
Tina: Life for you must have been extremely difficult.
Christine: Yes. Winter was especially brutal last year, between the snow and frigid temperatures. I spent time at the airport, finding that if I stayed awake all night and just read, I usually was not questioned. The night before Thanksgiving was one of those nights. I was waiting for morning so I could see my girls. My only light at the end of the tunnel was seeing them.
I was hospitalized more times than I could count for my PTSD and depression. I even suffered from a mini stroke. I know it was caused from the stresses of homelessness. While on the streets, my mind and body took a beating. Test after test, a slew of new medications and neurology appointments—they never determined the cause. I was left with weakness, blurred vision and massive headaches. It was and still is hard, but I feel blessed to be alive and here to tell you my story.
Tina: During this time, were you able to see your children?
Christine: Through it all, I trudged on, stuck to my visitations with my kids and volunteered at their schools. I kept on hoping that one day the pieces of my shattered life would somehow fit back together.
Tina: When did things start to change for you?
Christine: It was June 1st of last year that, by a brush of good fortune, I was offered a bed at the Somerville Homeless Coalition’s adult shelter. Although we had to be out from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., I always had a place to go.
Tina: Was it through this case management that you were able to begin to receive benefits and health care?
Christine: Shortly after entering the shelter, I learned that I was approved for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and I started receiving regular care through the [Boston] Health Care for the Homeless [Program]. So much was looking up and I was starting to regain my footing.
Tina: When did your homelessness end?
Christine: I got a call that has revolutionized my world just this past December. Through the Somerville Homeless Coalition’s Safe Passages Program, I was offered an apartment in Somerville. I meet with a case manager weekly and now enjoy the gift of spending time as a family with my girls and something so mundane to most people: cooking dinner and watching movies with them, safe in my own home. That is a feeling that I am grateful for and never take lightly.
Tina: With all you have gone through, how have those experiences changed your life?
Christine: I don’t see the world the same way as I did two years ago, not even close. I will never take for granted a roof over my head again. I practice one good deed each day, no matter how small, for a stranger, mostly homeless individuals. Every chance I get, I pass on some knowledge or a kind word, possibly the truth that there can be a brighter day.
Since being in my apartment, I spend every day trying to get back on track, and now I’m considering going back to school for social work. I still fight with depression and horrible anxiety though. I always have to resist the urge to isolate. With housing, silence and safety also came a flood of overwhelming memories. I see that we all have journeys, with some parts that can almost break us. I know I can’t change the pain, but I can use the wisdom it afforded me.
Tina: Do you feel that the expansion of the RAFT program would make a difference for many of those who are experiencing homelessness?
Christine: Yes. There is no doubt that without the ability for many people to access first [month’s rent], last [month’s rent] and security [deposits], the doors to housing can’t open. Not everyone is going to have the luck I had in getting into programs like Safe Passages, but with more access and funding for programs like RAFT, they will. Housing has made it possible for me to become who I was meant be—an invaluable asset to the community I live in.
Tina: Thank you, Christine, for sharing your story and inspiration with us!
This interview was conducted and submitted by the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.