DETERMINED SURVIVOR: HOW I OVERCAME HOMELESSNESS
Three years have passed since I found myself sleeping on a cold cement floor at SAFES (Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter). When I say "found myself," I mean I literally discovered a layer inside me I hadn’t known existed: determined survivor.
Throughout my eight-month ordeal, negative thoughts such as I’d rather be dead than spend another day in this shelter wrapped my mind like a suffocating cocoon. But, little by little, as I saw how much Portlanders really care – and so many people really do care – about the homeless, my confidence grew and I began to work steadfastly toward a brighter future. Now that I have some distance from the daily horror of the streets (the shelter-bound are constantly threatened with the curb if they miss curfew or break a rule), I’m glad I had the experience.
Yes, you read that right. I’m grateful for experiencing such hardship because I now have more empathy and compassion than ever before.
Not that I don’t get frustrated with addicts who refuse to get help and what I see as systemic “enabling.” In a different shelter, a young woman from Minnesota was prescribed Oxycontin for a toothache. Her roommate, who had a decades-long history of substance abuse, stole the drug and disappeared for the weekend. The Midwesterner’s doctor refused to prescribe more Oxycontin, so the young woman suffered needless excruciating pain. The shelter staff welcomed the addict back with open arms and dismissed the Minnesotan as a whiner.
I had entire loads of laundry stolen only to see my threads on the backs of other women. To complain was useless lest I want to hear another lecture about the evils of capitalism and how the fabric of all women make up one tapestry, so don’t be selfish, let your neighbor wear your bras and T-shirts.
Time and again, I was called “judgmental” because I didn’t like getting robbed and voiced objection to repeated boundary violations.
A non-smoking-bibliophile, who rarely drinks alcohol, is a bit of an oddity in a homeless shelter; residents bond by bumming smokes. My spiral down the socio-economic drain correlated with childhood sexual abuse and a lack of self-esteem due to sexual assaults. I also have PTSD. Unfortunately, one thing I did have in common with many of the clients was the former condition. So, so, many women who were sexually abused as children end up homeless and there are so few places for them to go.
The Portland Rescue Mission on West Burnside was an exclusive shelter for men for over fifty years. In 2014, a convent-like enclave was created for women inside the building, offering sixteen beds, many of which went unfilled because staff members were recruited from Christian colleges and few knew addiction from the cement floor up. The rules were too strident for all, except the most determined individuals. Eight o’clock curfew! A young woman was tossed out on the mean streets at 8:01 sharp. Meals in the dining room were mandatory as were pre-prandial prayers. Dear Lord, thank you for this mangled mass of macaroni and cheese tossed with creepy-looking hot dog chunks. I’m not worthy!
Still, for those who can hack the program, the Mission is a true lifeline offering classes, lockers to secure your belongings, showers, clean clothes and toiletries. It’s astonishing to think if I had become homeless just a year earlier, in 2013, I wouldn’t have been offered that kind of support.
I’ve never been a steady churchgoer, but in retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if a guardian angel watched over me all those trying months. I was so blessed segueing from one shelter to the next before finally connecting the dots to permanent housing without perforce spending one night on the street. I was also fortunate that, outside of being robbed a few times, I never met with any real harm.
One of my goals is to raise money for Transition Projects, Inc., a life-saving organization on NW Hoyt, near the Portland Union Amtrak Station. TPI quite literally saved my life, and I can’t stop singing their praises. What an amazing organization this is, staffed by the most gracious, kind and committed people I’ve ever met in my life.
Most of my relatives washed their hands of me long ago. I’m the only member of my family who was sexually abused and I was supposed to keep my mouth shut but couldn’t. I just can’t because this is precisely the type of abuse that ruins lives and puts people out in the cold. The more I write and talk about it, the more I’m able to commandeer my own narrative and take the unhappy ending away from my abusers. For years, I had a recurring nightmare that would wake me up screaming for help. In my darkest sleep, I was circling a domestic violence haven, trying to remember the password to get in. Finally, a strange man walked up to me and said, "It’s no use trying to remember a password, honey. Don’t you know, wherever you go, your father will always find you?"
Thanks to the good folks of TPI, that nightmare has receded completely and I no longer wake up in the middle of the night. If I am nudged out of a deep slumber, it’s because Sunny, my therapy dog, longs to strut his stuff while we walk around the neighborhood.
According to TPI’s website, women have experienced a 41% uptick in homelessness in just four years and Oregon has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. For the first time in decades, I have my own apartment. No roommates. No sharing a bathroom or waking up to another person’s dirty dishes. It’s a nirvana I assumed would be forever beyond my reach and it’s not something I’ll ever take for granted.
Note From The Editor:
If you are inspired by Sandra's story and want to help other women who are surviving homelessness, please take a moment to donate to Transition Project Inc.