Life on the Streets
Local homeless persons share experiences in powerful Clarke Forum discussion
by MaryAlice Bitts Jackson
October 13, 2011
Moderator Pat LaMarche (standing) led the panel discussion. Nearly 200 people attended the event. These included students, faculty, community leaders and homeless individuals.
Jackie and her husband had good jobs and raised three children in a big, suburban home. But two years ago, they both were laid off, and the unthinkable happened: They became homeless. “I never thought that this would happen,” Jackie said quietly. “We had a really big, beautiful house, but it got to the point where we couldn’t pay for it anymore.”
Jackie’s is just one of the powerful stories that current and former residents of a local shelter, Safe Harbour, shared during Life on the Streets, a panel discussion designed to dispel commonly held myths about a complex social issue.
Presented by The Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues and held Oct. 5 in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter auditorium, the event was moderated by journalist/advocate Pat LaMarche, who has reported on homelessness in America for more than two decades and is a former vice president of the Carlisle shelter.
An audience of approximately 200 campus and community members sat in silence as, one by one, the five panelists recounted the devastating circumstances that led to the loss of their homes.
Michael: Just one step
Two brushes with death shaped Michael's life. The first arrived when he was seriously injured while serving as a combat medic in the Vietnam War. When he returned home, Michael earned degrees in nursing and journalism and launched a successful, 30-year career within the Baltimore hospital system. But two years ago, as the nation entered a recession, he lost his job, his home and his relationship.
Michael sold everything of value that he owned, gathered his savings and moved into a cheap hotel. Then, he started to drink—and his thoughts turned suicidal. “One day, I stood [outside of the motel], watching the tractor-trailers go by, and I thought, ‘All it takes is one step …’ ” Michael remembered.
Realizing the effect a suicide would have on his mother—and on the driver of the truck that would strike him—Michael instead called the veteran’s suicide-prevention hotline and spent more than two months in a psychiatric hospital. After completing an alcohol-detoxification program, he was free, but homeless. “Two years ago, I had a great life, a beautiful townhouse, a relationship—everything was wonderful,” said Michael, who had donned a suit for the occasion as a symbol of his former, professional lifestyle. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
Mary Ann: Finding the key
Mary Ann had just completed her first year in college when her mother suffered a fatal stroke. Unable to finish school, she taught herself graphic design and found a job and a home. But a few years later, she grew ill and was admitted to the hospital; by the time she was discharged, she no longer had a home.
Although she continued to work, she was unable to make ends meet. “I didn’t have the resources I needed to be successful,” she said.
Mary Ann, who has taken college courses in the years since her mother's death, enjoys designing logos, posters, brochures and other materials for the shelter. She hopes to one day complete her bachelor's degree. “I’m not totally there yet, but I’m a work in progress. That’s where so many of us are,” she said.
Paula and Rumi: Defying definition
Paula, a 44-year-old mother with a bachelor’s degree in voice, dance and theater, had once worked as a substance-abuse counselor. But when her marriage ended, she had no job, and she and her son had nowhere to go.
“It can be brutal when you have nothing to hang onto—no fortress of wealth or home or family—and you are just taking it one day at a time,” she said. “I think the most important thing is to not let any circumstance define you and not let anyone define you.” LaMarche agreed. “What's amazing is that, through it all, she is a good mother,” she said. “Imagine losing everything—your home, your car, your neighborhood—and still raising a wonderful child.”
Paula's 11-year-old son, Rumi, offered a glimpse at the life of a homeless child. “It’s like climbing a mountain,” he said.
Rumi spoke about his friends at school, his accommodations at Safe Harbour and the friends he’s made there. But, he also admitted, it is “super-hard” to tell classmates that he’s homeless, and he has been ridiculed because of it. He told the audience that everyone should “just think about what’s inside [a person], not what’s outside.”
Jackie: Realizing a dream
After she and her husband lost their jobs, Jackie tried hard to keep the family afloat. “I sold my wedding band and engagement ring—everything I could ... but we lost the house. I felt like I was failing my kids,” she said.
Jackie teared up as she explained how hard it was to reconcile with the situation. “Shelter, clothes, food, education and family: These are all things every person deserves, but not everyone has. The issue is largely ignored in today's society. How does such a harsh situation exist in such an advanced society?”
LaMarche noted that Jackie made a difference at Safe Harbour by offering support and advice to an overwhelmed teenage mother who had a room down the hall. “She babysat for her, told her about nutrition and sunscreen, cooked for her and cried for her,” LaMarche said. “She is, hands-down, the most giving person I’ve known.”
Recently, Jackie’s husband found a job in the area and Jackie earned a college scholarship, based on an essay she’d written about her desire to become a nurse. She’ll begin nursing school in November and looks forward to her new career and life.
Staring down stereotypes
The panelists spoke passionately about the assumptions most people make about homelessness. “We’re sons and daughters, moms and dads, friends, acquaintances and co-workers,” Mary Ann emphasized, adding that there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are individuals experiencing it. “You can pass us on the street and not realize it.” Decked out in a stylish sweater and scarf, Jackie concurred. “You would never guess that I'm homeless, but homeless people come from all walks of life,” she said. “We're not all drug addicts or lazy.”
Jackie, Paula, Rumi and Mary Ann stressed that their experiences have instilled a tremendous sense of gratitude. Paula explained that she’s glad to have found Safe Harbour, when there are homeless people in the community who would be spending that chilly evening in the woods. “As the weather grows colder, their health risks increase,” she added.
“I stop taking little things for granted, like having hot water or a pillow to lay my head on. I’m thankful to God that I have those things,” Jackie said. Rumi agreed. “Mostly, I’m just thankful for being alive and having a roof over my head. And I’m thankful for for my mom and everybody who has helped,” he said.
One simple question
At the close of the presentation, one student voiced a simple question that was on many minds: “What can I do to help?”
“You might think that one person can't make a difference, but you can, even if just in the life of one other person,” Mary Ann replied. “You might not think that you have anything to offer or that your skills can't make a difference. But everyone has something [to give]. Just ask.”