Once upon a time, I was homeless. Now, I am an advocate for those who still are. Being homeless was a life changing experience and one that I am extremely grateful for.
2010 was a rough year for me and my daughter Emma. She had only recently turned five years old and before she and I knew it, both of our lives were turned upside down. It wasn’t long into the year when we found ourselves homeless with no money and no family nearby.
To put it mildly, I was terrified.
The Woman I Was
Travel back with me to 2010 and the woman I am today is entirely unrecognizable to the woman I was then.
Really. Even I don’t recognize her and she is me.
She was a raging alcoholic. She was cruel and mean-spirited. She was selfish. She was broken by the abuse she was suffering at the hands of a man who claimed to love her; broken by a life filled with hurt and abuse at the hands of others.
Broken by the abuse she inflicted on herself in the years before.
She no longer felt human. Most days she no longer felt anything.
She was not a great mother; to be honest, she was not even a good mother. But there was one thing that she stood firm to.
These days, I am as far away from being that person as East is to West but as I said, you would not recognize me now if you had known me then.
How I Ended Up Homeless
Despite how I was and despite that I wasn’t always great or loving to her myself; hurting my daughter was something I wouldn’t tolerate – not even at my worst.
Do not hurt my child.
It is one thing to hurt me, but it is an entirely different ball game. I had been turned into my husband’s literal slave over the curse of our relationship which meant that things were done to me that I still can not speak about, but don’t hurt my child.
That is an entirely different ballgame.
And that is how I ended up homeless. Because three days after he hit my then 5-year-old child; I took her and ran.
What is it Like Being Homeless with a Small Child?
Emma and I were luckier than most people who are dealing with being homeless are. Where most people think that of the cliche’ homeless shelter where single beds line the floors and you have no privacy.
While those types of shelters are out there and common, they are not the type that we spent 10 months in.
We were lucky enough to have our own room – The Butterfly Room – with a locking door, our own bed, closet and dresser. The illusion of privacy though was just that. Even though we had a key to lock it anytime we wanted, staff can and would enter whenever they felt they had a reason to do so.
In larger shelters – those one room shelters filled with beds – you worry about your belongings being stolen. Your very safety can be called into question. While it was less of a worry for us where we were; it was still a worry.
The simple truth is that even in a controlled environment like the one our shelter offered, you still never know what or who is going to come walking through the doors next. In the 10 months we were there, my daughter was exposed to seriously mentally ill women, addicts and – like I was – recovering alcoholics.
Most of them did not make sobriety very long sadly.
Stealing Food Out of the Mouth of a Babe
Food was an issue. Not because I was unable to get it – as a homeless, single Mom I received assistance – but because the entirety of the shelter shared two side by side refrigerators. Each family was given one shelf in the fridge and one in the freezer.
I learned that it did not do a lot of good to put your food in that fridge – even if it had your name on it – most of the adults in there did not care if it was clearly for a child. They would steal it anyway.
So I had to plan. We were approximately 8 blocks from a grocery store. Each day, we would eat dry breakfast cereal in our room even though eating in your room was against the rules and because our milk was repeatedly stolen. Lunch was eaten at the soup kitchen 4 blocks away.
I’m still not sure what the mystery meat they served was, but Emma loved it so I always gave mine to her. I haven’t eaten cake with blue frosting since either.
Dinner was a walk to that grocery store and usually something frozen because they were quick to fix in the shelters kitchen that we were only allowed access to for 3 hours each day.
Being Homeless and Living Life by the Rules
When you’ve spent years drunk each day, suddenly having a ton of rules tossed into your face can be an adjustment to put it mildly. We were only allowed access to the kitchen three hours each day.
We had to be away from the shelter from 9 am to 4 pm each day – unless it was raining and you had kids. I can not count the number of times I suffered heat exhaustion because of this rule combined with no money to buy water with. If you did not have kids, rain was not an issue.
Kids – no matter how small – were not allowed to share a bed with their mothers. Emma slept in the bottom half of a trundle bed and I can not count the number of times I broke that rule to let my sobbing child crawl up with me for the comfort she needed.
She was just a small kid whose life had been turned upside down. She was scared and confused. In my opinion, that rule is cruel because it keeps mothers from comforting their children when they need it.
The Stuff You Don’t Consider about Being Homeless
If we were honest, the majority of us never consider what it would be like to be homeless or to live in a homeless shelter. There are differences from being on the street of course, but if I were to tell you anything, it’s that you are still barely surviving.
Thirteen years later and my teeth are destroyed from the damage that ten months did. I honest to God destroyed 10 Gillette Pro Glide blades when I was finally able to shave my legs and arms after moving out.
When you live on $355.00 a month in cash assistance and $155/mo in food stamps, things like razors and toothpaste are not a regular part of the equation when your child needs things.
The physical damage done to my body has lasted long after the mental damage was an issue.
How I Ended Up Homeless
As I said earlier, my husband at the time had quite literally made me his slave. Looking back, I was a sheltered twenty-something and he was an experienced forty something who only wanted someone to agree to allow him to abuse them.
His abuse was in multiple ways and in ways I won’t go into too much details on this website. I will say that I am missing teeth that were lost at the end of his fist, that I slept chained to the bed frame quite often and was to be at his disposal for anything and everything he wanted.
There are worse things than that. They are locked away safely.
I did not know what I was getting myself into. I had been told some things, but it’s pretty typical of situations like that for far more to come out after they’ve got you in their clutches.
I had been raised to be completely dependent on a man. Even at 27 when I met him, I honestly did not know any better. So when the abuse started, I felt stuck and weak – unable to take care of my own child and myself.
So I stayed; determined to stick it out no matter the cost. In my mind at the time, as long as my Emma was safe and cared for, I could survive almost anything.
I drank to cope. I drank to escape. I drank to numb myself.
Until he hit her. Like I said earlier, it’s one thing to hit me, but don’t touch my child.
So into that shelter we went and believe it or not, it was the best thing that ever could have happened to us.
The First Morning of Homelessness
That first morning was the hardest. We woke up in strange beds surrounded by people we did not know with a future that was as uncertain as any could be.
It was that moment – frozen in time for me now – that changed everything. I sank to the floor and sobbed while Emma talked about how pretty our Butterfly room was. My heart broke and my hands shook.
I was sober for the first time in a very long time and my body was rejecting the very idea of sobriety.
Then somewhere, words spoken to me as a seventeen year old girl by my favorite teacher in high school came floating to the top of my mind. He had spoken them to me as I turned my book into him. I was dropping out of high school.
“You’re better than this.”
Those five words were spoken to me at a time when I could not have cared less who spoke them or what they said, but now – over a decade later, they suddenly gave me hope where I had none. They say God works in mysterious ways and in my life, this is only one example. I had forgotten all about that conversation, but they were what I needed to hear in that moment of my life.
They’re not complicated. They’re not judgmental. They were simply the opinion of one person, spoken at a time when I wasn’t ready to hear them; a seed planted in my mind that took hold and grew just when I needed it most.
I have been lucky enough to tell him this story and how much those words meant, but I hope he truly understands that those words quite literally saved my life and the life of my daughter.
It was those words that gave me the strength to stand on my own for the first time in my life, to be the mother my daughter deserved. To fight not just to survive but to live as well.
Life went on. There were businesses created, friends made and lost, love gained and love lost. There have been hurts and grief like no other. There has been anger and trauma and everything else between.
There has been healing in ways I did not even know I needed and a greater understanding of myself and the world around me.
I am a mother no matter what comes;
I am a sober drug addict;
I am a sober alcoholic;
I am strong..and I am fierce…
I am a survivor…
I am blessed…
I am a child of a very forgiving God…
I am better than my failures.
and yes; I am so grateful for those 10 months spent in that shelter. Without them; I am not sure I would have ever become who I am today.
And to be honest? I am mostly okay with who I am today.
Side Note: If you or your children are being abused, please do not stay. There is help available to get you to safety. Your life or the lives of your children are not worth staying.