This fall, a series of community meetings revealed what many Railyard residents considered a serious problem: the rising homeless population in Santa Fe, and a perceived parallel uptick in crime. With the departure of the Occupy Santa Fe encampment and the opening of Santa Fe’s new Interfaith Community Shelter on Cerrillos Road, the complaints have abated—but the problem hasn’t. According to 2007 statistics from the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, approximately 1,500 Santa Feans are homeless—likely more since the onset of the recession. Cynthia, a woman once gainfully employed, accomplished and comfortable, writes of her experience being homeless. Mary Strong Jackson, a poet and caregiver at the Lifelink Santa Fe Clubhouse and Wellness Center, offers perspective from the other side.
One Paycheck Away from Homelessness
I miss the light switch, the warmth of a thermostat controller, the magic of electricity.
I miss my flannel sheets. I really miss my bed—a Tempur-Pedic—its firm support.
I miss my hot water heater the most.
I really miss my stuff. Most of it is gone or stolen or sold just to make ends meet.
If I fantasize that I am on a scientific expedition or a really long, weird camping trip, it keeps me from crying.
In the night, if I am warm, the fantasizing can continue. I don’t see the holes in the walls of the shelter house in the dark. I feel the fire only when it goes out. I imagine I am at home. I can remember each room vividly. I remember the bay window in my bedroom with the bird feeders right outside. I remember my wonderful kitchen: I remodeled it for an overflow crowd of guests. I remember the beautiful view from each window and every tree, shrub and flower I planted. Now the bank owns it all.
Most people don’t understand. I am new to homelessness. People just don’t get it.
Now, I know why. They live in homes; it’s a different reality for them. They might as well be living on a different planet.
I have spent a large part of last year rage-filled or horribly depressed.
My days are filled with red tape. Where are my food stamps? Why haven’t they come? Why is the food at the food bank so old? Why are they giving out old food? Why don’t they give out bus passes to homeless people anymore? Where can I find a computer to do a job search? Where can I find electricity to plug in my old, failing laptop? Who do I go to now to get firewood?
Also, how do I get along without a cell phone? What phone number do I put on my résumé?
Take the day I went to the post office to rent a mailbox: I didn’t realize that you have to have a home to get a post office box. That was the day my rage became directed at the civil servant behind the counter.
Each of these situations is enormously frustrating, emotional and almost more than I can bear.
I never used to have to ask for help. Now, it seems that’s all I do.
I have a difficult time looking people in the eyes. I stare a lot more than I ever did. I stare at nothing.
Why can’t I stop shaking? When did that start?
Why can’t I stop crying?
The worst part of this new homelessness is the loss of dignity, the shame and embarrassment.
It’s the “Have you found a job yet? We need you to make an effort!”
It’s the ugly woman at The Salvation Army with her hands on her hips, repeating, “Well, what is it you want? What do you want?“ With tears streaming from my eyes, I say I just want to talk to someone. I am new to this. I have never been homeless. I am scared. “Well, we have calling cards,” she says. “And you can line up with these guys and get a shower. But you’ll have to go somewhere else for shelter.”
Even when more permanent shelter seems close at hand, it remains perpetually out of reach. “We’d have an apartment for you if you’d just give up your dog,” they tell me. I’d rather die than give up my dog. My little terrier, Mattie, is now five years old. I found her on a state highway in southern Missouri when she was only six weeks old. I remember picking her up out of the weeds and looking right in her eyes and saying, “God gave you to me.” Those words were prophetic—not words I would normally say, but indeed foreshadowing.
How would I know then that she would be the most reliable, protective and loving companion I have ever known? When I was grieving and crazy depressed, I would hold her tight and cry until I fell asleep. She would then wiggle out of my arms and lie down at the foot of my sleeping bag, listening for any weird noises in the night. I also moved from home with two dear, sweet cats, and both of them have died. That’s about all I can say about that without bawling.
Some folks say I should apply for disability because I am suicidal and depressed, but I don’t want long-term help. I just need a toehold out of this deep crevasse I am in, this dark night of the soul.
I am not using drugs or alcohol.
I can’t imagine what a mess I would be if I were.
Just two years ago, I ran a business. I ask myself over and over what happened. And yet I do know what happened. I know intricately.
Going from one shelter to another and from one agency to another is confusing and exhausting. Some have gone out of business. I barely have the energy to make the effort. There aren’t as many social service agencies out there to help anymore. A lot of them don’t know what to think about the new homeless. They aren’t used to working with people who have college degrees.
There are fewer and fewer psychologists and social workers because they get burned out, I guess, listening to the same lament over and over again.
The rules are heaped on the homeless. I get so tired of being told what to do, what line to stand in, what I can’t do, where I can’t go, where I can’t sleep. It is like being a small child again or an inmate.
The questions I hate the most are the personal financial ones: “Do you have any money? Do you have any money stashed away somewhere?”
“Oh, I forgot about the $200k I have socked away in an offshore bank account. Is that what you mean? This is really all a ruse; I am just researching a story on homelessness. I wanted to see how you would treat me.”
I have almost lost my sense of humor. Now, it’s mainly sarcasm and sharp-edged.
And yet I do know how complicated it is to help an unraveled person seam up the mess of his or her life. It takes more than prayers and handing out food at the shelters. The do-gooders ask if I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior as they dish out the lasagna. I just want to know if Jesus has any money. Can Jesus find a safe, warm place for me to live? I definitely appreciate the food. I just want to know if any of these Christians wonder how I am doing after they leave.
My sense of God is way askew. I am so confused and scared. And yet, amid my silent cursing, I pray continually.
I want my life back. I want to be productive. I want to get a job and make some money and have a home. I don’t want to be depressed.
You may not recognize the new homeless. I still dress pretty well. But most of my clothes are now too big. I may be sitting next to you in a restaurant right now, nursing a cup of coffee for an exceptionally long time. I still have decent teeth. You will hardly ever catch me without a hat on; it hides my dirty hair. We may stare or space out a little more than most folks. That is what you call a dissociative disorder. For us, it’s a way to disengage from our current reality.
The undercurrent of fear is palpable. I am scared all the time. It is as if I am walking on a frozen lake, certain I will find the hole in the ice at any time—the hole that will plunge me into the frigid water and I will rocket back to the surface screaming “give me my life back!” But no one is there.
I have lost so much weight. I bet I look good naked, I guess. I don’t have that full-length mirror anymore.
My social circles have totally changed.
My new friends are transient, not hobos or bums, but homeless people trying to find work, too, going from city to city. A number of us over-50 women live at the campsite north of Santa Fe where I stay. We are unemployed, out of money, foreclosed on and sad. We treat each other with respect and trade insights into the job market here, how to get around the city, which places are hiring, which restaurants have hot water in the bathroom and which restaurants to avoid—which churches will help, which ones won’t.
I have two new friends who live at the park. We’ve become real close. But they are leaving today. They are fed up and sad, and it is getting colder. One can’t stop crying. They are loading their car with their belongings and their pets, five dogs and a cat. They leave me with information on social agencies and a neat church they visited, a Craigslist item on a rental to check out and some extra canned food.
My old friends, what is left of them, no longer know what to say to me. They can’t believe I have fallen so low.
I have lost my home, my business and my partner. The spiral has swept me down. They are praying mightily for me. They send me a little money. Thank God for them.
I have been too embarrassed to reach out to my brother and sister. I don’t want them to know how broke and depressed I am. I don’t want to ask for money. They, too, have been casualties of the recession.
When I finally reach my sister, she tells me she’s been worried sick and asks me if I have been journaling, a common therapy we share. I tell her no—that it has been too difficult.
Just two years ago, I ran a business. I ask myself over and over what happened. And yet I do know what happened. I know intricately.
It has taken me weeks to write this. I have become stuck in my own reality (or illusion, some would say). I have been too upset to share what I’ve been going through. Some days, when I did journal, it would just be a stream of cuss words. It has always been easier for me to tell a story about someone else, to play a character.
The same is true now. I was once a business owner, a homeowner, a partner in a long-term relationship. Now I am appearing in my own strange dramatic monologue, and I’m too emotional to make it to center stage.
I am forced to look at my own life—once a life of privilege. I was far from a millionaire, but I had a home and land and a business and cars. I was comfortable.
I grieve my former way of life as one would grieve a loved one—and yet, it’s not the same. It’s a bit embarrassing to be in this pity party when so many others are in such worse shape.
My sage friends say to forgive, forgive, forgive. But how? How do I not take this personally?
The betrayal by my partner, by the banker: It all becomes too much to think about, and I have to remember to focus on the New Mexico sunsets and little Mattie and let slide the frequent comments like, “Well, you know, Cindy, I am really only one paycheck away from homelessness myself.” Well, if that is true, then I’ll save you a place in line and I will stick another piece of ham—the ham I stole from the Christmas buffet at church—in my pocket for you.
It is easier to be on the streets with my own thoughts, a little food in my pocket and the clothes I picked up at the shelter than listen to one more social worker explain why I don’t have a home today.
The New Homeless Rage
By Mary Strong Jackson
The psycho-social rehabilitation facility where I am employed has welcomed more than 150 people through the doors of its new location these past 10 weeks. I’ve tried to remember the first day I met Cynthia, but it feels like I’ve known her for months, years, like we are old souls coming together again for a long chat. In reality, the only thing that makes us old souls is that we share a certain kind of sorrow, new to both of us. Our age is the same, but she’s never been homeless and I am facing her anger, a rage new to me—not at me, but at the way a situation, a life, can go pear-shaped, as the English say, pear-shaped in this new America where the dream we had expected, and even experienced, suddenly flips wrong side up.
She enters the building with almost a swagger, grins, calls everyone “honey.”
“I love you” comes easily from her mouth to nearly everyone who helps or welcomes her. She’s been living in a state park, which would be a beautiful setting if she weren’t fearing for her life. Cynthia looks like the kind of outdoorsy woman who just might enjoy staying at the park, roughing it with her dog, but one day she said, “I’m so scared. I’ve never been so afraid, not knowing if someone is going to find me and hurt me, or some wild animal tear me to pieces. I hardly sleep, but I have a gun in my hand just in case.” That’s when I realized that this park stay was frightening beyond what I’d imagined.
That fear doesn’t do much for helping her feel ready to start the next day, its own promises broken even before the sun comes up. Cynthia is funny and smart, with two degrees. She’s been a businesswoman, a journalist, an actor. Now, she’s fighting for her life, literally fighting to survive, to not end her life, to find hope somewhere—so she tries avenues like church. She controls her sailor-swearing mouth while at church, but lets it fly when she talks with me. “I’m sorry about this swearing,” she says. “I can’t seem to stop. I’m so fucking angry all the time.” She appreciates the pastor, even though, after she ranted and dumped all her feelings and fears, his reply was, “Where do you find God in your life?”
“Have you not fucking heard a word I’ve said?” Cynthia replies. “God is nowhere in my life.” A chasm separates her from the rest of the world—a world she once knew.
“Does no one get it?” Cynthia asks. “One lady says to me, ‘I know how you feel. I lost one of my houses and my sailboat.’”
It’s hard to know how she feels—hard, even, to imagine it.
Cynthia is funny and smart, with two degrees. She’s been a businesswoman, a journalist, an actor. Now, she’s fighting for her life.
“I’m afraid to apply for a job because, for one thing, I am easily brought to tears or rage,” she tells me. “I have a multitude of triggers that I’m working to control, but that’s why they are called triggers: They go off quickly.”
Cynthia’s not trigger-happy. She’s trigger-sad.
Today, Cynthia sits in my office. She ate her lunch here because she couldn’t face the other people in the dining room. After lunch, I talk with her and feel a weird sort of flashback, as though her story is at once ancient and prescient. It’s like reading The Grapes of Wrath—only this is a real person, and it’s 2011. And the stupid bumper sticker on my car that says “evolve” is some kind of idiot talk, a joke, because we’ve forgotten what we once knew, and many do not care whether that means following the cycles of the moon so we know when to plant, starting a fire without matches, starting wars for reasons never told to the people dying in them, or caring for each other, seriously caring for each other.
Cynthia is more depressed today than I’ve seen her. She’s been to Walmart three times, trying to get her anti-depressant refilled, and her bank card won’t work. I send her to the person at work who can help with medications. It’s Friday. She can’t get them until Monday, but the druggist gives her enough for the weekend.
Later that day, we have our first No-Name (but soon to have a name) Café gathering, where anyone from our facility can bring visual art, written work, a song or a piece of work by a favorite artist. Cynthia reads something she wrote in the creative writing class at our facility. It expresses her feelings well, and people tell her they appreciate it. Then, always the comedian, she says she has one more thing to tell people: that if they feel like killing themselves, they just have to do what she’s going to show us, and we must do it along with her.
The story seems much sadder now than it felt that day, laughing at each other with Cynthia. But she was suicidal that day. Maybe it saved her life to eat, cry, get her meds, share her story, make us laugh. Maybe it is a story of hope.
The sun is rising on a Sunday morning in November as I type these words. I struggle with what I am supposed to do to ease Cynthia’s pain. Her rage is directed at all Americans—not the 1 percent or the 99 percent, but all of us. When has my greed or desire for one more unnecessary item, one more pair of shoes or latte, been justified—especially when it could have helped another person? What and who am I ignoring because I’m too tired to care, to vote, to give?
Always, I wanted my poetry to be important, to be vital, for my poems to be the canaries in the coal mines letting others know that the time is now. But does one have to fight in a war to write poems about war, be hungry to write poems of hunger? Must we all experience to empathize? I’ve lived my adult life never being hungry, always having a car, almost always having a job and I’ve never fought in a war.
Last night in the bathtub, while soaking in the $1.99 eucalyptus bought from Trader Joe’s (Do I need this? Does it matter?) and working on a poem about the new homeless and the rage some of them feel, I realized that this is what I can share with others. I’ve faced Cynthia’s anger and sadness at being alone, homeless, scared and depressed. I meet the Cynthias and the Mikes out there. I can write what I learn from them.
Maybe I can shift our focus and help us all discover a place, a job, a way to make the United States the honorable country we were led to believe in as children pledging allegiance to the flag. Maybe we can stop believing the commercials that tell us we can buy a lifestyle by purchasing a new car. How does that work, anyway?
When has my greed or desire for one more unnecessary item, one more pair of shoes or latte, been justified—especially when it could have helped another person? What and who am I ignoring because I’m too tired to care, to vote, to give?
The 80-something-year-old Buddhist philosopher and environmentalist Joanna Macy counsels us not to run from our grief. If the pictures of birds covered with oil after the Gulf spill cause us sadness, Macy advises us not to avoid or suppress those feelings. We should not run from our outrage at wrongs to humanity and to the Earth, she says, because this grief and pain reveals our love for the world, our connectedness to all beings.
Macy’s words remind me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands. In it, Anthony Hopkins plays writer CS Lewis, and Debra Winger plays his newly married wife, who is dying of cancer. She asks him if loving her has been worth it, knowing the pain he will feel when she dies.
“The pain then is part of the happiness now,” she tells him. “That’s the deal.”
Later, Lewis talks with one of his college students about why we love if losing hurts so much. Lewis, who lost his mother as a child and his wife as an adult, says, “I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
Twice in that life…I’ve been given the choice, as a boy…and as a man. The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
Macy says the pressure to always be hopeful can wear a person out, but if we just show up and be present, the possibility exists that the world will heal. She believes in a new paradigm known as “The Great Turning,” a cultural change she describes as “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” In her view, it represents the transition from a bankrupt political society, which measures success by growth and profit, to one founded in moral strength, courage and creativity.
As citizens of this great shared country, it seems that our call is to be present, to be aware of Cynthia and all our sisters and brothers who need us. We are witness to suffering, and if we look away, we are as guilty as the CEO who does not provide health care to his/her employees while amassing obscene riches. The first step is asking the Cynthias out there, “What can I do? What do you need?”
If you want to help:
Cynthia hopes to connect those in need with those who are able to help through a new program called “Need and Deed.” Anyone—churches, nonprofits or just concerned citizens—can give, and Cynthia hopes to match donors with the city’s homeless, according to the donor’s ability and the recipient’s need. The program is still in the planning stages, and Cynthia welcomes any input on how best to facilitate it.
If interested, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.