Pets and Homelessness

Nova Kitty, being cute.

People often think that people experiencing homelessness don’t have pets; that’s simply not true.  Think about it, you live in the woods, and you find a kitten.  You might be the only person who has found this kitten, fed it, or cared for it.  Well, that how our friends got Nova.  

Nova is a well behaved, leashed trained cat.  People experiencing homelessness often have to adapt their pets to their lifestyle, so Nova has a harness, a leash, and a soft cat carrier which acts as her kennel.  When you take the bus, you must have your cat in a carrier, no exceptions.  Keeping up with your cat in public spaces is important because you may have to travel from place to place to get resources.  Leash training a stray kitten is far easier than an adult cat, and if you’re not sure if your tent gets to be in the same place every week, it’s a very viable solution to being  a responsible pet owner.  

Nova’s family- young folks who live outside.

Nova has toys in her carrier.  She has a water and food dish.  Food is kept in a special compartment in Angela’s bookbag.  She has a harness, a leash, a cute collar and has been trained to wiggle her back end when she needs to go outside.  She is loved and doted on.  She has her own bed in the tent, but prefers to sleep with her humans.  She’s just like my cat, except my cat is much less doted on, doesn’t have a leash or a cool carrier, and deals with adversity with the grace of a 2 legged stool.  

During the hurricane, there was nowhere for this family to go.  Most shelters didn’t accept pets, so we had to make special accommodations for them in a private home of a friend.  They were going to stay outdoors to make sure that their pet could be with them and didn’t get lost or hurt in the storm.  That’s more than many home-owners do, and we’re proud of them for that.  

Nova needs her first rabies shot.  If you would like to help with that, send us an email at info@lovewinscec.org, or simply donate here and send us a note. 

Nova also needs cat food.  Her family has managed to provide for her, but they’ve been very low on food lately, so if you have some adult kitty food that your cat snubs, we can put it to good use with Nova’s family.  She’s a very low key, undemanding kitty, so she’s also not very finicky.  

Pets are family members.  They need love, food, water and a place to poop.  That’s about it (and the occasional booster/medical care).  We love our pets, and so do people whose pets are their lifeline to reality, their rock, and their reason for waking up everyday.  

The #1 Cause of Homelessness

*Trigger warning: a paragraph towards the end has a story of a rape.  I have put an italicized trigger warning right before the paragraph so that you can choose to quit reading or skip it.  

Terri walked up to me at the smoking area, shoved a square of paper into my hands and started sobbing.  I’ve never seen her cry, not even the first time I met her when she showed up at Love Wins with a huge, swollen black eye and several cuts on her face.  That day she said, gruffly, “I’ve been through worse, this ain’t shit.”  Today I put my arms around her, and she sobbed as if her heart was breaking.  

The paper in my hand was her prescriptions.  She had been to a mental hospital out of town to get her medications straight, but that wasn’t why she was crying.  She was crying because the Social Security office had cut off her disability check, and not only could she not afford her prescriptions, but now she couldn’t pay her rent.

“I don’t want to go back out on the street.  I don’t want to use again. The bank said my mail had gotten sent back, I don’t know what to do!”

Believe me when I tell you that she is seriously in a pickle.  We jumped into action, and I went down to the Person Street Pharmacy to get her medications filled, while Blu tried to get someone, anyone, from Social Security on the phone.  Blu was on the phone with an earbud in her ear, on hold for an HOUR AND A HALF, and after that wait, they picked up and said that they would have to call her back.  This is the level of frustration our folks go through every month.

In the meantime I got her medications and paid down some of our rotating bill at Person Street Pharmacy, wrote down directions of how and when to take all of them (there were 6, and she luckily has medicaid), and made copies of all of her psych. paperwork so that we could have it to prove her disability.  After taking her morning medications, she started to calm down a bit more.  Social Security called back, and she and Blu navigated her case together, in the office.

Terri will tell you that this is hard for her.  “I don’t talk good.  Don’t say the right words.”  She has difficulty telling a coherent story in the way that a person who is in Social Services can understand.  She gets frustrated.  Her medications are for anemia, an infection, anxiety, and Parkinson’s.  Having an advocate to help her is extremely important.  She doesn’t know what to ask, or what to write down, but she does know that every piece of paperwork needs to be copied and saved, and she is right.

In the hall, I’m talking to a man who looks down.  Terri walks up to him and says “Are you okay?  Do you need a hug?”  He tells us that 2 years ago today his son was killed in a car accident.  She hugs him and says “Never give up, keep your head up. You’re my brother in Christ.” 

The call to Social Security was, at best, documentation.  They could do nothing that day.  Blu and Terri had made a plan to go down there, together, in person, and stand right in front of whoever they had to in order to get some answers.  As Blu always says “If you’re standing right in front of them, they can’t ignore you.”

Terri and I leave the center to do some investigating of our own.  We go down to where she gets her mail to check and see if they were sending mail back.  They were not, and had a couple of bills from Wake Med.  That solves one mystery.  We visit her friend and she borrows $30 to give her room mate as a gesture of good faith.  I explain the situation to him and assure him that we’re working on it. 

We drive down to where she has been staying, but her room mate isn’t home.  Like many of our folks, she is precariously housed.  She’s not technically supposed to be there.  She’s paying a friend who has section 8 under the table to stay there, so she has no key, and can’t be seen opening the door with a key, or he will be evicted.  She also can’t be there while he is at work unless she slept there- essentially, when she leaves for the day, she can’t come back until he’s back.  

We drive to the friend’s motel.  Terri tells me that she loves the woods and outdoors because we all need peace and quiet for a while.  She cautions me to never let a man see me walk into the woods, otherwise he will follow you.  We talk for a long time.  She is my friend.  

*Trigger warning past this point!!!*

People ask me what the number one reason for homelessness is, and I tell them, first and foremost, that it’s child abuse and neglect.  Terri was taken from her family at 5 years old because her grandfather raped her and stuck things in her that had to be surgically removed at UNC Hospital.  She grew up in foster care, and transitioned to a group home.  When she was 15, she ran away from the group home to go to the quiet of the woods, and was picked up on the side of the road by 4 men with a gun, raped repeatedly, and then tied to a tree and left to die.  It was a day and a half before someone found her and EMS took her to the hospital.  She said they “Stuck IV’s in my arms because I was so dehydrated.  So thirsty.  Never let men see you walk into the woods alone.  I tell people never to run away from their group homes.”  

She came into the adult world untrusting, angry, and unsupported. 

“How does a mom do that?  She’s a woman too.  She said I just wanted men to have sex with me.  What does a 5 year old know about that?  She’s dead now, not, I mean, I don’t mean nothing by that, but she is.  I was so mad.  I didn’t trust nobody.” 

I reassured her that sometimes death is the only closure that we get. She started using crack in her adulthood to medicate herself and her memories.  She is clean right now, and happy that she finally found someone to straighten out her meds and really listen to her.  She says “I don’t even want no crack now.  I gotta keep my head up.”

She smiles at me and says, “Maybe God has a reason.  Maybe he knew that if I got that check, something might happen to weaken me and I might scrape together some money and buy some crack.  Maybe he’s looking out for me. I gotta stay positive.”  I told her that was a “Very Blu way of looking at things, and it sounded very wise.”  We’ll get this straightened out, in the meantime, she just has to get through the weekend. 

I drop her off at her friend’s house.  Her friend has cigarettes for her.  She puts several under the visor of my windshield.  I protest, but she says “When I don’t have, you give, and when you don’t have, I give.  I like being able to do nice things for people.  I want to give back.”  I tell her I love her and to stay safe.   It’s always the folks with the least who give the most.  

She says that she’s learning from us, but no, I’m definitely learning from her.  

If you would like to help us help others like Terri navigate the world, click here for our donation page and consider being a monthly Angel.  

 

 

A Safe Place To Be

I met Joey a while back and like most people I’ve met at the CEC, it took a while before he would say more than two words at a time to me. The other day I apparently crossed some threshold of trust and he opened up and shared quite a bit of his story. He gave me permission to share this with you (with his name changed of course) in the hope that knowing people’s stories helps us have compassion on them and others in similar circumstances. Like Joey, everyone I’ve met who is experiencing homelessness has a story that breaks your heart once you know it.

Joey lived with his mom and dad until he was 14. From the age of 5 until the state intervened, Joey spent a lot of his childhood locked in a dark closet by his dad. Joey doesn’t know exactly what changed when he was 5, but it seems like alcohol (and possibly drug) abuse was involved. Joey’s dad didn’t beat him but he did have to listen through that locked closet door as his mom was repeatedly abused by his dad. Sometimes Joey would sneak a book and a flashlight into the closet ahead of time, anticipating the confinement that was surely coming. More than once he got caught when the light betrayed him through the crack of the door but he learned to read with a finger on the switch and an ear perked for the sound of approaching footsteps. The distraction helped as he spent hours upon hours trying to ignore hunger, thirst, the need to go to the bathroom, and fear for his mom.

That was Joey’s existence for nearly 10 years – perhaps the most critical years of childhood development. He never went to school with visible marks of abuse (he learned that resisting going into the closet or banging on the door made things much worse for his mom) and he almost never went with any homework done. The school system managed to keep passing him up to the next grade but it did not graduate him or send him forth in any way prepared to succeed. Things changed a bit once the state took him away from his parents but he bounced from foster home to foster home (7 in all with gaps in between). At least he wasn’t locked in a closet anymore. Once he turned 18, Joey was on his own with no family, no support, no education, and a deep mistrust for pretty much everyone and especially for dark or confined spaces.

Joey didn’t choose to tell me what he did to wind up in prison and I didn’t press my luck on this new found trust. However he wound up there, prison was not a good experience for him. Not long into his sentence, Joey was raped by another inmate. He reported the assault to a guard who in turn called the police. Joey told me two police officers came all the way into his cell and escorted him all the way out – past many of his fellow inmates – into a room to take his statement. Afterward, the guards decided Joey wasn’t safe to leave with the rest of the inmates, so he spent the rest of his sentence in “protective custody,” which practically amounts to the same thing as solitary confinement – 23 hours a day alone in a 10×10 cell, with one hour per day to walk alone around a small courtyard. After nearly 10 years being locked in a closet, Joey was back in essentially the same situation again.

Joey told me all this to explain why he wanted a sleeping bag but not a tent and why he only stays at the CEC for short periods of time. He literally cannot stand to be inside. I think he suffers from extreme PTSD. He seems quite anxious all the time, furtively looking over his shoulder every few seconds. After hearing all this, it amazed me that he felt safe enough with me and at the CEC to share his story. I can’t image trusting anyone or anywhere after all he’s been through.

But that is the core of our mission here and the fullest expression of what we mean to be: a safe place to be. For many of our folks, a genuinely safe place is a rare find.

Sleepwalking

I shared about how we’re using our space at Trinity United Methodist in this previous post. That post explained that a pivotal consideration has been setting aside space for folks to sleep but it didn’t explain why we need such a space, why some of us sleep for part of the day. It has nothing to do with the stereotypical lie that people experiencing homelessness are lazy. There are a number of legitimate reasons why some of our folks sleep during the day, here are some of the most common ones.

Have you ever worked third shift? Some of us do. Makes for a tired morning. At least a third of the people who come to Love Wins have jobs. They are housing and/or food insecure despite the fact that they work. They have a job, earn a regular paycheck, but not enough to afford consistent food and shelter. Some of us work second shift and can’t stay at homeless shelters because our work schedules conflict with the curfews set by the shelters. We have community members who work until 11pm or later and then have nowhere to sleep until we open the next morning.

Have you ever gone camping? Some of us sleep outside, either in a tent in a wooded area or tucked into some nook or cranny in the downtown core. Sleeping outside is not all that restful.  You never really get comfortable, never feel secure, and the routine yet erratic noises and lights (especially camping in the city) keep you from getting into a deep sleep. Plus you’re subject to the elements and are often genuinely not safe. It makes sense that those of us who sleep outside are tired the next day. We’ve all had the experience of not getting a good night’s sleep. Maybe you’ve strung a number of these together (if you’ve had a health condition or a new baby). Pretty soon, you feel run down, exhausted. Now imagine months and months of this, night after night of not sleeping well. You’d nap the next morning too.

You might wonder why anyone would choose to sleep outside. There are homeless shelters in Raleigh. Aren’t those better than sleeping outside? Yes they are, for some people. But, as we said, some of us can’t take advantage of the shelters because our work schedules conflict with the shelters’ curfew policies. Some of us can’t handle the shelter environment, which offers a lot of smells, much loud snoring, and even people screaming with night terrors. We’ve posted before about the challenges of sleeping at the shelters and we do not mean to throw shade on any of the work our colleagues are doing. It is very hard work and we know our partners at the shelters do the very best they can in continually difficult circumstances. That’s the only point here, those circumstances are too difficult for some, so some of us choose to sleep outside because the shelters aren’t a viable choice.

Do you have allergies, asthma, or spend a lot of your day walking? Many of us spend a lot of time outside, walking, waiting for the bus, etc. Many of us have allergies and/or asthma which gets triggered being outside so much and from so much physical exertion (all the walking with a loaded backpack). We help fill as many prescriptions as we can because going without allergy medicine or an inhaler makes you feel run down quick. Also, some of us have injuries that make regular walking painful. Raleigh isn’t pedestrian friendly outside the core. Getting around and getting things done is enough to make anyone extra tired.

There is one other reason why some of us sleep during the day. Some members of our community, mostly younger, smaller, and some LGBT, do not feel safe either at the shelters or sleeping outside. It’s not that we’re paranoid. Experience has taught us that some of us are legitimately not safe; some of us are regular targets of violence. So we walk. All night. We’re the sleepwalkers. We leave here at 5pm when the CEC closes and walk around until 9am when it opens again. Sometimes we stop in places that are open until we’re told to move along but most of all we just keep moving because that is the surest way to stay awake and keep safe. How tired would you would be if you walked around all night constantly looking over your shoulder, worried about being attacked (again)? The sleepwalkers are among the most vulnerable members of our community, and some of our dearest friends.

So when you come visit us (and we hope you will) and see people sleeping, we hope this helps you understand why.

Community Stories: Drunk or Jail

Community Stories is a blog series giving voice to the experiences of members of our community. Identities are kept secret for their privacy and protection (except when community members choose otherwise) and some details are changed for that reason. But the gist of these stories is true and accurate to the best of our understanding.
Imagine yourself an 18 year old boy. You’re a senior in high school. Your family is poor and emotionally dysfunctional but you’re managing. You earn decent grades and work in the evenings and on weekends at a sit down restaurant, one of those chains with kitsch on the wall and regular food with funny names that seems to you to cost a lot. One day a new girl starts working there. You recognize her from school. She’s a sophomore. The two of you hit it off and soon start dating. After a few months things get serious. She takes you to meet her parents and they don’t like you at all. They aren’t even coy about it. They don’t want their daughter dating “the wrong sort of person” someone with “no future.” Things they actually say to you. She quits the restaurant and is supposed to stay away from you but you keep dating until you get caught. And then you’re in trouble. Big trouble. Her dad presses charges against you for statutory rape. Your parents don’t have the money to fight this legal battle properly. Long story short, you wind up with a rape conviction, a permanent place on the sex offender registry, and your own parents disown you because the whole deal bankrupted them in the process. They never forgive you for ruining their lives. Now you really don’t have a future.
child_protesting_against_hardship_caused_by_strict_sex_offender_policiesThe thing about not having a future is often you still go on living. And the thing about the sex offender registry is there are no degrees or context. Everyone is on one list; whether it was statutory, child porn, rape, or something else, everyone is lumped together on one don’t-employ-or-rent-to-this-person list. And if you’re on the list you are required by law to continually report your home address. That becomes a problem when you experience homelessness, which you’re prone to since the list makes it hard for you to get a job or an apartment. So that becomes your life. Bouncing from one temporary job to another, one sketchy apartment, house, or trailer to another. Sometimes there’s no work and you lose your place. Other times your place gets shut down for health or building code issues or your landlord just does you wrong. In between stable seasons, you stay at homeless shelters and are able to give that as your address to the registry. But shelters have funding tied to programs, so you can only stay in one for so long before you “graduate” out and can’t come back for a set period of time. When things misalign so you’re without a place or a spot at a shelter, you wind up with an additional felony for not reporting an address. Then your address is jail for 4-6 months. And the cycle repeats.
Fast forward. Now you’re 30. That cycle has been your life for 12 years now and the turn around keeps getting shorter. You’re about to “graduate” again. You really don’t want to go back to jail. Then one day, sitting at a day shelter, someone tells you about a possible alternative. There is an addiction recovery organization that has emergency beds for people who show up drunk or high in the evenings. Miraculously, through all of it, you’ve never developed a chemical addiction (besides coffee). Now this guy is telling you the way to avoid prison again is to get drunk or high everyday so you can access one of those emergency beds. You can report that as your address for as long as you’re willing to get wasted everyday. Your first thought is, ‘that is messed up.’ Your second thought is, ‘I will probably lose my job if I do this.’ Your third thought is, ‘I really don’t want to go back to jail right now.’ Drunk or jail. That’s a brutal choice.