14 Years in 10 Minutes

For the past few months I’ve participated in a Peer Union Counseling class. It was an opportunity to learn even more about the various human service programs available in the community. Before our ‘graduation,’ the coordinator asked for a male and female volunteer to speak about our experience in the class at the graduation. When no female stepped forward, I decided I would step up. I had no idea how introspective my speech would leave me that evening.

I am far from being a planner, so in the 15 minutes before I left for the banquet, I jotted down a few notes. You might think that knowing that various local political figures were going to be present, I might have put more thought into it…but I didn’t. Besides, my best work has often come from last minute pressure! I stuck the slips of note paper in my pocket and didn’t think about it again until time for my speech.

I used the notes as a reference, but pretty much spoke what came to mind. I was open, honest and genuine in what I had to share. Afterwards, I received a number of comments of support and praise. Other than that, I didn’t really think about it much…until I made it home.

Sitting on my couch considering the evening as a whole, I suddenly became very pensive. It dawned on me that I had essentially summed up the past 14 years of my life in just 10 minutes or less. If you’ve been following my blog, even though I am only just getting to the time I moved in Indiana, you might guess that a LOT has happened in that time. The following is not verbatim, since I only went by notes, but it does convey the same message.

I started working at Purdue University the summer of 2001. I was across the hall from Roberta Schoeneman in the College of Science advising computer science majors. I would leave Purdue in September 2008 because of my mental health. By September 2009, 12 months later, I would have intimate knowledge of: in-patient mental health care, outpatient community health services, Division of Family Services for SNAP/food stamps, the homeless shelter, the Mental Health America day shelter, Lafayette Transitional Housing, Lafayette Housing Authority and the Social Security Administration. In the months to follow, I would also work with Area IV, the YWCA Cancer Program, and Riggs Community Health Center.

I had gone from someone with a Master’s degree working at a Big 10 university to being homeless having to use food stamps. I still remember the first time I used my SNAP card, I only purchased a drink and maybe a bag of chips. I didn’t even make it to the car before I started crying. I just couldn’t accept that I had fallen that far.

Life has dramatically improved since then. You could say it is like night and day. Now, instead of receiving services from the various agencies, I am helping others navigate the process to receive services themselves. A year ago I began attending the HPIN meetings, Homeless Prevention and Intervention Network. That is where I learned of this class.

Even though I was pretty familiar with many of the resources shared in this class, I learned of so many others available in the community. It seemed like each week I would take what I had learned and share with a friend here in town, or even with an aunt in Texas. Having the right terminology, I was able to locate a couple of similar programs for her to help with renovations to her home to help my uncle with disabilities.

I plan to continue helping others, primarily those that are experiencing homelessness, with all the information I learned. I also plan to apply for Leadership Lafayette. Don’t be surprised if I go asking for financial assistance [looking directly at the CEO of United Way of Greater Lafayette]. I WILL be on the board of one of the various agencies represented before all is said and done!

Sitting here writing, I’m still in awe that I am ABLE to sit here and write this blog. For so many years I sincerely believed that I would end up dead by my own doing. Now that thought seems so foreign to me…even though I only let go of that option five short years ago.

I don’t recall a time in my life where I was more determined than I am now to help make changes that will benefit others. It is a slow, long process, but I am in it for the long haul. I want to see the holes filled so that ALL people experiencing homeless have a fighting chance to get back on their feet and not just those with the ability to navigate the many systems on their own.

To the person that told me I had an “advocate’s heart,” watch out! I have you on my radar!

Strutting my stuff before my speech.

Strutting my stuff before my speech.

Human Library Project

human_library_logoI had never heard of the Human Library Project, but when I was invited to be a Human Book and share my experience with being homeless, I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that I would end up losing my voice during the afternoon because I was one of the more popular Books to be checked out by Readers.

In short, the Human Library is an event which is aimed at addressing biases and discrimination that people might feel towards different groups. “A Human Book is a person that has chosen to be a public representative of a certain group.”  Examples of Human Books included: Feminist, Black Women are Scary, Muslim, Oreo, Christian Pastor and many others.

My title was “Homeless.” My chapters, which were based on very common stereotypes, included:

  • Just make better decisions!
  • Just a crazy alcoholic or druggie!!
  • Don’t you have family you can stay with?
  • Abuser of the “system”!
  • You must WANT to be homeless!

The organizers gave us the option to meet with small groups or one-on-one with Readers depending on our comfort level. I am so pleased that I said I was open to either option. It gave me the opportunity to talk to so many more Readers. In each of the five 30-minute sessions, I had between two and four Readers. As I stated above, at one point, I had been talking so much that I began to lose my voice!

I also had the distinction of being the first Human Book to be checked out. I should have known right then that I wasn’t going to have much down time, if any.

Human Library

To help begin each session, we were encouraged to ask the Readers why they chose our particular topic. Fortunately, I never got the “my professor told us to come” response like others did. All of my Readers seemed genuinely interested in challenging their own beliefs about the Homeless.

I purposely did not include gender in my chapter titles. I did, however, shatter that stereotype from the very beginning. I very quickly asked each Reader if they had expected to see a male when escorted to my table. For all except maybe two, the answer was a predictable “yes.” It was interesting to see the shock on their own faces as they realized they held that stereotype. From the very first time I asked that question and got their responses, I KNEW this was going to be a great afternoon of raising awareness.

There was one point in the afternoon when I had a chance to speak longer with two ladies. One was possibly about 50 years old and already involved with helping the Homeless through her church. The other was only about 19 or 20. She was so taken by what I shared that she was anxious to learn how she can help others.

I spent about 20 minutes telling my story making sure to cover all of the Chapters I had listed. Here is a VERY condensed version of my story:

I became homeless due to my depression and lack of full understanding by family. It was not a lack of poor decisions or lack of compliance with my treatment. I am one of the most compliant mental health clients you will find. I have ALWAYS taken my medication as instruction and only once did I cancel a therapy session at the last minute just because I didn’t want to go. In a sense, I accelerated the process to homelessness by seeking help for my mental health. I knew that afternoon that I checked myself into the psychiatric unit that I was simultaneously evicting myself from my sister’s home.

As for drug or alcohol use, I definitely do not have a problem there. I have no more than three or four alcoholic drinks a year and I have never smoked even a cigarette. I can barely stand to even hold an unopened pack of cigarettes!

I had immediate family that offered to let me stay with them, but it was under the condition that I either be working or looking for work. They just did not understand that I was not mentally capable of doing either at the time. I had reached the point of having panic attacks when it did come time to work.

When I did stay with other relatives during this time, I tried to work a part-time job. In the one month that I held the job, there was not one week where I made it to work all four days. Ultimately, I lost that job when I entered the hospital for the third time in a year.

So many people believe that people WANT to be on government entitlements. I was so overwhelmed by having to use my SNAP card early on. The first time I used my SNAP card I only purchased two items: a bag of chips and a drink. I remember kind of hiding the card as I slid it in the machine. I grabbed the bag as quickly as I could and made a bee-line for my car. I was so ashamed to be using ‘food stamps’ that I didn’t even make it to my car before I started crying. I had officially reached a low I never imagined.

As I followed my daily routine between the shelter, library, therapy and Transitional Housing each day, I began to understand why it is so hard for some to move back into permanent housing or even to not want to take advantage of certain services. Unfortunately, in many places, it takes a great deal of patience to navigate the various services and their requirements.

It became clear to me early on that I had become homeless for a reason. It was a time for me to focus on me and my mental health without other stressors. Sounds, strange, I know. I had no fixed home or income, yet that was part of the blessing. I knew where I was going to sleep, I knew where I was going to shower and I knew where I was going to have my meals. My basic needs were being met…without me having to stress about money, work, or even interacting with others unless absolutely necessary. I finally had the time I needed to spend in more intense therapy.

For others, it is not a blessing. Once they have a bad experience with an agency, they are highly unlikely to return. Most often, this happens with homeless shelters. A good shelter has basic rules for everyone. It’s really quite minimal in the grand scheme of things in order to be able to sleep with air conditioning or heat depending on the season. However, for some, it is just too much for a number of reasons. These people generally end up being ‘campers.’ And, once you’ve been a camper for a while, the freeness of it makes is more difficult to adjust to stable, long-term housing. For those, the best we can do is to make sure their other needs are being met.

Ultimately, I got housed because of information from my therapist and NOT because of help from either of my case managers. I did start working again and have now been in the same apartment and job for over 4.5 years.

That is my story in a nutshell. I could have given at least a two-hour talk if given the opportunity. It was such a pleasure and privilege to be able to share with so many in one afternoon.

Once the Readers were dismissed, we convened in a meeting room to decompress and give our immediate feedback to the organizers and each other. EVERY Book thoroughly enjoyed the experience and had wished we had had an opportunity to be a Reader of some Books ourselves. In the end, all the Books agreed to have their information shared with each other so that we could become Readers at our leisure.

I commend the Krannert Women in Management group for doing wonderful job in organizing such a complex program. I certainly hope to return as a Book!