In conversation over coffee after a pulpit announcement about sheltering women at the church, my fellow congregant dropped a side comment: “I lived in a shelter for a while. Years before, I was on a rafting trip when I fell out of the boat into Class 3 rapids. The two experiences were very similar. It was almost impossible to gain a foothold, to know which way was up. But fighting my way to safety in that life-threatening situation was a lot easier than fighting my way out of homelessness.”
Her words brought home to me how separate we often feel from the people we serve through our charitable work, and how sharing our stories might deepen our connection and help us understand what kind of care is most genuinely useful. At my request, my co-congregant was generous enough to write up her story and shares it here for our community. As FUSD steps into another year of Family Promise and inaugurates our hosting of the Women’s Homeless Initiative shelter, her hope and mine is to deepen our shared understanding of homelessness. Here is her story.
My Experience of Homelessness, by Naneen Mary Shannon
In April 2005, I lost the State job I had held for 9 years. I spent the next 8 months looking for work and in temporary jobs before my Unemployment Insurance stopped.
By the end of January 2006 I had put my household goods in storage, sold my piano and my lovely big wooden desk, and moved in with an acquaintance. Our relationship deteriorated steadily and she ended up throwing me out one late-April Friday afternoon when I couldn’t find another job.
The fact that I had a car almost paid off gave me a place to spend the night and made it easier to manage being homeless. I started immediately calling homeless shelters to see if they could take me, and found a spot in north Boulder to spend the weekend.
The Boulder shelter was closing for the summer that week and I wasn’t upset to leave. It was a pretty bad experience. Someone stole a $20 bill from my purse while I was in the shower. I had to keep my medicines locked in my car. They served only decaf, not regular, coffee for breakfast. Most of the clients were hard-core road warriors, checking in during cold weather and staying on the streets all summer. It reminded me of a stay in a mental hospital.
That Monday I went to Social Services and received a referral to the Volunteers of America motel on West Colfax in Denver. I spent one night there with a roommate who had little initiative and a tendency toward dependency. That made me nervous. The motel had no cooking facilities so we used my food stamps to get snack food and juice at a convenience store. I sat in my car and parked at Sloan’s Lake to spend the rest of Tuesday calling shelters.
I was accepted that day by Sacred Heart House for single women and women with children. This was a real piece of luck. The staff emphasized first and foremost getting their clients into permanent housing, which was also my main concern. I spent the rest of the month of May calling and visiting subsidized apartment buildings from a list I solicited from the Colorado Housing and Finance Administration. I was spending 8 hours every day looking for a home.
Sacred Heart House was kind of like scout camp. The routine for its clients included weekly meetings on topics of interest to us and task rotation for preparing and clearing away meals. We had to spend the hours between 8-5 away from the home, hopefully looking for housing or work. My third day there was the fourth Thursday in May. I had given the phone number and address of Sacred Heart House to my relatives and the Colorado Springs nursing home where my mother lived. At about 8:00a I got a call from the nursing home to tell me my mother had died that morning in her sleep.
My youngest sister flew down from Minnesota and we took care of final arrangements for Mama. My sister flew home on Sunday and Monday I resumed my search for a place to live. I was able to see a psychiatrist and social worker and get prescriptions filled at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless clinic.
I also used the telephone and ate lunch at the St. Francis shelter. I was in a choir at Swallow Hill before losing my job, and it was important to me that I continue singing through everything that was happening to me. We had a concert on a Wednesday evening. That morning at the shelter, I made myself a ham-and-cheese sandwich which I carried around during my apartment-hunting and kept in the car until lunchtime. The car got hot, but the sandwich tasted pretty good. I was at the library doing some research that afternoon when I had a terrific attack of food poisoning. But the show must go on! That night, I was the only member of the choir sitting in a chair for the whole concert.
My diligence in robo-calling finally paid off the last week of May. On Wednesday I got a call from the Argonaut Apartments and moved in on Friday, just as Sacred Heart was due to close for the summer. FUSD’s Steve Caminer, Arnie Carter and his son helped me move my things out of storage and thus ended my episode of homelessness.
In spite of being fortunate enough to have a car, a cell phone, a storage unit and a post office box, I was definitely on the margin of society during my bout of homelessness. Without a permanent physical address, one is lost from the rolls of legitimate membership in society. There is no proof you exist, even if, as I did, you try to “keep up appearances”. I am so grateful to Sally Issacson and Arnie Carter for their encouragement throughout my struggle, and also to some agencies: Sacred Heart House, St. Francis Day Shelter, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Volunteers of America, and the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. I also owe a debt to the First Unitarian Society of Denver and the Swallow Hill Music Association, the two pillars of ordinary reality that saw me through from “before” to “after”. Thanks to everyone who has given me moral support through my time of homelessness. I hope I never go that way again, and I hope the same for each of you.