Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Salena. I’m 19 and I grew up in California. I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but I love to draw; mostly anime and comics.
I love creating and discovering, storytelling and adventure. Currently, I’m enrolled in college, finally completing my first semester in the spring after 3 or 4 tries. I hope to transfer to university after getting an AA in Arts to study Japanese and English.
What was your life like growing up?
My mother worked hard to raise me on her own. We moved to California when I was 6; soon after that we moved into the house I’d call a home for 11 years. She had a boyfriend for a time, whom I hated with a 5th grader passion.
My mom worked a lot, more than she was supposed to even, to make sure things stayed normal.She made sure to do something with me every Friday after she came home from work; she bought me books when I ran out of things to read, drew Disney characters so I could color them. I realize now that she’s the World’s Greatest Mom. I was lucky.
Can you tell us about the factors that led to you being homeless?
My mom has been on social security since a few car accidents in her 20’s. Things started changing for the worse in her 40’s. I was in junior high when she lost her job.
Her boyfriend had been saying that he would help pay for the bills [he was living with us] but never gave up the cash. Fast forward to losing her job, now on top of that she’s in quite a bit of debt towards the house she owned and maintained for 11 years. And social security decided to stop giving my mother benefits!
According to the law, a person on state benefits is allowed to work part-time as long as they make under a certain amount of money every month. One month, Mom got a 25 cent raise, resulting in about $100 extra income at the end of the month.
It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, especially now that I know how long $100 lasts for two people, but social security deemed it enough to stop her benefits. Of course, they were taken to court, however, this time she didn’t win.
Now, on top of the job loss, social security also claimed that both my mother and I (she was receiving benefits because of me) owed back all the money paid out to us between the time they notified mom of her termination and the final court hearing.
By this time I’d starting my first year of high school. We managed okay for a couple of months off workers’ compensation, but one day I came home from school and our old real estate agent was sitting at the table with mom. Before I knew it, the house is sold, we’d packed everything into storage, and purchased a new car with no where to go.
Can you tell us about a day in the life of a homeless person?
It’s actually boringly normal for the most part. Wake up, find a bathroom, wash up, brush teeth…etc. Go eat breakfast. Run errands, find a way to not be homeless. If there’s nothing to do just hang out, go to the library, a movie. Take a nap. Eat lunch.
Sit around and wait for the day to be over, please. Dinner. Find a place to settle down, find a bathroom, change clothes, sleep. There was no real reason to stop normal habits.
How did you deal with the logistics of homelessness? Where did you shower? Where did your mail go? What did you do with all your ‘stuff’?
In the beginning, mail went to my aunt’s house, then a P.O box, then an office that offered services for homeless people. Home Base one of the shelters offered showers. But before that, there were hotel rooms, and before that, we made due with park bathrooms.
Our stuff went into storage for the three years we were homeless. During the fourth year we had a late payment and they auctioned everything from our two-bedroom home off for $400. We got $98 of it. We stayed in one area, where my school was located, until I graduated.
Did you ever live in a shelter? What was that like?
I had school from 7 to 2:30 during the week, so I was occupied. My mom sat in the park mostly, waiting to pick me up. At 3:30 the shelter opened its doors, which lead to another 3 hours of waiting before the first 50 of us were loaded onto a bus with padded mats and garbage bags full of blankets and the like.
The drive to the churches was usually between five minutes to one hour, then we’d unload and eat the dinner the churchgoers had prepared after letting them pray at us (no really, I love Jesus personally, but these people prayed AT us, every time)
We ate mostly meat and potatoes but there were a few places that served us nice things, like pasta, casserole and vegetarian options. After that there was more cleaning, moving of objects, then the 50 sometimes plus of us would stealthily battle from a spot to sleep.
No one wanted to sleep next to the snorers or the booze-reekers or the insomniacs or the ‘monitors table’. After a few months my mother and I got a hang of it. Lights out at 10pm and on again at 6:30 am.
More cleaning. Maybe breakfast, depending on where we were staying that night, loading the bus, driving back to home base which closed at 7:30 am. Then we were left to fend for ourselves for the rest of the day.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about homelessness? Or homeless people?
* That homeless people can just up and get a job because it’s way more complicated than that. Especially when you have limited clothing and nowhere to really rest and a shelter that closes its doors to anyone not there by 3:30 pm everyday.
* That homeless people can just save money. Like it’s that simple, like living doesn’t require what little money, if any, they get.
* That they’re idiots. There were tons of perfectly capable human beings being treated like dogs because they lost their home.
* That all homeless people don’t want to be homeless. I’ve found out that a lot of them actually don’t care about anything other than beer and whatever vice they happen to have.
* That we don’t have the right to be picky. We came from a two bedroom house and a comfortable life. We cannot just, ‘give everything up’ we cannot just ‘start over from the beginning’. It’s painful. It sucks. And it’s hard – harder than you’d think.
What led to you eventually finding a home?
Giving in. We finally got accepted into a program that pays like, 80% of rent based off income, but couldn’t find anywhere but the cheap apartment buildings right next to the shelter. Two years later we’re still looking.
What advice would you give to someone facing homelessness? Or someone whose loved one is facing it?
Don’t judge them.
For whatever reason you or someone you know has been rendered homeless, don’t guilt them or pressure them or scorn them because of it. Sympathize. Someone just lost everything, there’s nothing left.
Keep your wits about you. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but be careful who you tell. Don’t settle, something better will come along.
Don’t stop living your normal life. Go to the doctor, shop for a new dress, go out with friends, keep going to school. A home doesn’t make you, so don’t act as though your life is over.
Do you know anyone who has been homeless? Any questions for Salena?