WEATHER »

A Room of Her Own Now

An Extreme Case of Mental Exhaustion


OFF THE STREETS: Three months ago, you might have seen Sheila pushing her mountain of belongings on a cart downtown, heading for a cold, dark corner to find solitude and sleep, seemingly a lost soul without hope or a future.

Today, Santa Barbara–born Sheila is a new woman and off the dangerous streets. Her eyes are bright, and she’s taking a class at S.B. City College, is registered to vote, and, when I spoke with her, was awaiting a summons to jury duty. (She didn’t have to appear.)

Barney Brantingham

What radically transformed her life at 56? Well, a roof over her head and a room of her own were a major part of it. And a bed. “It took two months to feel that it was real. I hadn’t slept in a bed in five years,” she told me.

How, you might ask, did a graduate of Santa Barbara schools with a degree at San Jose State, children, and siblings end up homeless? “A lot of reasons,” she told me: along with joblessness, what she calls “an extreme case of mental exhaustion” and the aftermath of a divorce and uterine surgery.

Everyone on the streets has a different story. Sheila’s is how she found safe shelter, proof that it can be done, in her case with a little help from her friends ​— ​and Uncle Sam. Although it took several years, the transition was eased by the fact that Sheila was not a druggie and doesn’t drink. “I don’t party. I’m a private person.” She has a sweet personality and soft voice.

There are an estimated 350 homeless women on the Santa Barbara streets, according to recently retired county social worker Ken Williams. One might look hardened by her life, while another might look like someone’s grandmother, dazed and perhaps hoping for a grandchild to take her hand.

“I desperately wanted to be off the streets, but every time I made an effort, it was blocked,” Sheila told me. “It’s almost that I was called to witness what the homeless go through.

“It was traumatizing” to be on the streets, she said, partly because the passing public tends to stereotype the homeless as drunks, drug addicts, or loafers too lazy to work. “People go by their perceptions rather than reality.”

Living outside, “I felt in danger. Being on the street you could be dead at any time.” One of the many hardships and inconveniences she faced was the fact that public bathrooms are closed at night. When police arrested her for illegal lodging and not appearing in court, she spent three nights in jail. When she got out, rain had soaked her belongings. “There was no consideration for my personal belongings.”

On the street, Sheila fiercely guarded her belongings and her privacy, and she trusted no one. Her life started to change a few years ago when she spotted my wife, Sue, and me at a Fiesta pancake breakfast. She recognized me as coworker with her late mother, Jenny Perry, a reporter at the News-Press years ago.

“There was no one else who I would let watch my stuff” while she went into the bathroom, Sheila said. “You’re the only one I trusted.” Sheila had an inordinate fear that someone would steal items from her overflowing cart. Stowed there were not only all her necessities and art work but, in effect, her life.

When we met Sheila again over the months and urged her to apply for Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for the disabled, she found reasons not to. It was hard for her to believe that she qualified. Besides, she feared that someone would steal from her cart if she left it outside Social Security’s second-floor office at Paseo Nuevo mall.

So Sue offered to mind her cart while I went up with Sheila to apply. Luckily, Williams showed up to take over.

At length, Sheila emerged, mission accomplished. Months passed, during which she had to push the heavy cart to upper State Street for a physical and mental evaluation. Just after Christmas, approval came through, and, miracle of miracles, she found housing and receives a monthly SSI stipend. Now, she said, “I’m a homebody.”

Sheila urged that Santa Barbara ease the plight of homeless people by providing a safe sleeping program, restrooms, and a meals center where volunteers can bring nutritious food and coffee, perhaps at a church.

Living on the street, she said, “has deepened my life.” Yet she finds the comfort of housing “bittersweet,” knowing that others exist without it. Her core belief: “Gratitude for what you have and compassion for other people.”

This, she said, “will help change the world.”

N.Y., N.Y.: According to Bill Dedman of msnbc.com, the prime minister of Qatar, on the Persian Gulf, offered $31.5 million for two of the late heiress Huguette Clark’s Manhattan co-ops ​— ​and was turned down. With two wives and 15 children, he needed the room. But it seems as though the co-op board refused to even grant him an interview on grounds that his security needs might disturb the peace and quiet of the residents. … New Yorkers are coming: The N.Y. Philharmonic hits town tonight, May 10, at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.), playing Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

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