A wise woman shared with me recently that homelessness can be understood one story at a time. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this complex problem, I know ﬁrst hand how it happened to me. And how it has happened to a number of others.
I worked in Silicon Valley for over 20 years. Los Gatos is my hometown, and I am a ﬁfth-generation Californian. While I longed for a deeper understanding of homelessness so that I could be a part of the solution, truly, I never thought it could or would ever happen to me. My assumption then was that three things caused people to live on the streets: mental illness, drug addiction, and alcoholism. Later on, it became clear that things like economics, disasters born of climate change, and persons ﬂeeing abusive domestic situations, to name a few, were also contributing factors.
The ﬁrst week of April 2017, I came to Santa Barbara, by train, with my service dog and a few suitcases, having left an abusive relationship. Having been told I had a bed in a place that helps women break the cycle of abuse, I was excited to begin a new, healing chapter. On the way south, I called this place, realizing I’d forgotten to get their address. A rather harried woman answered the phone, barking at me, “We’ve changed our mind. Go to mission. Go to PATH!”
I said, “What? Where?” Being utterly S.B. ignorant, I had no idea of that to which she referred. A kind taxi driver took me the few blocks to the S.B. Rescue Mission. I was grateful for a place to stay. My dog Nicki and I settled into a cubby with a woman on the top bunk who was sick, with the heater on, turning our space into a germ incubator. I woke up with pneumonia. My new cab-driver friend took me to Sansum Urgent Care. Next stop? PATH. We stayed there until I recovered, a few weeks. And that fast, my sweet service dog Nicki and I were homeless.
I wandered toward downtown, in shock. This was truly unchartered territory. Little by slow, I met a few street people. Many were very kind. Their stories were extremely varied.
I made friends with a guy who once worked in the White House!! (Yes, I asked to see pictures.) He told me about Showers of Blessing, thank goodness. He had been outpriced in the rental market. I understood, having witnessed my beloved Santa Clara valley morph into a community of techies from across the globe, now better known as the uber pricey Silicon Valley. And I met displaced persons left without a home due to the Santa Rosa ﬁre, the Houston ﬂood, and hurricanes in Florida. Then I became a volunteer for a while at Showers of Blessing, meeting all kinds of people, including a lovely woman from AmeriCorps, who would anonymously leave clean socks and wrapped snacks in the places only the street folk would see them. That was both kind and helpful, for there were times I was so hungry, I thought I’d faint, hit my head, and wind up with a traumatic brain injury. Feeding my dog, having enough water for her, was my top priority.
CARE4Paws helped us on several occasions. Since I love to cook, and did so most of the time when I had a home, I was ill prepared for the high cost of eating highly processed, toxic “fast” food — the cost added up fast. My true salvation was prayer, which became more frequent, like every few minutes, toward the end. And an earth angel did appear one day, as Nic and I sat on the bench outside Peets, next to Old Navy on State, by Anapamu. She said something like, “You clearly take good care of your dog. Here is something for you.” Reminding me a bit of Ellen with her intense blue eyes, she gracefully, elegantly, and discreetly slipped a folded twenty into my hand. Thought my heart might explode in my chest with gratitude. But that’s not the end of the story.
About a week later, Nic and I were enjoying the shade behind the County Administration building, late in the day. And this same woman walked up unexpectedly, saying her oﬃce had collected a few dollars as she handed me an envelope. There was close to a hundred dollars inside! Not long thereafter, she went the extra mile, or more accurately, the extra thousand miles, getting me into housing, and equally important, caring for my dog while I was in the hospital. Not long after, we took her to Montecito Pet, where the amazing women veterinarians gave us the heartbreaking news, Nicki had inoperable liver cancer, and it was best we end her suﬀering then and there.
There are no words. Except heartbreaking. We had her cremated. She was sprinkled in a place where she can see other dogs every day, for she loved everyone (well, except one very upset pitbull, one day). Three and a half years later, I cry typing this. But we were the lucky ones, as we were oﬀ the streets in just under six months. So it’s time for me to do two very important things: get a renewed Rx for another service dog (doc appointment this week) which has helped relieve my diagnosis of complex PTSD. The other is to become a part of the solution, heart and soul, mind and body. I’m counting on my earth angel and fearless leader to point me in the right direction. Actually, she is not “my” earth angel, but ours, Santa Barbara County’s very own Chief Public Defender, Tracy M. Macuga.
Together, we can solve this tragedy, one traumatized veteran, one chronically homeless person at a time. #GratitudeSpeaks #Semper Fi.