“On meeting her, she described herself as a businesswoman, writer, artist, and lover of French films. Among other interesting jobs, she worked as a museum docent, a position that takes years of study and training.”
If you met Sarah Jones, mid-40s, you would be impressed by her vibrancy. She’s a small, self-possessed woman. Her elvish features, long dark hair, and eager conversation would distract you from noticing the marks of frostbite across her nose and cheekbones.
If she hadn’t told me on the third day of our retreat, I would never have guessed the woman doing yoga in the guest quarters had been living in her car since November.
I was stunned by her story, more than ever because of how bright she was, and because for the last couple of days she had been taking care of me in small ways–– making sure I had enough to eat, and that all the doors were locked when I wanted to stay late in the chapel. On the third day of our stay, I got a note from her saying she was sick, so I would need to watch for the dinner tray, which she had previously taken responsibility for.
That evening, I broke silence and asked what was wrong. For starters, she had a fever and was unable to digest food. And as she unfolded the rest of her story, the manifold problems I was praying over seemed common as dust.
Up to that point, I knew Sarah was the daughter of European immigrants, and that her mother died in her late teens. She graduated from one of the Seven Sister schools in the 80s and, like me, had majored in English. On meeting her, she described herself as a businesswoman, writer, artist, and lover of French films. Among other interesting jobs, she worked as a museum docent, a position that takes years of study and training. She also poured herself into volunteering at homeless shelters.
I’m keeping most particulars private at her request, as she is still looking for employment and does not want the stigma of her homelessness available to googling employers. Sarah Jones is not her real name.
About seven years ago, she moved to be closer to her aging father and grandmother. Sitting at a red light, thinking, I’m so glad I came back to Connecticut. It’s beautiful here, she was impaled by two cars. She didn’t have health insurance in the state yet, and had to pay out of pocket for surgery.
While recovering, she was hit again by a driver under the influence of cocaine and alcohol. From those injuries, doctors told her she would never walk again. Her speech was slurred from a concussion. She sued all three drivers to cover her medical bills, and lost the lawsuits. Determined to recover her body, she remastered her legs and tongue; her tumbling finances proved the greater hurdle.
As she put it:
I didn't fall fast or easy . . . . Since I am educated and resourceful, I started selling valuables: antiques, china, silver, jewelry, designer clothes. I cashed in retirement accounts and liquidated everything. I had no debt, so I started charging gas and food, applied for help with utilities, etc.
A year ago, I realized that I could no longer afford my $1,100 rent--the job market in Connecticut was not showing any sign of recovery, and my grandmother had just died so I no longer had relatives here. So I was going to put what few possessions I had left in a storage container, and drive across the country looking for work. It was a big leap of faith, but I thought it was better than sitting here praying for a break.
Among the possessions stored were her winter clothes. With an empty bank account, paying her way by credit, she drove across the country:
I heard over and over that I would only be considered if I established myself: signed a lease and got a California driver's license. I rented a room, got a monthly lease, and went to DMV, and I was told it wasn't sufficient; in order to declare residency I had to get a job, buy real estate or have a twelve-month lease. Catch-22. You need to be a resident to get work, but you need work to become resident. I got two small contracts that I was hoping would lead to permanent work. It didn't and my credit ran out. I borrowed $1,000 and drove back home in hopes of making money to try again out West. I applied for hourly wage, temp, customer service, mall, and in my field. The only luck so far was two cleaning jobs.
That was November. Back in Connecticut, she discovered severe blood loss in her abdomen. Doctor’s found a tumor the size of a melon, and after it was removed, she had to spend several more months recovering, unable to work or look for work.
People think if you are homeless, you must have done something wrong: poor credit, lazy, drunk, gambler, shopaholic, uneducated, etc. It isn’t true.
As every year, she spent Christmas Eve preparing gifts at the homeless shelter, already living out of her car in what was one of the coldest winters on record. Her former co-workers and friends were either unable or unwilling to shelter her:
All I had was a spring rain coat with no winter clothes. A woman from church gave me a filthy blanket from the floor or her garage with gasoline spilled all over it. I was so cold, I accepted it without realizing how filthy it was. I covered my head with it that night. The stench of gas was making me sick. My car reeked of gasoline and I had to roll down windows and let the arctic air in.
I returned the blanket the next day. She told me that it had been in her garage for thirty years and she knew that gas was all over it. That is what it is like to be homeless. Even if people have known you for several years to be an hard working, honorable, educated professional, who does extensive volunteer in the community, once you are homeless, you are no longer a human being. Rather than calling me up and ask me if I would like a hot cup of tea, hot shower, hot meal, wash laundry or offer me a clean blanket, they give me a dirty filthy, gasoline-soaked blanket that's been on the floor of their garage for thirty years because that is what I am now worth. I don’t know anyone who would have let their dog sleep on that blanket.
For 7 years, I volunteered extensively for two local agencies that are denying me referrals for help. Squirrels broke into the attic and defecated all over the old blankets and men’s coats up there. I was told I could borrow one of those blankets, too. I had no way to wash or dry it, so I declined. I would have gratefully borrowed any clean blanket—old, frayed, pilled, holes, or worn thin. My choices were filthy/gasoline-soaked from a floor of a garage, full of squirrel feces, or nothing. I chose nothing.
I made do with what I had in my car: sheet-thin summer duvet, yoga mat, and the lap blanket I put under my yoga mat on hard surfaces. No matter how bad my life is, I won't lie in feces or gas or filth. Ill try to hang onto what is left of my frayed dignity. That isn't easy when former friends, churches, and local social services is telling you that is all you are worth now.
Sarah has sent out over one hundred resumes to everything from jobs within her field to the barest minimum-wage high school positions. She said when she goes in for interviews she throws a different scarf around her neck, puts on her Ralph Lauren sunglasses, and plays the professional game like she always has. She was recently offered a minimum wage job that will have her on her feet eight hours at a time, a difficult task with her frail body. But she is dogged.
When I first spoke with Sarah, I suggested she come to DC, where the job market is at least better than Connecticut. I felt comfortable enough to offer my couch, and other friends from church suggested she could couch surf among us until she could afford her own rent.
Although she was grateful and said she would consider it, she ultimately concluded, “This is my home.”