So many times, we see them, but not really “see” them.
We notice them schlepping a shopping cart crammed with all their worldly possessions in the small metal frames.
We espy them at a busy intersection holding signs that announce their mendicant status.
So often, we pass by them at a public park or parking lot, their hand-held signs serving as their mute plea for help. And more often, we pass them by with just a cursory glance or a millisecond of attention – if that.
There are also the less conspicuous of them who call their car a home, but nonetheless in the same dire straits.
I often find myself wondering who these people are, whether they have families somewhere, what special talents they have, their educational accomplishments, careers they pursued at one time, who are the people they know or have known, and who know them or have known them as a neighbor or friend. Recently, I met one who, until a few weeks ago, was homeless and living in her car. She voluntarily shared her story with me during one of our conversations.
For four years, said Margaret (not her real name), her home was her car. She slept in her vehicle’s cramped confines winter, spring, summer and fall with her belongings stashed in every nook and cranny of her old four-wheeler.
“You learn where, and where not to go and park your car overnight to catch some sleep,” she said, explaining how she made it through.
She discovered places where police don’t frequent, thus avoiding getting a ticket for parking too long in one place. Some scary experiences became valuable lessons involving safety issues. There was that one time when she thought she had found a “safe” place to park her car and get settled for the night when she was rudely awakened by several young men who appeared to be gang members surrounding her car and looking like they were up to no good. Margaret managed to escape the potentially tragic situation by quickly starting her car and then speeding away as fast as she could.
Hunger pains was a constant companion which were appeased every now and then by programs like the one being offered at the St. Mary’s Dining Hall in Stockton. A cup of McDonald’s coffee went a long way toward alleviating some of the hunger pains, she said.
Fast-food restaurants’ restrooms became her oasis for the much-needed freshening up after waking up in the morning. She said she would lock the bathroom door and do her morning constitution as best she could like washing her face, combing her hair, and cleaning her teeth.
A shower or a bath was not part of that quick regiment. She treated herself to those luxuries by checking into a cheap motel about once a month, she said. That also meant a bed where she could stretch out her tired body. Except, because of a health-related problem, she can’t lie down to go to sleep so she has always slept in an arm chair, she said.
About three weeks ago, she suffered a stroke which affected the mobility of the right side of her body including her arm and leg.
“Thank God I wasn’t driving when it happened,” she said in her small, somewhat timid voice.
After a brief hospitalization, she was sent to a rehabilitation facility.
Fortunately, just before she had the stroke, she started going to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall. There, she met a woman who was about her age and turned out to be a very kind-hearted person who understood her plight. The new friend also turned out to be someone who happened to be living alone in a trailer home with three bedrooms and two baths, with three cats for companions. Margaret also happens to love cats and actually now owns one. Her Good Samaritan even picked her up at the rehab facility when she was discharged a week ago.
Being homeless was the last thing Margaret expected to find herself in when she hit her sixties. She is actually now 69 years old.
She was born an only child, doted on by a mother who was a schoolteacher, and a father who was the manager of a large chain store. They lived on the East Coast while she was growing up. Her parents were well-to-do enough to send their daughter to college and obtain her degree.
After college, she went to work as a preschool teacher, earning a salary that allowed her to build up a comfortable nest egg through the years.
Margaret said she was never married, never even had a boyfriend. Except for a congenital physical defect involving one of her legs, and being a little overweight but not obese – she is pretty with smiling blue-green eyes and possesses a somewhat timid demeanor that becomes more obvious when she talks. But best of all, she has a very kind nature.
The stroke affected the right part of her body, so she still needs more therapy although she can walk with the aid of a walker.
So, how did she end up homeless?
It started when she had to quit working to take care of her elderly mother.
“I took care of my mom and lived with her for 11 years,” said Margaret.
Her father died when they were still living on the East Coast. A few years later, she and her mother moved to California.
After her mother died, she was left with a handsome inheritance which included the house.
“I had a very nice house,” she wistfully recalled.
Flush with a comfortable fiscal cushion, she set out to improve her living space and surroundings. She remodeled the house. She freely spent money on the landscaping of the property and had a beautiful garden.
But in hindsight, Margaret said, “maybe I should not have done all that.”
Along the way, through all those improvement projects, she also got herself 11 credit cards. She readily admits now that she should have been more careful with her spending. When the economy went south, the creditors were soon knocking on her door, demanding that she pay all of her debts.
“I overextended myself,” she admitted.
Without a job and unable to pay her debts, the credit card companies went after her house and soon lost that, too.
But there’s a silver lining to Margaret’s story. With the help of her monthly Social Security money, she has vowed to start building up her savings again. And this time, she said, she is going to be more careful in taking care of her finances.