Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I Was Homeless. I Was Hungry. I Was Rescued.

Sometimes when I watch our kids eat, I get teary-eyed. Lisa is usually the one who feeds them. She takes their many Rubbermaid containers of prepped meats and veggies out of the refrigerator and fills their bowls with whatever had been prepared the day before or that afternoon. Sophie sits at the counter watching with her tail wagging. Lobo is there too with his favorite toy at his feet. Coco paces the kitchen a few times before joining Sophie and Lobo. I'm watching all of this from the kitchen table.

When the bowls are put down and they start eating, that's when it happens. My throat tightens. My eyes fill up with tears. I keep thinking, "at one time, before our kids were rescued, they probably didn't know when their next meal would be served."

During these tidbits of time when I watch them eat with gusto, I think about conversations I've had with people over the past few years. Most of these conversations generated after I've told them about our rescue kids, Bodacious Biscuit Love and some of the shelter pups we've had the honor of spending time with. Their comments are similar in nature.

"I can't imagine what it's like to be hungry and cold and not know where your next meal is coming from."

When these comments are made, I feel a twinge. I can't describe it. It pulls at my heartstrings and I reflect back to almost 25 years ago. I was 18. It was the dead of winter.

I was homeless. I was hungry. Eventually, I was rescued.

To set the stage, at the age of 17 I stood up to my father for the first time in my life. I also got my ass beat seconds later. It wasn't the first time. Not even close. However, it was the last. That was it. I had enough. My best friend, at the time, took me to the police station. I had physical proof. Welts. Bruises. They took pictures for evidence. From there I went to a temporary foster home. A week or so later, they placed me in a group home for girls in Dover, N.H (no longer in existence).

A little less than 9 months later, I turned 18. I had applied for the extended program that would have granted me extended stay until I was 21, but I was denied. The small group home was funded by a religious organization. The group home coordinator feared that if they discovered I was a lesbian, they'd pull funding immediately. This was all "hush-hush." They wanted me out of there. I was asked to vacate the premises the day after my 18th birthday.

With the help of my former Independent Living instructor, I found a room to rent. The house was owned by an acquaintance of his. Three bedrooms. The owner's 20-something daughter lived there. Her son had moved across the country for college. It was his room that I would be renting.

I moved in the day after my 18th birthday. I was going to school full time. Working full time. Less than 2 months after moving in, I spent a weekend with a bunch of friends at a lake house. A much-needed break.

When I returned, my key didn't work on any of the doors. I knocked on the sliding glass door. I could see the owner of the house sitting at the table. Ignoring my knocks.

I had no idea what was going on. Thankfully, my friend who had dropped me off waited. I got back in the car. Spent the night at her house. The following day, I called the woman who was renting me the room. I asked what was going on.

"Over the weekend, one of the staff members from the group home called and asked how you were doing. Throughout the conversation, she mentioned why you had been denied the Extended Youth Program and had urgently needed a place to move into the day after your 18th birthday. Barry failed to mention that when he reached out to me. 

I'm a Christian lady and I do not support your lifestyle and I will not welcome that into my home. Therefore, I changed the locks. I put all of your belongings in the garage which you are welcomed to gather when you're able to. 

I apologize for the inconvenience. I wish you well."

For the next month, I crashed at friend's houses. I went to school during the day and worked at night full-time. After a month, the invites became less and less. My welcomes had worn out despite my contributions towards food, room, and board, and doing chores and small projects at the various houses I stayed at.

I found myself without anywhere to stay. It was cold. I had no idea what to do, who to turn to, where to go, etc. I used what little money I had saved to purchase coffee and hot chocolate at the corner cafe just to have someplace warm to be during the day. I washed my work uniform at the laundry mat. I paid the bus fare for the half-hour commute to work.

Once or twice a week, when the temperatures were unbearable, I begged the people who had once been my friends to let me stay at their house. I gave them money. Too much money. They knew I was desperate. My money ran out quickly.

My hours were cut at work. It was the slow season. I no longer had the funds to fork over for a shower and bed to sleep in. I was counting change just to do laundry. That ran out too. I didn't have money to do laundry or for bus fare. I lost my job.

This was the point where I was on my own. No money. No food. No bed or floor to sleep on. No shower. Nothing. Occasionally an old school friend or two would see me wandering the streets and offer to buy me a sandwich or cup of hot chocolate. I rationed the sandwich to last a couple of days.

I spent most of the daytime hours at the library. I didn't have money to pay for coffee at the cafes. I slept on park benches or other secluded areas. I went days without food. Water wasn't hard to come by. I filled a couple of bottles when I washed up in the library bathroom.

After a month of living this way, I become sick. Very sick. I could barely walk, I had a severe head and chest cold, a high fever and aches. Imagine having the flu and being outside in single digit temperatures. On top of that, having to walk the streets and function. I didn't have tissues or medicine or hot tea to drink.

Early evening, I found refuge on a park bench. It was snowing hard. I remember laying down and drifting off. I felt the warmth...like the sun was shining down on me on a hot summer day. I didn't feel sick. There were no hunger pangs.

I woke up in the hospital.

A few friends of mine from school, which I had quit months ago, knew I had been living on the streets. They were aware of the massive snowstorm coming in and wanted to offer me shelter during the storm. After driving around town and checking cafes and the library, they were unable to locate me. Their last attempt was the secluded park I was at. On the bench. They tried to wake me, but couldn't. Eventually, I came to enough for them to carry me to the car.

It took about 2 weeks to recover fully. The doctor said had I not been found that evening,  I wouldn't have made it into the morning hours.

That was a hard pill to swallow. 

During my 2 weeks of recovery at a friend's house, one who had been searching for me the night of the snowstorm, I asked around. What could I do? Where could I go? I was at the bottom of the well. The only way to look was up.

Things fell into place. After my recovery, I moved into a tiny, local homeless shelter. From the outside, it looked like your average large house. There were about 5-6 bedrooms. One was used as the office. There was a living room, dining room, and a few bathrooms. Less than a dozen people resided there. I was the youngest.

I was scared, however, the few staff members and other residents were kind. They gave me a bedroom to sleep in, food to eat, I had access to a full bathroom, they listened to my story and allowed time for me to decompress.

I can't even begin to describe how grateful I was. 

In the weeks ahead, my confidence grew. I got my GED, enrolled in college, got a job and started the process of getting my own apartment.

Four months later, that's exactly what happened.

In the years ahead, even now, thinking back to those few months keeps me grounded. I'll never forget what it was like. I'm not ashamed of what I went through or that I was homeless. Experience makes you stronger and stretches the realms of being able to understand circumstances. Sometimes, I think personal experience guides you towards the path you were meant to walk on. I know it has for me.

While my experience living on the street in the dead of winter varies from a pup's experience, there are some similarities. I understand having no place warm to sleep. I understand hunger and sickness stemming from that. I also know what it's like to be rescued and given a chance to live.

I can't tell you how many shelter pups I've petted and hugged and whispered, "I understand. You're going to be okay now."

I meant it.

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