I recall the feel of granules of sand between my toes, the smell of sea salt in the air, sun dancing on the water, and the snapping sound as the breeze filled the crisp white sails of colorful sabots racing in the harbor. This was my life as a housed woman, a mother, and a grandmother.
Now, my life has changed. I am unhoused. I am still a woman, a mother, and a grandmother. I am also a sister, a friend, a cancer patient, an advocate, and a human being.
But I have found that the word “homeless” obscures all other parts of me. And what does this word mean? Does it mean drugs, the reader may wonder? Drinking? Nefarious conduct? I am sorry to disappoint. None of those words describe me.
I fight the stigma. I reject the stereotype. Yet I find that I cannot wash my homelessness away, no matter how hard I scrub. It is a social death, and like my cancer, for now it is a part of me.
I wonder: can I outlive this title of “homeless”? Will I survive cancer? Both are silent killers. Which will kill me first?
Still, I insist that, whatever the end of my story will be, I am more than the label that is applied to me. I’m complex. True, I’m very flawed. Sarcastic. Dark. Passionate. Loud. But I’m also nurturing, fearful, and hopeful. Sometimes I am a lioness, fearless and strong. Other times, I am fragile and fallible, weeping into my pillow.
As an advocate, I fight every day for nutritious food, humane treatment, and a better place to rest my tired, worn body and mind. I fight for my shelter-mates, too. I give them my voice, my advocacy.
There is no peace. Only hard work. And often, I’m not sure whether I leave a footprint.
I live in a shelter touted as the “model” for all future Orange County shelters—Bridges at Kraemer Place. But what a model! It is a cold, dank, converted warehouse located next to an all nude strip club. I am locked behind gates, held at bay by guards. The clink of a chained gate is the sum of what I hear. Staff often neglect the needs of vulnerable residents. The shelter doesn’t provide enough food, and what food we have is often lacking in nutrition. I am traumatized from sun up to sun down.
The shelter comes with labels of its own. But unlike the words assigned to its residents, these labels are glowing. They include terms like “navigator,” “wellness groups,” “social services,” “on-site medical clinic,” and “gourmet commercial kitchen.”
Like the labels assigned to residents, however, these words are designed to obscure. Who would believe the misconduct and abuse that goes on behind that flattering imagery?
Swathed in pretty lies, no one is held accountable. When the problem is not named, a solution is not needed. No license required to care for 200 people in a mass shelter? But I need a license to fish? To drive a car? This is nonsensical and irresponsible.
Perhaps the worst lie is the shelter’s promise to somehow connect its residents to affordable housing. The hard truth is that permanent, affordable homes don’t exist for most of us. Wait lists range from five to 10 years, putting a real home out of reach.
How cruel for professionals to dangle the promise of a permanent, affordable home, knowing it is a lie. It feels like I’m swimming towards a life raft, blown further into the distance with every stroke I take. The sea is stormy, the water dark and churning, the sun hidden by clouds. I am on an impossible quest.
And finally, I ask: how does this, the warehousing of human beings, solve our, yes OUR, affordable housing and homelessness crisis? The answer: It doesn’t. Affordable and permanent homes are the answer. Not permanent warehousing.
The County’s Board of Supervisors allocates millions of dollars of “Funding” to “Operate” this warehouse. Meanwhile, last year the supervisors earmarked a paltry five million dollars to permanent housing, which will provide homes for a handful of the almost five thousand people who are homeless in Orange County.
If I sound bitter, it is because I am disappointed.
Yet, I see a way forward.
I believe we can end homelessness. But it will require a new way of seeing. We need to see the human being behind the crude stereotypes; the broken promises behind the pretty lies.
Then, armed with sure, unfettered vision, we can finally start to solve this crisis.
Callie Rutter is a lifelong resident of Orange County and an advocate for the human rights of people experiencing homelessness.
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