By Navina Wilder and William
Question: Ms. West could you just give me a little background about yourself?
Sheri West: Well, I was married but separated and I have 3 grown children. I used to own a group home taking care of mentally ill men in the 1990’s, and I also had my own home and rental property. Presently, I am a home care provider taking care of seniors in their homes.
Q: How did you become homeless?
SW: It started basically with my marriage. I was having trouble in my marriage. It escalated to the point were my husband left me. I believed in marriage, and I became depressed. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone, not my children or other family members. He left me and I got to the point I didn’t care anymore, and my business wasn’t being successful. My mortgage was falling behind, because I wasn’t getting the clients and my beds weren’t being filled. So I wasn’t able to keep up the expenses.
My husband left me and I really didn’t care anymore. The bills started coming in. I tried making arrangements with the mortgage companies, to make adjustments but they wouldn’t listen. [My requests] fell on deaf ears. I also had people sending me mail saying that I was going into foreclosure. I started getting mail, but when I called them they wanted a fee. So, I said to myself if I had any money I wouldn’t have to call you. That didn’t work out, so I became more and more depressed the bills kept coming in. I just threw them in the garbage. It came time when I had to get out of my home. I asked a family [member] if I could stay with them and they said yes, but when it came time for me to get out of my place they said, “No.” That really was a blow to my spirit and my heart, because you would always think your family member would help you out at your time of need and they didn’t.
I ended up losing my house. I had to sell my things and items and what I didn’t sell I had to put on the street. I kept my personal things and my car. I put my clothes, personal items along with my plants in my car. I slept in my car for that first night. I just knew I couldn’t do this after sleeping in my car for that night. I didn’t want to ask for help because I am a very independent person and I felt ashamed a person of my age going through this situation. I just felt ashamed, and I didn’t want to let anyone know what was going on--not even my children. I knew I had to do something. I called a friend of mine, a lady who helped me get my group home started. I called her and asked her if I could stay with her until I got myself on my feet and she said, “yes.” So, that was what I was doing for like 3 months, and then I would stay with someone else.
I was moving from house to house. I didn’t want to stay with someone too long, because my mother always told me, you don’t want to wear out your welcome. I really don’t like imposing on people, because, like I said, I am an independent woman. I don’t like asking for help, but I knew I had to do something. So, I kept asking my friends if I could stay with them, so I kept moving from house to house. Finally what kept me going was my faith in God, and in a higher power. I knew that things were going to get better. I prayed a lot, I cried a lot and I read a lot of motivational and inspirational books that kept me going. I knew I was already at the bottom so the only way I could go was up. It was only a matter of time. I just had to be patient. In the meantime, I was trying to get a home based business off the ground. I had to network in the community. While networking, I met this lady and we became friends. After a couple of months, I asked her if I could stay with her until I get myself on my feet, and she was nice enough to say, “Yes.” It was really [this friend] who helped me map out a plan for my life. I registered for college, I got a job, and I was able to get food stamps. Things were going pretty well at that time. I knew I couldn’t stay with her forever. I didn’t want to impose on her and her friends any longer then I needed. It was at this time that I spoke with her about my fears, and the stigma I had about the homeless shelters.
Q: Ms. West, I would like to ask you what was your experience living in a shelter?
SW: My experience of living in a shelter is not what I expected it to be. Like I said I had a stigma about the homeless shelters. I never wanted to go to one, because I always thought it was for alcoholics and drug addicts that [were sleeping] in homeless shelters. You know, people who were shiftless, and didn’t want to do anything with their life. I thought it was going to be unorganized [with] people sleeping on cots everywhere. But I was really shocked and amazed. I can say this was one of the best shelters that I have seen. When I was looking for a shelter, some of them were really where I didn’t want to be. I would have rather slept in my car than in [one of the] shelters.
So, someone had told me about the West Side Catholic Center, and for some reason something told me to call them. Because I called a couple of other shelters that told me I couldn’t work [while sleeping at the shelter]. I was working at the time and I told them that [that] didn’t make any sense. You are here to help people but why can’t [your client’s] work. I knew I didn’t want to go [to these other shelters], because I wanted to keep my job. I also had bills to pay car insurance and a telephone, so I didn’t go [to the other shelters]. I called the West Side Catholic Center and they said, “Yes, you can have a job [and stay at the shelter]”. I kept calling them, but they didn’t have any openings. I kept calling everyday until they knew who I was. [The woman at the shelter] said, “you never know what’s going to come up.” Just in case they had an opening, I [visited]. It was nice, organized and they cared about the people.
I finally got in.] It was a nice experience, I had my own room in the beginning, but then towards the end I had to share my room. I had a good roommate, and I really enjoyed that shelter. I can also say it was not what I thought. There were people in that shelter who really didn’t want to be there. They are there because of situations that happened in their life just like mine. It’s not all about alcoholics or drug addicts; there are a lot of people who don’t want to be there, but they have no choice.
Q: How long was your stay in the shelter?
SW: It was about 6 months
Q: What other experience did you have at the Shelter? What did you actually see while you were there? What was actually going on and taken place?
SW: Well, they had different programs [like] financial planning and activities for the kids, including a game room and face painting. They also had anger management and a spirituality group, which I loved because I am a spiritual person. They had outings for the people at the shelter. They would take them to a dinner or a concert. They always had something different to do at the shelter. They had a computer room for you to look for jobs and housing. We had chores to do, which is normal because you are expected to have chores where you are living. It was nice. They put up people’s medications. It was just organized.
Q: What resources and agencies did you utilize when you were homeless that might help someone else in your same predicament?
SW: The things that I got involved in that they had available at the shelter were the clothing program. You get free clothing. They also help you with [getting housing assistance]. They help with vouchers so you can go find somewhere to stay. They offer financial counseling, help with your credit to tell you your scores, and budgeting. [They had] a spirituality group, self-defense classes, and domestic violence counselor. The employment connection was another resource because it helps you find a job and they help you get money to go to college. They help you write resumes [and] you do mock interviews. That was a great resource. They also had a [transitional] program and I took advantage of this. It helps you find a place to stay and help pay the rent until you get on your feet.
Q: How long is that?
SW: You are only able to be on it for a year, but they sometimes can give you an extension but I am not sure how long.
Q: What was the transition from being homeless to independence, as you are now, like?
SW: It was smooth, but I did have a problem finding a place to stay. They have so many programs for people who are elderly or [those who have a] handicap, but not for me. It was challenging finding an affordable place to stay. Thank goodness for the place that I am at now. That is one of my goals, to be able to provide affordable housing for those exiting the shelter that are not handicapped or elderly.
Q: How are you today as far as your mindset, mentally?
SW: I am going to tell you the truth, I always knew things were going to workout for me because I am a very positive person and I have a lot of faith in my God. I am a fighter. I am independent and I have a strong will. In my mind, I am doing great. I am having a wonderful time in my life. I love my life. I am very thankful for the West Side Catholic Center for helping me secure a place to stay. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know, but I am just thankful that they were there when I needed them. I am enjoying my life. I like where I live now. I am doing great. I still have my job, and I can work when I want to. I like the freedom I have now. I have a home-based business that I am trying to get off the ground, and I know that it is going to be successful. I just want to tell people, just hang in there, things are going to get better. Just because things are down now they will not always be that way. They are down now, but the only way to go is up. Just be patient.
Q: What strategies can you offer someone as far as steps to become successful?
SW: The only thing I can say is follow your heart and just know if there is something you want to do--just do it. Don’t let things hinder you or limit you, just believe that you can do anything you want to do. The starting point is to go out and find the resources that can help you get to where you want to be. Asking questions and getting answers is very critical. This step is very important in helping to keep and maintain your faith.
Q: Would you consider mentoring someone who might be homeless, as far as someone who is having a hard time getting on track?
SW: Sure, I wouldn’t mind doing that. I like helping people. If I can help someone who is going through what I went through I would be more than happy to help.
Q: Ms. West tells me how you are giving back what was given to you?
SW: I am involved with NEOCH and the homeless congress is a part of that, which I belong to. They asked for volunteers to be part of Street Voices (Editor’s Note: a program to train formerly homeless people to speak before religious and civic groups). They go into the community colleges, schools and different organizations to talk about your experiences, and that’s what I am doing now. I am a speaker and I speak about my situation and I love it very much. I am trying to get rid of the stereotype of the public about homeless people [and the myth that they] are all alcoholics or drug addicts, which is not the case. I am doing speaking these engagements at the different universities, colleges, schools, and churches to speak about my experience, and that is how I am giving back.
Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Cleveland Street Chronicle #19.1 April – May 2012