By Ellen Kriz
Perhaps one moment during my interview with Deborah E. Lettau sums up her experience with homelessness most concisely: “People make judgments about the places and people you associate with. Sometimes people will assume the worst. Some people want to assume the worst, and they don’t always want to let you forget about it either.” She paused briefly as her face brightened and her tone lightened: “But we don’t want to dwell on that.” Like many who have experienced homelessness, Debbie has been unfairly labeled and stigmatized. Nevertheless, she has overcome an onslaught of adversity and has directed her energy toward helping others turn their lives around. She has learned that “it’s not so much your money, but the quality of the time that you spend.”
Debbie was born in the Old Brooklyn area of Cleveland, the only child of an accountant and a comptometer operator. She was hired by the IRS as a file clerk and typist in February of 1974, and after nearly thirty years there, she was suspended in November 2001. Debbie did not go into much depth about what happened at the IRS; she was influenced by the wrong people, and by late January 2003, as Debbie lived without income, the IRS still had not decided if she could have her job back. She resigned in February 2003 for financial reasons. Debbie reflected that one would not expect a person who works for the IRS, a relatively steady government job, to be homeless. She emphasized that “back in the day” you’d think you could work for the IRS until you wanted to retire, but times have changed. Indeed, the loss of her long-term job was just the beginning of many difficulties for Debbie.
Debbie candidly discussed her struggles with alcohol abuse. She made a point of noting that she never used crack cocaine and that she has been sober since December 2002. She was also the victim of emotional abuse from a partner and his son who were involved with alcohol and drugs. They made it difficult for her to achieve sobriety and drained her accounts. Debbie admitted how dangerous her life could be at times: “I’ve been in situations where if the results were different, I could be in jail, prison, in the hospital, or dead.” For instance, her partner’s son was pulled over in her car at around 2 or 3 a.m. in the Bellaire Gardens area one night. A neighbor drove her and her partner to the area to pick up the car, and as they were walking, they were tackled by a few individuals who wanted to rob them. Before the attackers let them go, Debbie was hit in the head with a loaded 9 millimeter gun.
Debbie soon faced poverty again as she suffered through her abusive relationship and other difficult circumstances. Her father was struck with dementia and her mother developed Alzheimer’s; both had to be admitted to a nursing home. She also became the victim of a predatory lender who did not contact her first or second mortgage companies about the loan. After struggling to make her payments, she lost her home of twenty years. Her parents died within two years of each other as Debbie dealt with failing mental health and threats to her sobriety. In 2004, while she was living with her partner’s mother after a period of rental housing, she fled to Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Debbie, it was a “running away from home” of sorts. She spoke highly of AA and her experiences there. She learned that she is responsible for her actions, even good intentions that were misguided. In the meantime, Debbie stayed at a friend’s house and worked at a party center and a thrift store. She resided at a facility run by the Salvation Army until she could be admitted to the West Side Catholic Shelter, a women’s and children’s home. Eventually, she entered transitional housing in 2006. Although Debbie faced homelessness in this period of her life, she also learned more about herself, the effects of domestic abuse, and how helping others can heal. Her fresh outlook was apparent as we spoke. She has accepted that some circumstances were out of her control, that she cannot change what happened, and perhaps most of all, that she “can’t change other people.”
Now Debbie has devoted most of her time giving back to the community and making God her first priority. She currently lives in a CMHA building close to her former home and attends services at Bethany English Lutheran. She also works at a men’s group home in Old Brooklyn. Many of the men have physical and/or mental disabilities, and have dealt with alcohol or drug abuse in the past. Debbie helps provide meals and other housing services. She also ensures that the men take their medication properly and are devoted to “straightening up their acts.” She fondly related how much she enjoys joking with her residents and getting to know them. Debbie is also involved with Transitional Housing Inc. (THI), the Women’s Outreach Center, and NEOCH’s Homeless Congress. To keep her new life in perspective, Debbie realizes that “God’s grace” has kept her alive and continues to work through her. It is no wonder that one of her favorite songs to sing is “Amazing Grace.”
In the future, Debbie wants to find a full-time position, possibly in the accounting field. Her daughter, Erica, is continuing her education at Cleveland State University, while Debbie hopes that maybe a third marriage “will be the charm.” Debbie also loves to write poetry. She has published work in the past, and has recently submitted work to the Lakewood Library. If her poem is chosen for the new artwork at the library, she will receive a $200 gift card to Players on Madison. Debbie chuckled as she quipped, “That might be the answer: I’m gonna get to have some lamb chops. It’s been a long time. That would be a treat.”