By: Holly Lyon
Late in the morning on a cool day at the end of May I find myself visiting with Karen (name changed) at her apartment. It has been a crazy morning so far; I overslept, have a terrible headache and was stuck in traffic on my way to work. While I normally enjoy chatting with Karen at the monthly Homeless Congress meeting we both attend, I find myself annoyed that I am not in a more gregarious mood. Karen meets me in the lobby of her building; she is in her typical affable mood and I start to feel a sense of relief about the interview. She tells me about getting her bike fixed, a mountain bike that she has cleverly covered with plastic hot pink rhinestones. With a light pink basket attached to the front, I adore the decor.
We walk up to her apartment but before we enter she tells me not to be afraid of her pet turtle. The turtle looks fairly large as it rests in the corner of her small kitchen. She leads me into the living room. The three room apartment has a great vibe: the walls are light purple, the decorations are eclectic and lovely, there is a Ramones poster above the couch, a string of soft white lights are strung along the wall, half-burned candles are here and there. I see an antique-looking porcelain bust in the other room. I am standing on a myriad of mismatched rugs that cover her floor; they all seem to go together. It is the type of apartment I envisioned having after I graduated college but, unlike Karen, I do not have the discipline required, my walls are bare and beige.
I start the interview with mundane questions: where are you from, do you have family, how long were you homeless? Karen is from Akron, she was married for 16 years, her husband is deceased, and she no longer has any family in the area except her daughter living in the state of Ohio. She holds a master’s degree in art. She has two teenage children. She served 6 months in prison five years ago. She has worked in artistic venues and at various cafes in Cleveland. She has struggled with addiction since high school, a fact she speaks openly and candidly about. She did not live in Cleveland proper before becoming homeless; she lived the bulk of her married life in Cleveland suburbs. She tells me she is in her 40s and I am in a bit of disbelief, she easily looks ten years younger. She is a petite woman to say the least; she is only about five feet tall and has the build of a yoga fanatic, her short brown punky hairstyle melds well with her black square frame glasses.
Her husband was a publisher as well as a drug addict; he died of an overdose in 2009. When I ask if the relationship was tumultuous, her expression changes subtly; although I cannot quite articulate how, I know I am getting to the tougher topics. She proceeds to tell me about her abusive marriage. She said they both used drugs, although she did have episodes of sobriety. She describes a life of isolation and mental and physical violence that drastically altered her creative spirit. When she first met her husband, she was enticed by his interest in her art. She helped him a great deal with his magazine work by creating art or writing food pieces and general editing. However, after they had settled nicely into suburbia, things changed. He worked from home and Karen’s life became controlled by him. She was not permitted to go shopping for food by herself. She describes days spent in their basement where she tried to work on her art. She said in those 16 years she had many jobs that only lasted a few months. It was not uncommon for her husband to cause her to get fired by creating a scene at her place of employment. She relays how humiliating it was, and I can see by her expression how hard it is for her to recall those experiences.
I ask Karen about her time in the shelter, about the other women and their experience with domestic violence. She says that it’s a very common theme of the residents’ stories. She discusses how hard it is to leave an abuser because the abuse becomes normal. As a homeless advocate I know that an overwhelming number of homeless women encounter some form of abuse in their lifetime. She states that while shelter can be depressing, you do develop community with the other women which can help with an addiction, with getting past an abuser, and with regaining a sense of self-worth. Karen was homeless for about six months. I ask her whether her first experience with shelter was frightening. She says that although her incarceration had been more of an initial shock, both were culture shocks. She comments that there are some parallels with prison and shelter life but does not delve deeply into the details. She says that prison was less stressful and less violent than her home; she also reflects positively on being the prison librarian.
I ask her about life after prison. Karen talks about how her husband used to taunt her about her prison stay and threaten that he’d use it to take the children away from her. Her children were both aware of the drug use by their parents, although she did not know it at the time. After her husband passed away, she and her children moved to another suburb and a friend of hers moved in with them. Her friend was selling drugs from her home. This resulted in the loss of Karen’s two children, her job, and her home, as well as a stay in rehab. This was her final step before entering the shelter.
Now sober, housed and actively receiving treatment, Karen has begun working on art again. She aspires to earn an additional master’s in art therapy. Her relationship with her children is on the mend and for the first time she feels a sense of peace and freedom that addiction and abusive relationships never afforded her. She says that for a while she did not think she had anything to offer her children. She knows she put them through a lot. She talks about them being a “bounced around a lot” and how their mother’s the homeless lady on a pink sparkle bike, but also that she has realized that they do need and love her. In the future Karen hopes to gain enough stability in her life to provide a home for her children so that they can have somewhere to go if they are in need of some help. She is aware that she has a ways to go and admits that she is afraid, but she is using the various “safety nets” provided to her that will help her get through the remainder of her journey. As we wrap up our conversation, I have no doubt she will reach her goals.
Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published June 2011 Cleveland, Ohio