By Sam Benson
Turn the calendar back just a decade and Sheri West can recall a time in her life when it seemed like everything was within her control; when she had her own home and her own business. Then, all of a sudden, came the beginnings of the housing crisis, and with it, a wave of foreclosures that swallowed up countless Americans who fell behind on their mortgage payments or couldn’t produce the funds to keep their house. Among the unfortunate victims was Sheri, who owned a group home for mentally ill men at the time, which was also where she lived.
Reminiscing on her former housemates, she recalls, “I provided shelter, and I also provided supervision as far as their medications; I cooked for them, I washed their clothes, I basically did everything for them. They were homeless and they needed some place to stay.” Caring for these men, becoming a de facto mother to them, brought Sheri face-to-face with the daunting reality of homelessness. But, like most Americans, she says, “I never thought in a million years that I was going to be homeless.”
But that’s just how it happens for most people. Most people, especially those in West’s position, never consider the possibility of homelessness, thinking about it as being as distant as the moon. This means that when, like a powerful and frightening jack-in-the-box, homelessness thrusts its ugly head upon those of us most unfortunate, we don’t know how to react. In West’s case, even a career caring for men squarely in the throes of homelessness couldn’t prepare her for what she was about to experience.
For West, this time in her life was marked by crushing disappointment after disappointment. She never truly saw the foreclosure of her group home coming. “I had a very successful business at that time,” she tells anyone who will listen. But when it was clear that she was going to need to make arrangements to find somewhere else to live, she called on her family, people she thought she could trust. She was surprised to find that she could not find help from her family after spending years helping others. In the face of a terrifying new challenge, she knew what she had to do. “Before [my house] went into foreclosure I had asked a family member if I could stay with them and they had said ‘yes,’ and so I’m thinking I’m getting myself prepared for when the day comes.”
“But then,” her brow starts to furrow, “when the day came for me to get put out the family member told me no, I couldn’t stay with them.’” Think about that for a moment. Her own family turned away from her at her time of greatest need. What must she have been going through? “I was really hurt by that because, you know, you think a family member would help you out in your time of need and they didn’t.” More than just being disappointed, it is clear that this signaled a loss of hope of sorts for West, a cracking of a window to her mind through which started to seep the decreasingly notion that maybe everything wouldn’t be alright.
“Whenever something drastic changes in your life,” West postulated, “it can put you in the situation of being depressed. Like a shock. I just drifted into depression.” It was obvious that West felt that she had built a solid foundation only to find her stable life had been built on sand. She indicated that she thought, time and again, that she had everything figured out, only to have her world turned upside down, repeatedly. West had already been through so many drastic changes, each time ready with a response to tough times. There was her decision to turn to her family to find a place to stay, even before she had been foreclosed upon. And before that, she had to deal with a cheating husband, who she left to open a group home. But perhaps for her, having her family turn her away was a huge disappointment.
Reeling from her latest obstacle, and with nowhere to go, West packed up her most prized possessions into her car, which she now decided to call ‘home.’ As for everything else, “I had a yard sale; I sold what I could and I put what I could on the street.” From that point on, it was a tough period of living in the car and bouncing around from friend to friend, never staying too long in one spot. Something that was really important to West, was that she didn’t want to wear out her welcome with any of her friends. But she also was weary of going to a shelter.
“I never even thought of going to a homeless shelter,” she says, “because I had a stigma, just like everybody else had a stigma, about homeless people. I said ‘there’s no way I’m going to a homeless shelter.’” West’s aversion to shelters, however, coupled with her unwillingness to test the hospitality of any of her friends, let alone her family, meant that soon she was faced once again with the prospect of having nowhere to go. Luckily for West, this is when she caught what may have been her biggest break.
“I met this lady…” she recalls, her voice trailing off as her eyes start to light up ever so slightly. “We became good friends. I just asked her one day, I said, ‘can I stay with you until I get myself up on my feet?’ and she was nice enough to say ‘yes.’” What was so special about this lady I wondered (her name has been withheld at West’s request)? “She kept me encouraged and motivated more than the other people I was with,” West replies simply. For whatever reason, be it divine intervention or just dumb luck, this woman was placed in Sheri’s path specifically for the purpose of helping her get back on her feet, get her life together once again and escape a lengthy nomadic existence. With her help, Sheri mapped out a long-term plan, got a job, and signed up for food stamps. She also decided, finally, to seek out a homeless shelter.
It is hard for Sheri West to put into words the full impact that this woman had on her life. But what is clearly evident to me, is that, rather than being merely a rest stop on West’s harrowing ride through homelessness, this woman provided something that Sheri herself had tried to impart on those she served at the group home. West said that the one thing she had a hard time finding when the tables were turned: emotional support. The encouragement and motivation that West talks about really boil down to emotional support, and it is this support that was perhaps the last remaining ingredient in the recipe that led to her find stability.
With this support West was able to take an important, if reluctant, step towards independence. She looked around at local shelters, but not content to simply sleep on the floor, didn’t find what she was looking for until she discovered West Side Catholic Center. Even though they didn’t have any beds available when she first called, West says, “I don’t know why, but [West Side Catholic] stuck with me.” So much so, that West called back, dutifully, every day for four months. That’s how long it took for them to take her, and I asked West if it was worth the wait. “It was the best decision I made,” she replied.
West is passionate about West Side Catholic and how it changed her perception of homeless shelters. “It was very organized,” she says. “The people were nice. I just liked the structure of the place.” But perhaps the most important way that West Side Catholic was able to help West out was through their Zacchaeus program, which assists homeless individuals and families with things like rent and utilities payments once they find a place of their own. “That’s how I got here,” West explains, motioning excitedly to the walls and the ceiling around her, the first shelter of her own that she has been able to call home in quite some time. When I ask her about it, West is the first to admit that it is ironic that as someone who used to take care of homeless individuals with nowhere to go, she found herself in their exact same situation. But just as the mentally ill men who used to show up at West’s Visions of Hope were lucky to place their care in Sheri West’s hands, West too, got by with a bit of luck when she needed it most, a perfect compliment to her own dose of perseverance.
Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio