Former IRS Agent Becomes Homeless

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.”

"Leonard" Struggles with Housing and Job Stability

By: Holly Lyon

 It is early December in Cleveland. A few snowflakes are falling but the ground is still bare, it is quite cold. I am in great discomfort as I walk the brief distance from my office to my car.  I think about this as I speak to a middle aged man who has been experiencing homelessness for over a year. He tells me his homelessness is “purely economic.”  Although “Leonard” has experienced homelessness before, it has been brief episodes.  He has struggled with addiction in the past but he has been sober for over five years.  He commends himself for remaining sober through the loss of his job, housing and his current state of homelessness.

September 4, 2008 was the last time he received a paycheck.  Prior to this two year period of unemployment, his longest stretch of unemployment was six months.  His current unemployment was the result of a merger between two companies in Florida.  “I’m like everybody else, one of the many that lost their job through no fault of my own.”   He speaks with obvious fondness of his job at a logistics company in Jacksonville.  His face warms and his hands become animated, his head turns towards the window next to us.  He describes his 8x8 office with the view of a river and the stevedores working on ships.  He smiles as he stares out of the restaurant window, and I can tell he is not seeing Superior Avenue, in the grey beginnings of winter.

I ask what his childhood was like. “Leonard” grew up in the Baltimore, Maryland area. His father was a doctor, his mother a minister, and he has one sister.  His mother was originally from Cleveland, but now both parents are deceased. He glances to the corner of the room and shakes his head a little as he tells me how much he misses his parents, even though they passed away years ago.  He has one daughter, 20, whom he speaks of with great warmth; she is a college student at Vassar College in upstate New York. 

What was your fist experience with shelter like, I ask.  “Leonard” said it was “scary,” that level of communal space sharing.  He had never been in the military or in jail, so sleeping in an open room with strangers was an adjustment.

"Leonard" did not want his name or picture used

A previous resident of Cleveland, he took classes at both Cleveland State and Kent State.  “Leonard” wanted to study architecture.  He worked several years in Cleveland with the developmentally disabled.  He returned to Cleveland shortly after the loss of his job in Jacksonville, with the hope of getting involved with a friend’s business.  He has not found work since he moved.  He has stayed with both friends and family until a little over six months ago when he entered the shelter system. “Leonard” came to the realization that he has no other place to go right now and that he is thankful he has a place to stay, but at the same times he talks about how hard it is to be homeless.

“Leonard” explains “people think if you’re homeless you’re stupid or an addict, that you did something you should not have done, and that’s why you’re homeless--you deserve it.”  He holds back emotion as he tells me that it is hard to know that prejudice exists, but worse to see homeless people believe that they do deserve to be homeless.

The transitional shelter he lives at houses residents for up to six months.  His six months are almost up and he is hoping for a three month extension.  If that does not happen, he will have to go back to the entry shelter and start the process of finding housing all over again.  On the job front he is optimistic about an upcoming opportunity, but admits his mind is preoccupied with the pending three month extension.  “Leonard” has a great deal of work and life experience to offer and he holds out hope to use these skills with an upcoming opportunity in a green job project.

"Karen" With the Pink Bike

The Lady on the Pink Sparkle Bike

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.

Originally Published in the 2011 Cleveland Street Chronicle

Sheri West

From Caretaker to Taken Care of, a Tale of Homelessness and the Unsuspecting Victim

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, a place 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 feeble 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.  But 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.

This article first appeared in the Homeless Street Chronicle in 2010.

Angelo Anderson

 

Climbing in the Port-o-Potty One Last Time

By Angelo Anderson

 

Imagine it’s 1:30 in the morning in January in Downtown Cleveland.  The snow has been blowing and falling for days with record breaking wind chills.  You have on a pair of very worn shoes dirty jeans, a hoodie and a jacket that’s made for spring. 

You’ve begged a ride on the bus to get downtown thinking you’d go to one of two shelters for men, knowing that at that hour they might not let you in.  Sure enough they’re full. 

Because you’ve been smoking crack for a solid two weeks straight, you’re dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and depressed.  Dying from exposure is a real possibility.  But you continue to walk to stay warm and look for a place to hold up for the night. 

The first thing you do is search the garbage cans for something you can use to stay dry.  You find some plastic bags and put them over your socks, silently praying for help.  You get in the middle of the street where the walking’s easier and head over to Superior looking for a steam grate to sleep on.  There’s a danger to this, any burns can be bad and frostbite from sleeping too long in one position is a constant worry.  But you are cold and starting to shiver so that steam grate sure seems like a good idea. 

Needing some sort of insulation, you start to keep an eye out for some large cardboard, not finding any should have been a warning of how rough the night was going to get.  

Getting to East 20th and Superior and you start to see the bodies.  They look like mounds of new piled leaves that are wet and stuck together, you’ve never seen it this bad, there’s cardboard, newspaper and blankets everywhere as men try to get as close to the grate without getting burned. 

No space is left unused.  Fear of freezing is now a reality but you have to keep moving, maybe the cave has some room.  The cave is off Public Square in a large office building, w/ a huge truck bay. 

Under the bay is space that runs back into the building about 5 feet and the back wall is the vent for the steam to escape.  Along the way you empty a newspaper stand because the cave can be dirty and damp. 

As you turn to go down the ramp you smell the cigarette smoke and wet bodies of 20 to 30 men crammed into a very small space.  The prayers are steady now; promising to change, asking not to die, and seeking guidance to some place safe and warm.  Pain is now part of each step, you move your arms and do jumping jacks to try and warm up. 

As you come out of the truck bay you see the Convention Center and remember that they have tall vents that give off heat. Hoping, you make your way over to this oasis of life.  Like nomads in the dessert, men have been drawn to this last refuge of warmth.  How the tops haven’t caved in from the weight of all the men laying on top is a miracle.  You have to keep walking and praying like never before, this just may be it. 

You think of all the family you’ll be leaving and wonder how long before they find your body.  You regret all the time lost as you pursued your addiction.  You reflect on how each day has been an empty existence revolving around a stem and lighter and something to smoke.  You come to the realization that you can change your life into something better if given a chance and you start to pray for that chance. 

Then you see this port-a-potty and climb in.  You close all the openings with the newspaper you took from the paper stand, lift your feet off the cold floor and a pray for the opportunity to change.

 

That man was me… I’m formally homeless and with the help of NEOCH I turned my life around. 

The coalition is not only a voice for the homeless, poor and impoverished across the nation, it’s also a place where those who need hope, can find refuge. 

They provide opportunities that help homeless individuals become better people.    With NEOCH, those seeking help can come as you are.  There are no barriers and the mission is advocacy.  They help with food, clothing, shelter, legal issues, health concerns and the genuine rights of the homeless population.

But they cannot continue without your support!  I had determination, but many lack this and are afraid.  Your willingness to contribute allows others to become whole again.  It helped me and I encourage you to pass it on.

This article first appeared in the Cleveland Street Chronicle in 2011, and was part of Angelo's presentation at the Lake Erie Monsters game.