Stories from the DEG
I’m pretty old. I’m 57, so I’ve done a number of things: sales, sales manager and a baker in a restaurant. Before I became homeless, I was a writer, an author doing ghost writing and I worked on various freelance projects. I published an online magazine for about 10 years. Yeah, I was editor-in-chief.
I had a single mom and 2 brothers, and so you know, it was fine. I mean, we were never rich, but we were never on the streets or anything like that. My mom owned her own business; then she started having mental and physical problems, so she went on social security & disability or something like that. And one of my brothers, who was a radiologist, passed away from AIDS in ’93. We all had different fathers, so my other brother’s father came and took him back to Moscow; he was the Nigerian Ambassador to Moscow. He’s back in the U.S. now. We found him — or actually, he found us. He came back before our mom passed away. I took care of my mom for about 10 years. She was disabled and mentally ill; my mom passed away in 2011. Within a couple of weeks, my cat that I had for 25 years also passed away. I had a bit of a… thing there. At the same time, the apartment that we lived in went into foreclosure. My mom, my daughter and my grandkids, we all lived together in that huge apartment; there was plenty of room, but the owner went into foreclosure. And then we couldn’t find any place together. I lost my mom, my cat, my grandkids and my daughter all at the same time because we had to scatter a little bit. I think that along with my health issues, I started failing a little bit after that — probably depression.
I’ve never actually been on the street. I found that I could not pay my bills without borrowing, and borrowing, and borrowing and never getting ahead. I couldn’t keep up my apartment or anything, so I let it all go. Luckily, the Evangel Home, which is a women’s shelter in downtown Fresno, told me to come. They put a little roll out bed in a room with three other ladies, and that’s where I slept that night; then I moved to another bedroom the next day, but I stayed for a few months. They were very instrumental in saving me from the streets because I had never been on the streets. The people there were very anxious to make sure that I landed some place that wasn’t going to be like the Poverello House or somewhere a little more rough than I am.
I didn’t have drug problems or any kind of abuse that they have programs for. There were no programs for people who were just down on their luck, especially women. There were more resources for men at the time, so we all looked for things — pretty much any kind of avenue of finding a place to stay, and we’d share the information with each other. One of the young women, who was actually my roommate at Evangel Home, handed me a note that said, ‘Dixie Dakota Home.’ I said, “What’s that?” I called and it turned out that it was Dixie Salazar’s number; she told me it was actually the Dakota EcoGarden I needed to call, so I did. I talked to Nancy Holmes — I think. When they said, “tents,” I was like, “Oh no, I can’t do tents.” I came by to pick-up an application anyway. When I visited, I met Nancy Holmes & Brittani and a couple of other people. Then, only after that, did I meet Nancy Waidtlow & Gerry Bill. I did the application thing, got approved and came over. I couldn’t go in a tent because I have asthma; there’s a lot of dust out there. We were waiting for some sort of money to come in so I could rent a room, but that didn’t happen until November; that’s when I moved in.
It’s very scary when you find out you don’t have a place to stay because you don’t know what’s going to happen — fear of the unknown and, you know, winding up on the streets, being robbed, getting assaulted or whatever. As I said — the Evangel Home, if I hadn’t been able to get in with them, I don’t know what would have happened. It was a little freeing, too — not having to worry about bills and this or that. Because that was a tremendous amount of pressure and stress, I had high blood pressure, and that probably wasn’t helping anything. Letting somebody else worry about it for a minute, that was okay with me. I was less depressed being homeless than when I was under all that stress, especially since I could not pay for anything.
I’m not a very sociable person, but being in this group, and trying to fit into the DEG community, that’s been pretty special. Because I was in Nancy W’s backyard for a while, whenever she came over, I followed her into the garden. I learned how to tell a plant from a weed and how to plant & grow things; that’s been especially beneficial to me — not so much learning new things, but expanding. I haven’t really done any writing, which I should have done, but I’ve been letting myself experience living here and working in the garden, being with everybody and tackling little projects around here. Once again, it’s freeing and less stressful. At the same time, I’ve been going to the doctor for like the first time in 25 years and going through testing. The last visit was for a cardiac test because they were afraid I had a heart condition, but everything, so far, has come back pretty clear. I have high blood pressure and other problems resulting from what could have been a bigger issue if I hadn’t caught it in time, but I’m fine. That’s all a stress that’s gone. I’ve thought of various ideas for things to do here — business ideas and things like that. A bit of my creativity is kicking in again, as opposed to being dormant. I’ve always been a creative person. I was a professional baker for a long time… like 10 years, I guess.
My plan right now: I’m trying not to stress out again. Since I’m on Section 8, my rent is fairly low and manageable; it’s secure, and I think I’m going to enjoy, for the first couple of weeks, being secure. The DEG wouldn’t put me out or anything like that, but it’s not mine. When I’m here, though, I feel like I have other things to do like gardening. Once I’m in my own place, and knowing that I’m securely in there, I think what I’d really like to focus on is my writing. For one thing, I want to write a book. I’d like to write articles under my own name and, if I can, write articles that pay — at least a small amount. I have the time to focus on writing and submitting articles because it takes a couple of months to get your money in the first place. I also have the mental mindset and attitude to do this; I think part of that is actually from working in the garden because I wouldn’t have known that I could grow a thing. I’m growing corn, tomatoes and all sorts of things out here. It seems like it’s unrelated, but to me it’s very related. I like to do art work, too. I might do that and set-up an Etsy shop or, you know, something like that.
When I wasn’t homeless, but definitely not doing well, I realized a lot of people didn’t know how food insecurity impacted others, especially people who’ve never really been in that position before. Many need help and really don’t know where to find it. I remember, years ago after my divorce, I finally found out about the available aid for families with dependent children. I applied for it, but it was such an awful experience — a terrible experience that I wouldn’t have wanted to do again. For a while, I did not know there was help for single people, so I’d have a dollar a day to spend. I’d go down to Winco and grab a little tiny bit of rice because they have those bulk things; it was something I could eat for that day. When I found out that they do food stamps for adults without children, I signed up and got a little bit more secure. I was food secure, but not financially secure. So you know, a lot of that stress, and not eating for a long time, just wears on you — whether you’re on the streets or in a house.
I’ve learned the importance of not cutting myself off from other people because I cut myself off from almost everybody. Part of that problem was depression, but another part of it was shame for not being able to maintain my life. I was always the one that people came to for help, and I couldn’t help anybody; I couldn’t even help myself. I learned the importance of being with others from the DEG and Evangel Home. Even if people can’t physically or financially help you, it’s okay because it’s all about the camaraderie and commiseration. I learned to be more giving to other people who find themselves in these situations — not that I was ever one to look down on the homeless or the poor, as a lot of my family is that way. Giving someone a hug was not always my thing, but if I see somebody hurting, I’ll just go up and hug them; I know that sometimes that’s one of the best things you can do, and sometimes that’s what people need.
It was great meeting Nancy W. & Gerry at the DEG. We were talking about Nancy W. and Gerry this morning — how they’re like role models. They’re both in their 70’s, and they outwork everybody. That’s how I want to be when I grow up; I know that’s not only because they eat well and exercise, but also because they’re always engaged with something. They’re either physically working here, working on some project or doing a meeting. They’re always involved and always doing something; that’s one thing I learned at the DEG, too.
Update: She moved back east with her family and has a job. We miss her! She was cheerful, creative, fearless. (Nancy Waidtlow)
This is Nancy Waidtlow reading N’s story for the first time and realizing a hard part of what we’re trying to do is keep up with “our” people after they’ve moved on from the DEG.