“I give up.” This is what I said when I realized I had spent an entire year looking for a job with no success. It was also a year after my kids’ father had overdosed on heroin. This is the moment that led to my life spiraling into drug use, homelessness and lost years of my kids’ lives. These three words have power. Once you say them, you accept defeat. Once you say them, you stop trying.
After that, I stopped spending my time looking for work and started spending my time with the wrong people. I began to use drugs after five years of sobriety. After only a month, the kids’ grandparents took them. A month after that, I was not only using multiple drugs, but I was also committing crime. The day the cops brought me home, after I was caught with stolen property, was the day my apartment manager had enough.
Being homeless in Clovis was next to impossible. There were very few places to get free food and almost nowhere to sleep. I would have frozen a few times if I didn’t have my dog George to keep me warm. Then, one day, when I was getting food and clothes at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, I was approached by the police gang task force. They harassed me, even though I was on church property; I wasn’t doing anything illegal and have never been involved with any gang. After that, I stayed out of Clovis.
“Get down, get down,” my friend Steven yelled. We had been living together in tent city for a few months in one of the biggest structures on the block. Our makeshift shelter had an outside shower, a cooking area and a work area. It was surrounded by a fence that went up little by little as we were able to find wood. In the middle was a ten foot tent. Our door was a giant wooden wheel with a hole in the middle, so we were able to secure it with a lock and chain. “Get up and get out,” Steven screamed urgently. What sounded like fighting and gunshots was fire and exploding propane tanks. We watched as uncaring firefighters slowly worked to distinguish the flames. “Tell them we have a big propane tank in our tent,” I yelled to my friend Theresa who was standing near the fire truck. There was nothing we could say that would make them care enough to move faster. To them and most of the city, we were worthless. We both teared up as we watched her tent melt around her limited belongings. This was the third fire that our shelter was able to survive.
The fires were only one thing to fear while being homeless in tent city. There was a fear instilled in me by my boyfriend about a sex offender and child killer who lived only a few tents from us. There was fear of officers that categorize all homeless people as criminals. Then there was the fear of never getting out of it and never getting my children back.
I try not to forget where I came from. When I have food in the cupboard, I remember how it felt to be starving to the point of tears. When I’m warm under my blanket, I remember the unbearable and inescapable cold. The worst feeling of all was missing my kids, a heartbreak so deep that I could physically feel the pain in my chest. That’s when I needed the drugs. I needed to numb the pain. I needed to forget.
Other drugs have consequences, but meth is evil. Meth will take all of you: body, mind and soul. You think you have good intentions; you might even think you’re doing the right thing. You might think you are moving in the right direction, but you’re just running in circles. Meth becomes your main focus no matter how hard you try to focus on getting yourself out of the mess it gets you into. It creates an illusion that it’s making things better while it drags you deeper into its clutches. I accumulated seventeen failures to appear in court. I kept putting myself on calendars and calling programs as I tried to get help. Then I would get sucked back in. My heart would hurt for my kids. When I couldn’t get help, I would use meth to numb the pain.
Finally, I was able to snap out of it long enough to get to the probation office. I told my probation officer that I needed help, and she got me into rehab that day. I was so happy to be there. I soaked up all the knowledge I could about addiction and recovery. I realized what had lead to this devastating relapse and gained tools to prevent it from happening again. Above all, I found myself and a true understanding of God.
Even though I went back to the streets after rehab, I held on to my faith. Steven asked homeless advocate Nancy Waidtlow, “Do you know anyone who would let us pitch a tent in their backyard?” We knew it was a long shot, so imagine our surprise when she told Steven, “Yes.” It turns out that while tent city was being bulldozed, the ladies who used to bring us bagels and toilet paper were working on an alternative homeless solution. Dakota EcoGarden was my saving grace. What looked like a big house with tents and a garden in the backyard, was so much more than a place to get on your feet. Dakota EcoGarden introduced me to a whole different lifestyle that I still continue to live today. A life full of meetings and protests, with a passion for community involvement and social justice. This wonderful place not only gave me a stable living environment while I went to school, it’s also the place where I discovered what I wanted to do with my life.
I now have an apartment with my kids, a car and a paid internship at a rehab facility. I will have a certificate for substance abuse counseling this spring and one for social work in the fall. I’m also a board member of the Eco Village Project of Fresno and we are trying to help others like me. What I forgot when I used drugs is now what I need to remember; that heartache and those hard times are the motivation I use to continue on the right path. I appreciate all that I have now, every simple necessity that most take for granted, every step up the ladder to a better life and most of all, every second I have with my children.
“God’s time is perfect,” this is what I have said for the last few years after getting sober. These words have given me patience through the slow process of getting on my feet. These words have proven to be true. These four words have more power than you can imagine. Once you say them, you accept His ways. Later, you see that if things happened on your time, it wouldn’t have worked out so perfectly.
I was born and raised in Fresno, CA. My dad was Irish and my mom Italian. I have two brothers and two sisters. My dad used to be a security guard and my mom was a stay-at-home housewife. When I was young, my dad would make us stay home from school to work in the yard, so we missed a lot of it. At the age of eight, my dad molested me, and this continued for a few years. When I was a little bit older, I was molested by a friend of the family. Later, I was molested by our next door neighbor.
After I graduated from high school, I worked at the Holiday Inn by the airport as a maid, where I met my future husband through his cousin who worked with me there. My husband had a lot of health problems and died on June 15, 2011 of lung cancer. His brother, who we had been renting from, threw me out of the house several months later. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. My own family didn’t want to help me, so my good friend took me in for a while; I stayed in a tent in her backyard, but when her landlord found out, I had to leave.
I was on the streets for a year. This was really hard on me. I was by myself and didn’t have any protection. People would wake me up in the middle of the night and ask if I knew anyone who sold drugs. I told them, “no,” and asked them to leave me alone. When I told my friend about this, she had her son check up on me from time to time. I went to her house once a week to take a shower and have a nice home cooked meal, and sometimes I spent the night. Occasionally, people on the streets would buy me a soda or a sandwich — anything, so I’d have something to eat. Sometimes they would give me a few dollars; it was really nice of them.
One morning, I was walking with all my stuff and Nancy Waidtlow came by and told me about the Dakota EcoGarden. My friend’s son took me there and I liked it; I’ve been living there ever since. I started seeing a therapist for grieving over the loss of my husband four and a half years ago. Therapy has helped me so much. I started going to computer classes to learn basic skills. I really like it because it helps me to grow and to have the courage to do things that I didn’t think I could do before. I’m so grateful for everyone in my life as they mean the world to me. I’ve been going to church every Sunday when I can because it helps me get through each and every day. It’s hard sometimes. I thank the Lord above for each and every person that has touched my life in so many ways.
I’m happy to announce that the Dakota EcoGarden will be receiving about $5000 in cash after winning an UPROXX contest that I entered in Nancy Waidtlow’s honor. Nancy is the owner & founder of the Dakota EcoGarden, an eco-friendly residence that helps the homeless in Fresno.
This is the link to the Game Changer Contest submission page:
The official UPROXX article on Nancy Waidtlow can be found here:
Feel free to check out the winning 500-word essay and the 6 pictures that I submitted to the contest:
Hi. My name is Mariano Marquez III. I’m a filmmaker from San Francisco, CA who’s doing a feature documentary on the homeless situation in Fresno, CA. After working on this project for the last 5 years, I’ve met a lot of great people who are trying to end homelessness in Fresno. Out of all the people I’ve met, there’s one person who stands out for me. That one person who I view as a game changer is Nancy Waidtlow. In July of 2012, Nancy, a 75-year-old retired teacher, selflessly purchased a 0.6 acre lot in West Fresno with money from her own savings, where she founded the Dakota EcoGarden in late 2013. That was the perfect time for the Dakota EcoGarden’s grand opening.
In late 2013, the City of Fresno demolished all the homeless encampments located in downtown Fresno, which was home to as many as 500 homeless individuals. The City of Fresno has left many homeless people without the safety of their former encampment communities, leaving most with nowhere to go. As the City of Fresno destroyed the only homes these people had, Nancy went out in search of individuals that she could house at the Dakota EcoGarden. The Dakota EcoGarden includes a 4-bedroom, 2-bath home, which offers such amenities as a communal kitchen & living room, a computer room, a laundry room and an organic garden with many fruits & vegetables that residents tend to. Additionally, there’s 1 eco shelter in the yard that houses someone and 1 eco shelter that’s currently under construction; both are designed by award-winning architect Arthur Dyson. The yard also includes various solar-powered tents that provide warm and safe sleeping areas for several people as there’s a long waiting list of individuals looking to get back on their feet.
Waidtlow is a board member of the Eco Village Project of Fresno, a non-profit 501(c)(3), which co-operates the Dakota EcoGarden, granting it non-profit status. Nancy and all board members are volunteers who don’t receive any payment for their services. The Dakota EcoGarden is funded by Nancy, fellow board members and the generosity of private donors.
Nancy offers Fresno’s homeless community a uniquely uplifting and democratic environment as she welcomes everyone, regardless of gender, race or creed. Nancy’s goal is to see that her residents are rehabilitated and given the skills they need to rejoin society as happy, successful individuals. Nancy, with the help of others, provides her residents much-needed counseling, mentoring and employment opportunities. There are many formerly homeless citizens that can attest to how Nancy saved them from the mean streets of Fresno, giving them dignity and hope, and allowing them to become productive members of society once again.
If you want to learn more, please visit the pro bono website I created for the Dakota EcoGarden and the Eco Village Project of Fresno:
For specific information on formerly homeless individuals that Nancy has helped, please read stories written by former residents of the Dakota EcoGarden:
Mariano Marquez III
If you would like to donate to our non-profit organization, please visit our Donations page:
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.
Taco Bell was my first job. I started as a customer service cashier, working both at Taco Bell and its sister business, Long John Silver. It was interesting and fun. At Taco Bell, I was moved to full time cashier (7pm to 3 am), then I started learning the food service side of the business. I mastered deep frying, oil filtering and other skills. Afterward, they moved me to Long John Silvers for an opening, where I was promoted to Customer Service Team Leader, but they failed to give me the listed pay raise for this position. Long John Silvers didn’t pay overtime and they cut my hours. I wasn’t making enough money to cover my bills anymore, so I moved on to a different job. I had several jobs after this, each time gaining more experience and refining my skills, but not making the money I needed or advancing because I lacked a diploma.
In 2013, I lost my job at California Dry Cleaners, a job I held for four years, and everything started going downhill from there. I was unable to find other work, so I lost my apartment and became homeless. Life on the streets was scary and hard, but I wasn’t a beggar. Every day I worked hard picking up cans & bottles to survive. Every night before I went to sleep, I prayed that one day an angel would come along and help me — and one day, an angel did. Her name was Lynn, and when she found me on the street, she talked to me, heard my story, then she brought me to a transition home called Dakota EcoGarden. Unfortunately, the week before I moved in, Lynn passed away; it hurt me because I had never met anyone with her amazing heart — to love a total stranger like me. I love her for that and for bringing me to the Dakota EcoGarden, where I lived for six months.
During my stay, I was able to get healthcare, have a safe place to sleep at night and I had access to the internet so I could continue looking for a job. I’ve been seeking work every day, but what I’ve found out is that no matter my experience, the job offers didn’t come because I didn’t have a diploma. I felt more horrible each time I was turned down — realizing my experience didn’t help me at all. I’ve looked for work in various fields, always willing to take whatever was offered. I would take any job to make a little money for now and work to make more later.
The reason I didn’t get my high school diploma is I didn’t pass my English exit exam. When I failed the exam, it felt horrible that I’d let my parents down, even though that was the only exam I didn’t pass. My ending high school credit was 290; the Fresno Unified School District requires 230 credits to pass. In the end, credits don’t matter if you don’t pass all exit exams.
Right now, I’m staying with my older brother because my parents moved to North Carolina. My brother helped me get a car in order to look for jobs and attend school; I’d really like to get my diploma so I can get a good job and start giving back to him. My goals for the future are to gain my diploma, receive a quality education in a field I enjoy, get a good-paying job and not have to rely on anyone else to support me.