Meg Hartley for Long Beach Post
DEC 15 2017 8:15 PM
I never thought I’d really become homeless. Even in my last months in my apartment, as I was months late on my rent at the time, I still didn’t think I’d end up here, not really. Even after my landlord couldn’t take it anymore and (very politely) evicted me, I was still sure something would happen before it got this bad.
In the fall of 2015, I almost died from B12 deficiency, which is something I had never heard of. It’s often thought of as an old-timey illness that we don’t get anymore, like rickets or scurvy. It used to be a highly prevalent cause of death and paralysis. I have a couple of genetic mutations that make me predisposed to nutritional deficiency, though it probably started as a congenital condition.
B12 is responsible for the health of the brain and nervous system. Since the nervous system is located throughout the body, symptoms can manifest in many ways. Mental illness is one of the frequent manifestations of B12 deficiency. Since my levels got so low at a young(ish) age, it’s probable that my mother was deficient when she had me, passing on the deficiency. She, Linda Darlene, committed suicide in 1997—a lack of B12 likely fueling her bipolar disorder. A vitamin could possibly have saved her, a teeny little vitamin. It’s infuriating.
I was extremely lucky to get a diagnosis, and even though it took 33 years I feel very grateful for it. I had gotten Obamacare and was able to see a naturopath for the first time, who found the deficiency on her first try. At first my symptoms fell away like magic, but after several months of stabbing myself in the legs with hydroxocobalamin, my progress plateaued.
Doctors ruled out all of the other options before a rheumatologist finally diagnosed me with fibromyalgia just last spring. I had started to wrap my mind around the disease, and what I could do about it, when I was evicted.
A few doctors had suggested that I move from Portland, Oregon to a hotter and drier climate. So when a college friend offered to move to Santa Clarita with me I knew I had to take her up on it. During this time, as I focused on doing my physical therapy exercises as much as possible—which wasn’t nearly as much as I wanted—I was very drawn to Long Beach. At first it was probably due to growing up with Sublime, but I’d also do internet searches for things like “hottest beach in California,” or “the cultural Portland of California” and Long Beach would pop up over and over.
While I marvelled at how miraculously my body was reacting to the 100+ degree weather, I also balked at the sameness of the Santa Clarita area. The businesses are mostly corporate, and even the local ones felt generic. The whole place seemed to cherish it’s, to me, blandness, happy not to offend anyone, nor impress them.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about that though, as I had bigger fish to fry: I had upped my exercise time by 2.5 times and was feeling better and better, noting that my recovery time from doing things like grocery shopping was getting shorter and shorter. I still feared overdoing it though, as doing so caused flares which brought such horrific pain that I had to deal with suicidal thoughts as well.
After nine weeks in Santa Clarita, I had overstayed my welcome. This revelation came about quite explosively, ending with a very large man yelling through my door, “Get the fuck out or I’ll fuck your shit up!” I didn’t stay to find out if he meant my stuff, or my person. I left in a very dramatic and clandestine fashion, with as much as I could carry; around dawn, before everyone woke up.
The aforementioned suicidal thoughts had been a frequent threat even without flares, and I was concerned, but figured I’d get my California Obamacare set up and be at a shrink’s office in no time. Unfortunately, I’m still figuring out my coverage, and my suicide risk went from Googling “Will 23 amitriptyline kill me?” to wondering, “What can I drive my car into fast enough to kill me, but hurt no one else?”
I checked myself into the nearest mental ward.
It was my second time in 2017, the first being after I received my second disability denial. I honestly used to judge people on disability, if only subconsciously, assuming that many were scamming the system, that they were lazy. I feel like we are taught by our society to feel that way. Now that I’m not only familiar with severe and chronic illness, but also the convoluted and infuriatingly slow social security system—my views have completely changed.
Getting on the California State Disability Insurance Program literally takes years, it seems as if the system is meant to discourage people. That they hope we’ll give up or die before receiving it. And if you do eventually get it, it’s barely over $1,000 per month, which doesn’t go a long way in these parts. Or Oregon. Or anywhere else I’ve lived.
In the meantime, five days of group therapy, mild tranquilizers, and lots of sleep at the mental ward helped loads. My aforementioned genetic mutations make it hard for my body to process toxins, so I react to pills, among many other things, differently than most people. Because of this, I can’t remember large portions of my time there (or my mental ward stay in Portland), and the day of my release is fuzzy at best, I have no idea how I got there, but I do know that a kind non-profit offered me a hotel voucher for the evening.
The next morning I could still feel the pharmaceuticals in my body as I headed back to the non-profit, refreshed from a good sleep and hopeful that I could get another voucher. They couldn’t give me another, and my reality hit me very hard as soon as they said no. I got hysterical again, then eventually apologized and left, headed to my 1993 Toyota Camry. And, naturally, she wouldn’t start.
I cried for at least an hour, sitting there outside the non-profit, no doubt making them feel very uncomfortable. Eventually I calmed down and ordered the tow service that my insurance company offers, luckily for free, because I had $1.82 in my bank account. They towed me to a nearby repair company and I called a couple of friends who had reached out. They tried to get me a hotel room but the hotels required the hotel guest to pay.
I was in a CVS when I realized that I was really and truly homeless, that I’d have to sleep in my car that chilly evening. I, yet again, became hysterical. An angel of a man who worked there asked me what was wrong and I tearfully told him, then he offered to buy me a $20 blanket, bringing four over and asking me which one I wanted. That softest of all soft blankets got me through the first night sleeping in my car. That, and, a makeshift pillow made from one of my headrest covers.
Once I had the “pillow” and I lied down I realized I was okay. This wasn’t so bad. I’m pretty short, so only kinda cramped. I even had an episode of The Good Wife downloaded and ready to watch. I felt so silly for making such a big deal out of it, for making all of those people suffer because I was so scared. I told myself I was just “urban car camping,” and slept surprisingly well.
The kind manager of the repair shop got my car running again for free, noting that it was just a “band-aid fix,” and he also gave me permission to park there that night. After I set up an online fundraiser for myself, I headed out to clear my head and make a plan. I wandered about a bit aimlessly, ending up in front of a store called “Buy Buy Baby.”
Something about that sign, or rather everything about it, made every fiber of my being scream, “What the fuck am I doing here?!”
By the time I got back to the repair shop, I had decided that I would leave Santa Clarita; but that I would stay in Los Angeles County, where my body liked it and where my insurance had finally become active. So I did another internet search, “homelessness in Los Angeles county.” And the first article that came up heralded Long Beach as the only city to lower their number of homelessness when it had gone up everywhere else. A little more research, and Long Beach it was.
Meanwhile, for the fourth time since the health crisis, my online fundraiser had already raised over $1,000. My friends are so amazing, as is the community in my hometown of Juneau, Alaska. I’m so bonkers grateful, there is no way that I would have survived all of this without them. No. Way.
So I headed out, no longer flat broke, on my way to Long Beach. It was a Friday night when I got here, and as I searched for parking downtown I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake. It felt dodgy even though I couldn’t place why. (An Uber driver would later tell me that it did indeed used to be dodgy, but had been cleaned up over the last decade. He said that’s what I was probably feeling, assuming that I held intuition as something real, which I very much do.)
I awoke the next morning after not sleeping much at all, as every little noise seemed like it was danger, even though it kept proving to just be drunken people feeling jubilant. Everything hurt as I woke and I felt dismayed at the realization that, of course, the homelessness organization I came here for was closed for the weekend. I decided to cheer myself up by checking out Naples, the lovely little Italian-inspired island with canals.
After checking out those little islands, which I highly enjoyed, I took the time to hang out at Mother’s Beach for a while. Afterwards, feeling rejuvenated, I parked my car in the residential area of nearby Belmont Shore and hung out at a coffee shop until it got dark. As I sat there I noted the 24-hour Jack in the Box across the street, for restroom needs, as well as good street lighting. It seemed pretty safe. I decided to give it a shot.
I walked out to my car and got into the front seat. I checked to make sure no one was looking, then I moved, or rather flung myself, into the back seat. It was a Saturday night, so the drunken passers-by were, again, frequent. I froze everytime a group went by, scared they’d…bother me, I guess? Is it illegal to sleep in your car? (Something I’ll Google only once I’m homeless no more.) Only one fellow noticed me and said something to his friend, who replied, “I’m sure she’s just sleeping it off.”
Monday finally arrived and I called the Multi-Service Center before heading over. The woman asked me where I became homeless, and I told her Portland, Oregon. She told me that they only help those who became homeless in Long Beach and hung up apologetically.
So, unable to go back, I went down there and lied.
After a very frank conversation with my social service helper, I left with a few shelter flyers and the shower times. He didn’t seem particularly hopeful about my finding an affordable apartment, especially since I had no income. But at least there were shelters to call home until I got my life sorted.
I called a women-only shelter and learned that you had to go there in person at 8:00AM to get on the waiting list. I did so, and a couple of very kind and very busy women got me signed up to stay there that night. I relaxed into my seat a little, excited that I could go back to bed. Nope. The shelter was closed until 10:00PM, opening only after mandatory church service and dinner.
But first they needed to have me shower and change into fresh clothes while they washed what I was wearing. They gave me choices for much needed shirts, shoes, and pants that were actually pretty cute. After the best shower ever, I left the building in adorable purple pants, a yellow t-shirt, and gladiator sandals.
After trying, unsuccessfully, to get some sleep in the meantime, I headed back down there at 6:40PM, right before the church service started. What looked like a relatively safe block in the daytime seemed straight-up sketchy at night. I wondered if I, and my car/stuff, were safer at Belmont Shore, but eventually figured that if a car was going to get robbed it probably wasn’t my hoopty from the early 90s.
Besides the smell of beer and cigarettes, I really enjoyed the service. The preacher kept interrupting himself with lines like, “Praise Jesus!” and “Halleluyah!” Most of the audience was right there with him, all wrapped up in the sermon, while others nodded off or grumbled. The room was full of people from both the men’s and women’s shelters as well as neighborhood locals.
At one point the preacher said something that particularly moved me and I noted someone nodding in agreement, just like I was, and I felt profoundly connected to them, to the preacher, to the moment. That feeling made it seem like everything was going to be okay, that I’d find my way through this mess. After the sermon, I followed the crowd towards the dining room. I wondered what to do next but heard someone yelling, “Doors of Hope ladies, up here!” I did as directed and was warmly welcomed by the other ladies at the front of the line, smiles on our faces as we eyed the already-plated dinner tables.
The dinner was quite good, as was the conversation, though I mostly listened. Afterwards we, finally, went to the dorm. Around 30 twin-sized beds filled the room, reminding me of orphanage movies from my childhood. The kind women from that morning were organizing everyone’s required showers, but since I’d done that earlier I was free to take my sleeping medicine and lay down in that tiny but glorious bed.
After a great sleep, at 6:00AM the lights went on. It was Thanksgiving day. I felt pretty good, always a nice surprise from a malfunctioning body. I didn’t know how I’d spend that day, how I’d solve my problems, or even if my car would be waiting for me outside—but I felt grateful indeed.