This is reprinted from the WCPN.org website and a story by Brian Bull from a series called Cleveland Tough. Listen to the story here. Here is the full series of stories. Photos also by Brian Bull.
My name is Joyce Robinson, I’m a 56-year-old previously homeless, unemployed female veteran. I was in a garage apartment when I became homeless. I sold most of my furniture, jewelry, uhm... I went to Half Price Books and sold records and books, and everything. But after a while, I thought, "You know what? I’m just gonna let this go." I called the Veterans Service Commission, and they referred me to the West Side Catholic Center. That’s the shelter that I stayed at.
Early reflections of living in the shelter
The first night was difficult for me. And that first night through the next seven days, I cried. Every single night. I had truly hit rock bottom. The first week I was just walking around in a haze. 'Cause I think that when you become homeless, you lose something of yourself. It’s like, "Okay... I’ve lost my home, I’ve lost this, I’m a loser."
On the accommodations and care
I was there about three weeks and then I got my own room, which is good. There was a twin bed, a rocking chair, a chest of drawers, and a little side table.
They gave us a washcloth and a towel. Shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrush... everything you would need for your hygiene.
Upstairs, there were five bathrooms. And it was difficult, especially during school times because parents with children, occupying everything. Because not everybody’s idea of 'clean' is the same. I had to be in at 6 o’clock every night. That was the most difficult thing for me. Not being able to just go when you want to and come back when you want to. But after a while, it was a comfort to know that I had this regimen. It helped in the healing process.
Perceptions of the homeless
If you were to ask any ten people ...what they think of when they think of a homeless person, I don’t think that I would fit that description. I have a Master’s Degree. Been in the military. I’ve raised a daughter to adulthood successfully. But when you think of homeless people, you think of people living under the bridges, pushing carts, they don’t want to work. You made a choice to be homeless. Which is ridiculous.
Making her way back to independence
In June of last year, I became involved in a program at Veterans Administration. We would transport patients to appointments, basically re-acclimate us to the work world. Having to be at work at a certain time, doing whatever and getting a paycheck. Helped me get back into residential living. I just recently moved and am now in my own apartment. My daughter is excited for me, she says, "Now when I come to visit, I’ll have some place to stay." I said "sure, you can pull up a piece of floor." But she’s excited for me because she knew it was very difficult. Stepping into my new place was almost as scary as the first night I was in the shelter, because I had my routine down, and I have nothing but time. And it’s like, "Oh, what do I do now?" (LAUGHS). I remember... I was with a friend. I kept looking at my watch.
She says, "Joyce... you’re not at the shelter. You have all the time in the world." And I says, "Oh, that’s right. I do." It’s a great feeling. My apartment doesn’t have everything in it just yet... but it’s mine.
Robinson on the early phases of living in a shelter
Initially, my day was filled with... to be honest, just walking around in a haze. Just trying to figure out how I got here, now what do I do? Just getting used to the routine. After the weather broke, I’d walk across the Lorain-Carnegie bridge for exercise which is good. Or walk to the library, or walk around the West Side Market area.
After a while, I’d attend the employment clinics and those were great because presenters gave us tips on job searching, helping us with resumes, that kind of thing. Though them, I also participated in a three-week program for veterans. It helped me with job search, refined my resume, and really built up my confidence again.
Because when you become homeless, you lose something of yourself. "I’ve lost my home, I’ve lost this, I’m a loser." And I remember talking with one of my counselors at East Side Vets Center, and she asked me how I felt. And I said, "I felt worthless" and she said, "Are you sure ‘worthless’ is the word you’re looking for?"
And as we talked, she said, “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘unproductive’.” But I think at that time when I said “worthless”, at that point that’s what I felt. But after talking to her I think “unproductive” was a more accurate term. But you feel that way, it’s like... I don’t know.
On getting emotional support from VA specialists
What helped me get back to residential living was going through the program at VA, and Toni Johnson (Cleveland VA Medical Center’s Women’s Homeless Coordinator) was very instrumental because she connected me with a primary care physician there, and in talking to a psychiatrist, was prescribed anti-depressant medication. Because I really hadn’t realized how depressed I was. And just going to counselors and talking to them about the situation…it was difficult because it was like trying to tear a scab off a wound and digging in there, I realized I’d been carrying garbage from 35 years ago. And as we went through therapy, I saw how it affected my life up this point. It was a good six months before things were clear to me.
On making friends at the women’s shelter
I made some friends at the shelter. I was closer to the veterans. One moved to Alabama in August. Another one moved to Georgia... I think in October. And there was one who moved in June of last year, it’s interesting because she went to school with my daughter and she knew my daughter. Those were the closest three I think.
I stay in touch with them. And am keeping them abreast of my situation. “So…have you moved yet?” “Yes.” “Yay! Yay!” “Did you get furniture?” “Yay!” “A bed?” “Yay!” So it’s great keeping track of them. The one in Alabama was the one who got me out and walking, and walking really helped me to decompress and de-stress.
On her job with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless
Having been homeless for 14 months, and now working with the homeless on this side of it, it’s really interesting. Part of what I do is contacting political officials, different organizations, and fielding calls from people who need resources and being able to suggest various resources, because I’ve used them myself, or am more familiar with them now because I’ve worked with the organization.
And I like the fact there’s so many aspects to this positon. Data entry, meetings, going to shelters, and talking with resident council members, going to meetings with the Homeless Congress, and seeing what’s going on. If people really understood that homeless are not happy to sit and accept handouts, but are really trying to do something to help their plight and other homeless people, it might just change the idea of what homelessness is and what homeless people are about.
We have lists of agencies, on street cards which are really great because they list medical facilities, churches and all they provide, that kind of thing. Even if you lose your home and temporary stay, there are places that you can go for assistance. The sooner you do the better.
One thing…there are more resources for families and males, single females is really difficult as far as finding shelter.
Now if you’re a veteran, there are more options. But for the average female, it’s difficult to find a place to go because lots of places are geared towards families. More and more families are becoming homeless. Needing shelter. Like they’re priority. We at NEOCH have tons of information on things that you can do. Or call 211.
That’s the thing. If you think you’re going to do it, don’t feel you have to do it by yourself. You don’t have to be alone, there are resources and people out there to help you, it takes a load off. It’s awesome the assistance available, but you have to ask.
And don’t be afraid to ask.
On what people can do to help the homeless
I just want to say that when people see people on the street, a lot of the homeless I’ve noticed from working here, they do not ask for assistance because they’re not very trusting. The ones who really need the assistance aren’t the ones asking for, 50 cents, whatever. These people don’t ask, they’re sought out, found by outreach workers.
If you see someone down on their luck or whatever, if you don’t want to give anything, say a prayer for them. You have no idea what happened in their life to bring them to that point. If you feel that you want to assist, take clothing and hygiene kits to the shelters. Volunteer at a shelter, or NEOCH, to see up close what it’s like to work with the homeless.
Don’t be so quick to judge because what you think may not really be. If you really want to help, don’t give your money, give your time. That’s the thing.