Yet I am also a woman who, after a rapid succession of traumas, plunged out of the protected areas of the middle class and into two years of homelessness. My experience is surprisingly common. From June to November 2020, nearly 8 million people in the United States fell into poverty in the face of the pandemic and limited government assistance, according to search from the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame.
Poverty is a complicated thing. It can be generational or situational and temporary – or anything in between. For me, getting out of poverty was as much about my mindset as it was about dollars in my bank account. “I’m going to do this,” I tell myself over and over again. “I inherited the strength from my father to do this.”
In the spring of 2017, I finally left my last makeshift “home” – a slatted wooden park bench in that same park. My first job during my recovery was as an $ 11 an hour grocery clerk at a Whole Foods store where my 20-something chefs gave me preset timers every time I took a bathroom break. As a former reporter who had climbed the Miami Herald ranks to write cover stories for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine, I stood by my ledger, struggling to hold back my tears.
Well-meaning people tried to encourage me by pointing out how far I had come. “You’re working!” they said: “You are accommodated!” And the statement I found the most diminishing: “I’m so proud of you!”
I was 52 years old and I did not note my progress by these measurements. On the contrary, I marked my progress by the distance to which I had fallen. What did it mean I was earning enough to rent a room in someone’s house when just a few years ago I owned a three-acre horse ranch in Oregon?
One of the most debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is that people who suffer from it avoid the things that hurt them the most. For me, that meant I avoided myself.
I was full of shame and hatred of myself. The hatred that I – someone who once had hundreds of thousands of dollars on the stock market – had collapsed. Hate to have become one of “them”.
Through tears, I told my trauma therapist how I was regularly harassed and beaten by a man who worked at the counter of the outreach center for the homeless where I picked up my daily hygiene kits.
“If you don’t love that part of yourself that you’ve come so far away from, you won’t be able to heal completely,” my therapist said.
Slowly, after many sessions, I came to feel great compassion for the desperate woman I once was. I imagined myself sitting next to her on the street, holding her and telling her, “I’m so sorry. I will never separate from you again. I will take care of you.”
My gradual but steady progress did not come from expected government or community resources. They came from a series of strangers who cared about my well-being. The systems our society has put in place to lift people out of poverty are fragile and full of holes, so I have learned to look the other way.