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my life as a couch surfer…

August 7, 2008

I don’t know why I feel compelled to post this, but I do…so here goes…

Hey. Want to join me for a cup of coffee? Have a seat. That couch there looks pretty comfy. I should know – couches are something I am quite familiar with. For almost seven years, I was a “couch surfer,” part of the unseen portion of the homeless population.

To look at me, you would never know I was homeless. (Even now, it is difficult to think of myself as homeless during this part of my life.) I went “home” every night, had a roof over my head, somewhere to do laundry, food on my plate, but it wasn’t MY home. I was there at the discretion of friends who were kind enough to open up their home to me.

My story starts just over 8 years ago. I was 20, in my freshman year of college, and working part-time in an after-school program. I lived at home with my mom and my grandmom. We were working-class, but riding the fine line of the edge of the poverty level. I was the first one in my immediate family to graduate from high school, and the first in my extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles, to go to college. (I was also the youngest.)

Just after the end of my freshman year, my mom suffered a stroke. This was her second stroke, and complications from this stroke would ultimately lead to her passing five months later. When my mom went into the hospital, my grandmom went to live with family, and I was on my own. Some would say that, at 20 years old, I should have already been on my own, and in fact I have friends who have been on their own since they were 17 or 18. I, however, was not ready for life “in the real world” yet, and it showed.

While I put on the “everything is ok” face, my world was falling apart, held together by one thin thread – the fact that my mom was still alive, in spite of her persistent vegetative state. I fell into a depression that only deepened at time passed. Ten days before my 21st birthday, I received the phone call I had been dreading for the past five months. The voice on the other end told me that my mom had died that morning. With that phone call, the thread snapped.

One of the symptoms/effects of depression is disabling apathy. I stopped caring about anything and everything. I lost my job and my apartment. I was supposed to enter into a transitional housing program in West Philadelphia, but due to a problem at the facility, I was unable to move in when I was scheduled to. A family from my corps offered me a place to stay for the weekend, until my intended housing was available. During this weekend, I realized that this program, although run by a capable, sympathetic administrator, was not the right program for me, and removed myself from consideration for the program. What was supposed to be a weekend stay turned into a few months. This was my first couch.

Due to various factors, my time there came to an end. I will always be grateful for their hospitality and for the time they allowed me to be a part of their family. At this point, I was the closest I ever had been to entering the shelter system. I knew that entering the system would have been the end of me. I had, up until this point, lived a very sheltered life, in spite of the challenges faced during the years following my mom’s first stroke. If I didn’t suffer physical violence while in the system (I’ve read that most women are victims of sexual assault within their first 11 days of being homeless), I would be changed for the worse by having to learn to survive in that environment.

By this point, I was doing temp work, so I had some income, although it was inconsistent at best. In spite of this, I was able to secure “housing” in a single-room occupancy (SRO) unit in my neighborhood. I had a room with a mini-fridge, a hot plate, and access to a common kitchen and bathroom at the end of the hall. Although it was more than a couch, this still wasn’t home. With a week-to-week, if not day-to-day, income, this arrangement was far from permanent.

The fleeting nature of housing such as this would be proven in November of 2001. Most of my temp work had been at the headquarters of a major insurance company in Philadelphia. With the events of September 11, 2001, this particular company was, as many insurance providers, severely affected. One of the first things cut from the budgets of many departments were funds for temporary help. I was, again, out of work.

With the downturn in the economy-at-large came a further slump in my personal finances. My (very) small reserve fund was just about gone, and I was close to losing the SRO I was in.

Through a good friend, I found out about a couple who lived in my neighborhood who were looking for office help for their private personal-care practice. What started out as coming over a few days a week to help out in exchange for a good, home-cooked meal and few dollars evolved into what would become my third couch. This would be the most “permanent” of all my living arrangements up to this point, lasting for 6 of the seven years. These friends, who became more and more like family, saw me through some very dark days, as I recognized the depth of the depression I had been facing. They were with me when I tried to get professional help but was denied because I didn’t have insurance and because I wasn’t suicidal. This is one thing for which I am grateful through all of my experiences – I believe that God guarded my heart and mind from any overtly suicidal thoughts because I honestly do not know if I would have been strong enough to resist. However, in retrospect, I see that my apathy, had it continued unchecked, would have resulted in, if not my physical death, a very real spiritual and emotional death.

I thank God, however, that He did not permit that to happen. Instead, He provided a way for me out of the pit into which I had climbed. It wasn’t a direct path out, and it required work, diligence and faith on my part, but it is clear to me that it was entirely His provision for me.

The beginning of the path out of my pit and off of my “couch” was talking about all the stuff that had happened to me over the years. God provided this opportunity in a change of leadership at my corps. With the welcoming of new leaders, God ushered in what was to become a season of healing, not just in my life but in the life of my corps.

Now, I’m on my fourth couch, but it’s only my couch when I’ve fallen asleep in front of the TV. (And, that’s if my roommate hasn’t beaten me to it!). I have a good job, working with great people. In April, 2008, I moved from Philadelphia, PA to Carlisle, PA to work at The Salvation Army here. As I move on to the next part of my life, where life becomes “normal,” I still need to be aware. There are many residual effects from living a transient lifestyle for so long. But, I know that God will continue to place people in my path that will walk with me along this journey.

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