At the kick-off event for CLOSE TO HOME last November, we shared the story of Jan Watkins’ experience of homelessness [view Jan’s story]. Jan was married with two daughters and had made a great living as a long-time TV news producer. Following a challenging illness, Jan was no longer employed, but had started school, working toward a Master’s degree. Just as Jan’s health was beginning to improve, her 10-year marriage fell apart. Her husband was emotionally abusive, drinking heavily and using marijuana. On their daughter’s 8th birthday – two weeks before Christmas – Jan’s husband kicked them out. Relieved to be out of an abusive relationship, Jan’s new challenge was to rebuild, beginning with finding a safe place for her family to call home. We asked Jan to tell us how she and her daughters are doing one year later.
CTH: Jan, thanks for sharing your story with CLOSE TO HOME once again. Can you tell us how you got back on your feet after your family break-up?
JW: My husband had isolated me socially from friends and family, so when he kicked my daughters and me out of our home I felt that we had few places to turn for support. One friend allowed us to stay with her for a short while and then we were blessed to find transitional housing through Warren Village. Even so, having to move into Warren Village was the hardest thing I have ever done. I never imagined my life taking such a turn. I was embarrassed because I was an older mom, I was educated, and by all intents and purposes I should have been living ‘the good life’… I was afraid they would judge me as a failure. But I came to realized that my circumstances could happen to anyone. The staff at Warren Village was so kind and supportive I eventually began to feel comfortable there. I turned our tiny apartment into a home and did everything I could do to help my daughters and myself heal. When I moved out in January 2016 I had regained my sense of self and was confident I could and would sustain my new life.
CTH: What did you learn from your experience of homelessness?
JW: Being homeless deepened my sense of humility and compassion. I have always been a caring and compassionate person. But I had to lay my pride aside and ask for help from services and organizations that I never imagined I would need. I had to learn how to navigate the “welfare system.”
As a volunteer in my former church’s “Love Kitchen” I used to cook and serve meals to the homeless in the neighborhood. I always treated our guests as people with respect and dignity, so I was keenly aware of what it was like for people on the street. But when you are on the other side of the equation, you see first-hand how cruel people can treat those they perceive as being less than them.
CTH: What would you like others to know about homelessness?
JW: Don’t be so quick to judge people experiencing homelessness – you never know who is in that situation. There may be some people on the streets who have chosen to be there, but being homeless isn’t on many people’s “to-do” list! This can happen to anyone! At any given time, you may be one paycheck away from eviction, an illness could deplete your savings and you could be evicted or foreclosed on, or the company you work for downsizes and you lose your job. Homelessness is no longer solely a problem of the poorly educated and people of color – we are all susceptible.
CTH: Why do you choose to share the story of your family’s experience with homelessness?
JW: Many times, we assume the homeless are drug addicts, criminals or “bums.” But the reality is that any of us, at any time in our life, could experience homelessness. There is a rising number of homeless who are families – parents with children. With wages low and rents high some people can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads. Families, like mine, split up and the mother and her children are left to fend for themselves as best they can. Granted, my children and I landed softly and we were fortunate to be able to stay with a friend until we moved into Warren Village, but we were still homeless! I hope sharing my family’s experience with being homeless will help to change perceptions and misunderstanding of what homelessness is.
CTH: What can each of us do to make a difference in addressing homelessness?
JW: Like it says in the Bible (Matthew: 25), we will be judged on how we treat the least of us. Be compassionate, patient and understanding. Know that homelessness is a problem that has no quick or easy answers. But see it; when we turn a blind eye to things that are unfamiliar, scary or unpleasant we miss opportunities to be better as a people and to help those around us be better.
There are increasingly innovative efforts being made to provide no-cost or low-cost housing. I read about a group of people who are turning old freight cars and abandoned buildings into efficiency apartments. Look around – what are the opportunities to do something like that in our community?! It’s not about hand-outs or ‘gimme something for nothing’, it’s about ensuring that we all have an equitable opportunity to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.
CTH: What are your hopes and plans for the future?
JW: I plan to complete my thesis so I can begin to teach at the college level and train future teachers. I would like to own a house again so my girls really know what it feels like to have their own rooms, a backyard and place that is ours!