Daily Camera – By Alex Burness
When Stuart Meadows died of cancer in 2014, his widow, Nessa Meadows, found out quickly that for the working poor, homelessness is often just one emergency away.
In her case, it was a few years of unexpected medical costs for Stuart and their daughter, Haven, that brought the Meadows family to the brink.
They’d lived in Colorado for most of their lives, but moved in 2012 to Dillon, S.C., where Stuart had roots, for the remainder of his life.
Meadows is 60 now, but was unable to collect Social Security at the time, and health care costs had completely drained the family.
She decided that if they were to find a foothold, it wouldn’t be in Dillon, a town that never felt like home to them.
They lived in a trailer there, and mostly stayed inside to avoid the drug dealers and users who hung around the area. They shared a septic tank with a neighbor, and sometimes dogs would mosey over to bathe in the sewage.
Haven, 34, is a mechanic by trade but hobbled by a previous work accident, and could not find work in Dillon, where, she says, “they won’t hire a woman as a mechanic, anyway.”
Meadows couldn’t get work either, and so she decided to strike out on her own and head back to Colorado, leaving Haven and her two grandchildren, Mia and Channing, behind in South Carolina.
“I decided to come back here because I knew the area and I figured if I was going to try this, I didn’t want them to be homeless with me,” Meadows says.
Their story’s got an ending happy enough that Meadows, Haven and Mia all cry tears of joy retelling it Friday evening in Meadows’ new efficiency apartment in central Boulder. The word “miracle” was used a half-dozen times.
But all three generations — grandmother, daughter and grandchildren — endured great heartache to get to this point.
First Christmas apart
Meadows bought a bus ticket from South Carolina to Boulder in May 2014, and arrived one rainy and unseasonably frigid day. With $60 to her name, she hoped to get a job and then bring her family back to Colorado once they all had a place to stay.
But when Meadows got back, she had no work, no home and nowhere to keep her things. She slept under a tree at 9th Street and Canyon Boulevard many nights.
“I was filthy,” says Meadows. “I didn’t get to take showers. I was sleeping under trees, repeatedly getting wet, always hanging my sleeping bag and tarp up to dry. And I always had to hide so I wouldn’t be caught by the police.”
By chance one day at Eben G. Fine Park, she met another homeless woman who told her about the Ready to Work program that the Boulder homeless safety net Bridge House puts on.
Ready to Work gives homeless people jobs, transitional housing and then, ultimately, helps them look for permanent housing. Meadows camped in the freezing cold outside of the church where she’d heard she could speak to Bridge House staff, and was the first person in the door the next morning. She was approved for the program.
Meadows slept at the homeless shelter in north Boulder for more than three months before a spot opened up at the Ready to Work headquarters on Table Mesa Drive. She worked in the program’s Community Table kitchen, which led to the role she currently holds today: supervisor of a Naropa University campus cafe staffed by the formerly homeless.
Living at Ready to Work and holding a steady job, Meadows was grateful to be off the street but missed her family. Last Christmas was the first they’d ever celebrated apart.
“We wanted to be a family together again,” Haven says. “It was very depressing.”
“It was scary,” Mia mouses from the corner of the room, before collapsing in her mother’s arms for a tearful hug. Mia turns 11 today. Her younger brother, Channing, is 9.
At the beginning of 2016, Meadows learned she’d been put on a waiting list for a housing voucher. It arrived many weeks later, in March.
Four lives saved
Meadows lights up when she recounts touring the small apartment she now lives in.
“The woman who showed me the place, she knew that I was coming from being homeless,” she says. “The emotions I had when I walked in and saw the place — I was going to have somewhere that I could come home to, take my shoes off, have a bath. It was going to be my space.”
She moved in March 17, called Haven to share the goods news, and went straight for the tub.
“I must have sat in that bath until I was wrinkled,” Meadows laughs.
The rest of the family, more than ready to leave Dillon, arrived in Boulder. They are still poor and reliant on housing vouchers they know will expire at some point in the near future, but their unit is whole again.
“I’m overjoyed,” says Mia. “Last Christmas, we had to stay indoors. It felt cramped and, without Grandma, it felt lonely and empty. It’s great to be back with Grandma.”
During these holidays, Meadows has been reflecting on the positive difference that the Ready to Work program made in her family’s life.
“It saved four lives, not just mine,” she says.
She adds that she always had pride and a belief in her self as valuable and competent. But as formerly and currently unhoused people in Boulder will often attest, escaping the cycle of homelessness sometimes requires someone else to share that belief.
“When I was on the street, I was seeing people who’ve been working their whole lives, and then something happened,” Meadows says. “For us, it was Haven and my husband getting sick. That’s all it takes to wipe out whatever you have.
“But when you’re trying to keep going, it’s hard to get work when you’re dirty, when you’re sleeping outside. You become inhuman and it’s easy to give up.”
She never did, though, and it’s paid off with a home, a job she loves, dozens of baths and unlimited family time.
“I know that 2016 was a rough year for a lot of people,” Meadows says with a smile. “Not for us.”