In this continuing series, I am talking to people who are, or have been, homeless in Del Norte County.
While some homeless persons have been shy to talk to media, others are happy to volunteer information. When Kelly saw me taking photos of B Street Pier last week, she asked if I was with the paper, and suggested I take photos of happy homeless people. When I pointed the camera at her, she smiled and waved before introducing me to herself and her dog.
From that point forward, I didn’t ask a single question as she provided all the commentary.
Kelly said she has been beaten and raped several times while living homeless on the coast so her daughter bought her the dog to help protect her. She said she has been assaulted and injured several times. She said her teeth had been knocked out by one assailant, while another threw her over a cliff along Pebble Beach Drive.
She said her problems started one night in 2015 when she drank too much, passed out, and woke up to find she was being sexually assaulted. She said the assailant turned out to be a minor who claimed the encounter was consensual. She said when she called the police, she was arrested instead.
A background check confirms she was arrested in December 2015 for filing a false report, fined $630, and was sentenced to 99 days in jail.
She said her attorney later notified her that DNA tests showed the assailant lied.
“The kid lied and I lost everything I owned,” she said, losing her composure and crying. “Everything... I’ve been on the streets ever since. I can’t start my life over, I don’t even know where to begin.”
Kelly said she has been suicidal at times, and gets little help from law enforcement when she files a rape or assault charge. During the interview, an argument erupted between Kelly and another homeless subject she’d befriended, prompting her to leave.
“I’m tired of being raped and beat up,” she cried, quickly gathering her things from the ground.
Crying and flustered by it all, she wished me a good day and walked away with her dog.
The path from mental illness
Christina and Jan told stories of how, with help from the county they overcame mental illness and escaped a homeless existence in Crescent City.
Jan explained that in 1993, she was living with her parents in the Bay Area when a work injury and other circumstances left her homeless and severely mentally ill on the streets of Crescent City.
“I had lost my job, lost my medical (insurance), lost my psychiatric services, lost my medication, so I started to relapse psychiatrically severely, so I wasn’t making good choices,” she said.
Due to her symptoms, she was unable to remember her parents’ unlisted phone number and tried to walk back to them. After a week of walking, she reached McKinleyville where she was offered transportation to either the Bay Area or Crescent City.
“I spent the next five years up here, homeless,” she said. “The first three, were ‘cold homeless,’ as they say. I just slept around in the bushes, out in the trees. I tried to stay in sight of people and cars as much as possible. I was alone, I didn’t hang out with anyone, as I was too frightened to do that. I was too traumatized. I didn’t speak very much. I was kinda mute.”
Jan said her mental illness progressed, leading her to question whether people were real, and led her to talk to almost no one.
“I talked to animals and birds most of the time, sometimes to a few poles,” she smiled. “Sometimes friends remind me of that when they see me. I’m not doing that anymore and they are pretty happy with that.”
While Jan appeared well spoken and spoke lightly of certain memories, her expression left her face when recalling the darker sides of her experiences.
“I was attacked several times, I was assaulted several times, physically beaten up and roughed up a few times by some people who were on drugs and snapped when they didn’t understand my peculiarities,” she said. “I was set on fire once when I was asleep over by Safeway, in the little park area next door.”
Jan said she was sleeping atop a picnic table in a sleeping bag when she awoke to the smell of smoke.
“I woke up with my puppy and my bag was on fire and these guys were laughing,” she said, noting that the men had bottles of alcohol and between 19 to 21 in age.
“I went through an attempted rape over in the restrooms by Battery Point Lighthouse,” she recalled. “(I was ) staying out of a storm one night and woke up to someone trying to take my clothes off.” Saying the man appeared to have been on drugs, she was able to kick him away and make him stop by yelling “rape.” Jan said the man ran away and she fled into the city.
She said after the attacks, she continued to sleep outside where she was visible but vulnerable.
However, a local couple offered Jan a place to stay inside the shell of an old RV.
“I didn’t have water or heat or lights or anything,” she said. “I froze to death in the winter but at least I had some blankets and was off the street and a little more protected. I just came and went and wandered.”
Jan said she was able to get food stamps for a couple years but “lost the ability to understand how to renew them,” so she spent a year eating out of garbage cans and picking through store dumpsters for food.
After being arrested and sent to county mental health a couple times and faking her way through mental health evaluations, she was released onto the streets again.
However, finding herself physically depleted and in fear that she might be dying, she consulted with a doctor who asked how she’d been sleeping.
“I said, ‘yeah, I don’t sleep, basically. I haven’t for a long time...” Jan said.
The doctor prescribed Haldol, an antipsychotic drug that decreases excitement in the brain.
“I was sleeping better but in a few weeks, I started thinking common sense and functioning mentally again,” she said, noting that she had been on medication before becoming homeless. “Reality started coming back because I had totally separated from reality when I was homeless. I started thinking, ‘Wow, I’m a mental health patient. I need help, and I need services.’ Life was out there the whole time, the same as normal, but I was just spacing it. Everything started making sense to me again and reality came back.”
The realization prompted her to seek an evaluation at Del Norte County Mental Health, retain a psychiatrist, and get ongoing medication and counseling.
“They basically saved my life,” she said. “If it wasn’t for their psychiatric services, I’d be in Crescent City Cemetery.”
Jan said her psychiatrists called her one of the most severe cases they’d seen and medical professionals said she might have lived another year or less on the streets due to exposure and malnutrition.
“Everything came together,” she said. “I applied for services, I got SSI (disability benefits), I got Section 8 (vouchers),and I got a little apartment,” she said, noting she was able to bring her cat with her. “We moved in and started our lives over. I’ve been in psychiatric care since and have improved. I’ve gotten over a lot of PTSD issues, and I have stabilized. I’m doing pretty well now.”
Jan said she doubted her life would fall through the connecting cracks to homelessness again, and she has no plans to discontinue her medication.
Drugs and mental illness
Christina’s story is more recent, ending with her being clean and sober for the last three years. She was happy to have her story out there, in the hopes someone could learn from it.
At age 15, she was arrested and put on probation for possession of meth. Once off probation at age 18, she continued to self medicate her mental illness, and her drug and alcohol use spiraled out of control. She drove her car to Humboldt County where she found herself stranded, homeless, cold and hungry.
What followed would lead her to be homeless in Del Norte and Humboldt County for about the next 12 years.
“I quickly lost my car and what little belongings I had, and was reduced to a tent, a sleeping bag, drugs and alcohol,” she said. “I got raped and stolen from several times. I was constantly taken advantage of because I was mentally ill and a woman.”
After losing the ability to care about her life, she started using IV drugs.
“I would let anybody shoot me up,” she said. “I would let them use dirty needles. I just gave up on me.”
While a couple pets eased her circumstances somewhat, her depression increased when they died. She said she ate at soup kitchens, begged for food, while going in and out of jail and mental health institutions in the state.
She said that while selling meth and cocaine, she was living in the trees near Walmart and sleeping in rest areas. Both women said men regularly offered help, only to assault or take advantage of them.
“I just kept trusting them because I was so mentally ill,” Christina said. “It was a sick cycle...”
Christina said that at the time, she had little faith in law enforcement to do anything but help continue her cycle of being in and out of jail. Then, a single episode kicked off a domino effect that eventually led to her recovery.
“...during" class="auto" target="_blank">dir="ltr">“...during one of my psychotic dissociative episodes, I was convinced I was trying to diffuse a bomb by lighting matches, blowing them out, and placing them in the vent of a building,” she said. “I was caught on camera doing this and I was approached by law enforcement.” She said the officers gave her the choice between going to jail or to county mental health for an evaluation.
“I chose to get mental health help,” she said.
Christina spoke of Yelena Lavendar, in county mental health, who would later become her counselor.
“She told me everything was going to be OK and that I was going to get the help I needed,” Christina said. “What she really gave me was hope.”
After a relapse, an assault charge, jail time, probation and treatment at Napa State Hospital, Christina said she is an active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and county programs and has stabilized with medication.
“I’ve reconnected with my family, who shower me with nothing but love and support,” she said. “My life couldn’t be more blessed.”
Christina recommended that anyone struggling with mental illness should reach out to the county, so they can get the help they need.
“They can help you, just as they helped me,” she said.
Looking at and listening to Jan and Christina, one would likely never guess they’d survived such a life or overcome such barriers. Both were clean and well dressed, well-spoken and succinct. Christina has taken up photography and recently opened her own business.
Asked how they think the public saw them during their homeless years, they had distinctly different answers.
Jan said people who knew her in those years would later describe her as peculiar and “almost eerie.” She spoke of an ex-state prison inmate who used to avoid contact with her.
“People were frightened of me and they didn’t know how to... “ she started. “Some people are offended by the homeless, some people are suspicious of the homeless, some people assume they are all drug addicts, and they don’t want to give them money because they’ll just spend it on drugs and alcohol. Some people think they are criminals. Some people are frightened of the mentally ill because they’re frightened of mental illness and psychiatric issues. They’re not familiar with them and they’re not comfortable.”
Jan added that her filthy appearance was also intimidating to people but she had few options, aside from washing herself in cold tide pools.
Christina noted that due to her small, malnourished stature, people responded to her in two ways.
“People said, ‘oh, that’s so sad. That little girl’s out there begging,’” Christina said, “or they viewed me as prey.”
Despite the hard times, the two also recalled memorable moments when people made an effort to do little things for them, such as give them a little money or prepare a meal. Jan spoke fondly of one local policeman who took time to personally check on her when she would sleep in local parks.
Asked how they would respond to those who feel homeless people are choosing the lifestyle, neither held back.
“You can’t make a general statement like that,” Jan said, noting that some people assumed drugs contributed to her homelessness. “I was a mental health statistic. I fell between the cracks of bureaucracy.” Noting the chain of events that led her to wander the streets, Jan said she didn’t know how to get back to reality without medication.
“You have to learn to distinguish individuals, their needs, their problems and the reasons they’re hurting,” she said.
“When people are sometimes strung out and are alcoholics but are trying to get back to sobriety, I don’t think you should punish them forever because they made a mistake,” Jan said. “sometimes, it takes going back several times and failing.”
Homelessness isn’t normal
“Normal people… regular, functioning people don’t go around picking homelessness,” Christina said, pointing at me. “You wouldn’t pick homelessness, so obviously, these people are sick. There’s a disconnect in society. There’s something wrong with them. They’re veterans that have served our country with PTSD... There’s so much mental illness. Normal people don’t walk around doing drugs or drinking alcohol to excess. There’s something wrong if you get up, you’re filthy, you stink, and you’re not trying to better your life… there’s something wrong with you. That’s what I feel the politicians aren’t getting.”
Responding to those who romanticize homelessness or claim people choose the lifestyle, Christina had similar suggestions as others I’ve spoken to.
“We need more mental health services, we need shelter services, we need to give out more food, but we need to address the mental health issue,” she said. “That’s what I would like to say to them. There’s something wrong. None of you would pick homelessness. They’re so sick and like Jan and myself, we didn’t even realize we were sick. They don’t realize that shouting at poles and trying to diffuse bombs isn’t the norm. Their psychotic breaks are their reality. That is totally normal to them. (Saying) ‘they choose it’ is not right. It’s not accurate.”
Asked if they had anything they would like our readers to know, Jan said homelessness caught her by surprise. Prior to her injury, she had a state job with benefits and a place to stay.
“Once in my life I thought, ‘I hope I never become a bag lady,’” she said, “but when I was working back in those years, I didn’t think about becoming homeless.” Jan said she’s talked to others who’d said the chain of events that led to their homelessness was a shock to their system. She also noted a news article which said the average citizen has about $500 in their bank account after paying bills.
“It (homelessness) can happen to anyone,” Jan said, “not just the mentally ill or people doing drugs or alcohol.” Jan speculated that the housing crash of 2008 may have left some regular people homeless for some time.
“Homeless people are the same people as those who are not homeless,” Jan said. “They’re the same human beings, with the same emotions and feelings. They’re not some other class of people or some other species or ‘the others,’ they’re you. They are just as much you as you are. They have the same feelings and experiences sometimes. They have parents, they have family, they have friends, they have the same things. It’s just a set of events sometimes that happen to their lives and they end up in that situation. They don’t always choose to be there.”
Christina closed the interview by asking that people think enough to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
“Just be kind to people, that’s what I would say.”