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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 4:28 pm | Partly Cloudy 61º


When There’s Nothing Left But Hope: Santa Barbara’s Homeless Women

Choices and circumstances may be working against them, but flashes of optimism and determination can sometimes be seen — if we'll take the time to look.

Chris, left, and July share a happy moment at Casa Esperanza last year. The two homeless women's stories defy simple stereotypes, yet while July's latest chapter has an unknown outcome, Chris' ended badly: She recently died of a seizure while in jail.
Chris, left, and July share a happy moment at Casa Esperanza last year. The two homeless women’s stories defy simple stereotypes, yet while July’s latest chapter has an unknown outcome, Chris’ ended badly: She recently died of a seizure while in jail. (Nancy Shobe / Noozhawk photo)

A Peace of Me

This is where I come from, screaming for the dark.
These are the roads I have traveled, down lonely nights,
Empty streets with broken promises made in the dark
With my heart left wide open waiting for your call,
Now looking at yesterday, tomorrow doesn’t seem that hard.
I never needed anyone to tell what truth was,
All I really needed was truth of self.
Now the shadows of the dark turn to light,
As my guitar sings me to sleep I bid you farewell
And goodbye.

— July Autumn Millslane

“I just want my life back,” says Lauren* as she wraps the remaining half of her hamburger into the paper. She gingerly moves her bandaged right hand, broken, she claims, from violence inflicted on her by her father. She waits until the speaker blaring the numbers of ready meals quiets, and then she lifts her head, her eyes meeting mine.

“That’s the bottom line,” she says. “I just want my life back.”

Lauren’s well-articulated words show a breeding and education I don’t expect from a homeless woman. I soon find out she is, in fact, a college graduate of UC Santa Cruz. It’s difficult for me to comprehend how this 45-year-old, educated woman ended up in a residential homeless shelter.

“I started drinking through the years and it caught up with me,” Lauren explains.

She recounts the story of her life, beginning with prolonged abuse inflicted on her by her alcoholic father. Not only has she suffered at his hands, so has her mother.

“My mom doesn’t leave him because she is afraid to be alone,” she says. “She’s been married for over 50 years. It’s the battered-wife syndrome. It’s often difficult psychologically and financially for a woman to leave a man.”

Lauren continues telling her story, how her return to drinking after the death of her much-beloved dog triggered a DUI, which ultimately cost her more than $12,000 to settle. Then, she was hit by a hit-and-run driver and suffered severe injuries. She’s fought ovarian cancer and won, she’s quick to add. And, because she couldn’t work while ill and then couldn’t pay her rent, she was evicted by her landlord — her father.

“For years, health has been an issue for me,” she says. “My dad thinks it’s a moral defect that I’m not working. That’s where part of his anger comes from because he’s a workaholic.”

Lauren has been homeless only for a few weeks, but it’s a place she thought she’d never be.

“People always say you are only one paycheck away from being homeless,” she says. “I thought that was a trite statement, but it’s true.”

An estimated 1 percent to 2 percent of Santa Barbara’s population is homeless. Nearly 30 percent to 35 percent of the total homeless population in Santa Barbara are women, says Santa Barbara County social worker Ken Williams, and the percentage is probably much greater.

“Women tend to be the ‘hidden homeless’ because of the violence and fear factor,” says Williams, adding that “hidden” homeless women are often found living in isolated neighborhoods or in remote parks.

There are a variety of reasons why women are driven to homelessness, including a lack of mental health facilities, commitment-phobic men, physical disabilities and illness, and because cheap lodging doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara. But, the largest percentage of homelessness, says Williams, is caused by violence committed against women.

This fact is borne out by Chris, a sun-weathered 48-year-old woman with a bright, engaging smile. She stands in front of the washing machine in the humid laundry room of a residential homeless shelter, loading bundles of dirty laundry into a large commercial washer. Her guard dog, Max, rests underneath a folding table and is as affable-looking as his owner, which is surprising considering he’s a German shepherd.

It was violent rape and a series of wrong decisions about whom to trust that led Chris to the steps of the homeless shelter.

“When I became homeless in San Diego, it was a very embarrassing thing,” she says in a voice so soft it’s endearing. “I managed the dog wash there for over eight years and I was a popular icon in the area. It was like people were saying ‘Whoa. How did she get from having a house, a truck, the dogs, the dog rescue business and a dog wash, to nothing?’

Chris and her affable German shepherd, Max, were inseparable and well-known in the homeless community. Chris died recently and Max has not been seen since.
Chris and her affable German shepherd, Max, were inseparable and well-known in the homeless community. Chris died recently and Max has not been seen since. (Nancy Shobe / Noozhawk photo)
“I was living under a bush in San Diego with my three dogs when I decided I needed a change. I needed to get away from being surrounded by drugs and alcohol. Everyone I knew did tweak or alcohol and I don’t do that. It’s not my thing. I decided to take a road trip and I came to Santa Barbara. I lived out of my truck in a safe living that’s associated with the Salvation Army.” Eventually, the truck was taken from Chris and she ended up in a homeless shelter where she has been residing for more than four months.

Chris exudes a sense of optimism and hope. She’s determined to find a full-time job either with a dog trainer, veterinarian hospital, Petco or Trader Joe’s, and would like a nice little place to call home.

“I don’t want a lot. Just a place for me and my dogs,” she said. “And, once I’m settled, I’ll come back and do what I can for the homeless shelter.”

A shelter staff member comes in and asks for more towels. Chris hurriedly finds her a stack and deposits them into her arms. She turns back toward me and with a freckled-faced innocence adds, “You have to give back, that’s why I work so hard. You have to give back. That’s what I try to do.”

Santa Barbara has several homeless shelters and/or care facilities. There is the 200-bed Casa Esperanza, 816 Cacique St., which — in accordance with its conditional-use permit — offers full use of its beds from Dec. 1 to March 31 and 100 beds during the other months of the year. Casa Esperanza’s mission is to teach the homeless self-sufficiency.

The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, 535 E. Yanonali St., also offers housing, as does Transition House, 434 E. Ortega St., which focuses on families with children. Other programs that directly serve the homeless or the problems often associated with homelessness include the Salvation Army’s Hospitality House; New Beginnings Counseling Center Safe Parking Program; Domestic Violence Solutions of Santa Barbara County; Casa Serena, a residential drug and alcohol recovery program; and the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Still, there are not enough services, beds, or care in Santa Barbara.

I sense July Millslane watching me while she stands smoking a cigarette underneath a tree. She seems to be taking in my every move, as if recording it on her mind. July’s avant-garde appearance with her tattooed body art and shaven head tell me she’s an “artist” even before I see her drawings or hear her poems.

July is also a musician. She formerly played the guitar and piano with various bands. She readily admits that her favorite music is Indonesian all-metal orchestras, something I have never heard of and make a note to look up when I return home. Her face radiates light when she tells me that music can be found in nature and even in the sounds of traffic. She admits to bending over bridges to record the water rushing or to record birds trilling from the trees. Her way of lyrically wrapping her words together tends to create melodic sentences. Perhaps it’s something she has learned from her idol, Melissa Etheridge, the popular songstress whose music she credits with saving her life.

Several years ago, July explains, she walked deep into the woods of her then town in Arkansas to commit suicide.

“All I had seen was drugs and violence my whole life,” she says. “I didn’t know how to stop the cycle. I got out there (the woods) and said I had had it. I couldn’t see a way out of anything. I was out there for 13 hours and I don’t have a clue what really happened. All I know is when I walked out of the woods my whole life changed.”

She lifts her index finger to the lower lid of her eye, trying to stop the flow of tears.

“Being homeless isn’t near as hard as the road I’ve already traveled,” she says.

“After I stepped out of the woods, I had a friend come up to me and give me Melissa Etheridge’s Breakdown album,” she adds. “The album changed my life as far as spirituality and everything.”

July hesitates for a moment. Her voice quiets and then she continues, “Music breathes life into your spirit so your soul can fly.”

She acknowledges that she became homeless because she believed in her dream.

“I knew that the only way for me to be free ... was to come to California. It’s always been California for me,” she says. “I grew up in the Midwest.”

July hopes to one day own acreage in Ojai, where she’ll open a production company and allow the land to be a special place for women, especially homeless women, to gather.

“And, my big dream,” she says with a mischievous grin, “is to play just one song, or maybe even three, on stage with Melissa Etheridge. She changed my life.”

July stops, seeming to gather a thought. When she continues, she says, “People stereotype us. I’m homeless, not helpless. I’m not helpless, I’m homeless.”

And helpless Lauren, Chris and July are not. Weeks ago, Lauren began searching for a residential alcohol-recovery program and recently, with the help of a team of people, ended up being accepted by a local residential alcohol and drug recovery home. Chris spends her days tirelessly working at the homeless shelter, serving food to other homeless people. She yearns to work with animals and have her own place to call home again. July pens her poems, writes songs, and looks for the odd jobs like drywalling. Ideally, she’d like to make money from her art. These are three women whose tragic lives have become anything but a tragedy. They still have hope. And, there are ways that the community can help them or other homeless women like them.

Imelda Loza, associate executive director of Casa Esperanza, suggests volunteering time. Volunteers are always needed to help serve breakfast lunch, or dinner (very needed at Casa Esperanza) and help coordinate festivities. Professional pro bono services are in demand, including counseling, legal or medical services. Donations of business-ready attire and new hygiene products are always appreciated, as are direct financial donations to the shelters or their programs. Financial scholarships for indigent women also may be given to residential recovery homes.

And, Williams emphatically adds, “You don’t have to solve all of the problems of the homeless. Just start with one person at a time.”

Click here for a related article.

* Lauren’s name has been changed at her request.

Noozhawk contributing writer Nancy Shobe can be contacted at Nancy Shobe .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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