Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Homelessness

Michelle’s Story. She is 45 years old.

In August 1993 I was homeless. I cannot remember how long I lived in this state. Yet, I do remember life was hard, full of pain, and there seemed to be no hope for a change. It was if I were stuck on a never ending merry-go-round, which continued to turn faster and faster, with no expectation of slowing. I had a friend who allowed my children and me to crash at their home. It wasn’t the best place to live, but it fulfilled a need, and it made it easier to do the things that I liked to do. It was safe. It was my hideaway, the place I could escape and be free without fear of prying eyes. It was perfect. You see, my friend and I were addicts; my drug of choice was crack cocaine. My homelessness was not from me losing a job or my inability to obtain affordable housing. My homelessness was a direct result of my usage of illegal drugs.

During this chaotic time in my life, getting high was my only priority. Yes, there were bills, kids, family, and many other aspects of life. Unfortunately, they were secondary; nothing was more important than my next high. While my children did not live in filth and squalor, they were definitely neglected. Month after month I would abuse and sell our food stamps. It was not unusual for me to fill the cabinets with just enough food to get by. If I had any additional money coming into the household, it went to drugs first and then to necessities.

Although I already had two small children, I became pregnant with my third child.  Despite my pregnancy, I was still unable to get myself together and stop using drugs. I truly wanted to stop, but the desire to use was stronger and more real than the child I carried in my womb. Therefore, I continued to relapse over and over again. I had always heard about addicts hitting rock bottom. Yet, I never understood how hard the rock at the bottom really was until I landed smack dab on top of it.

On August 19, 1993, I gave birth to my daughter, Rosaline.  My state of mind at that time was unfathomable. In the heavy throes of addiction and labor, I was unable to call for help because I wanted to continue to get high. I remember watching myself give birth from far away. I thought I was going to die. I knew what I was doing was not right. As I gave birth to my daughter in the same place that I smoked crack-cocaine every day, all I could think of was that I wanted to get high just one more time. The thought made me sad.

Once we arrived at the hospital, it was obvious to everyone I was an addict. As I began to come down from my high, it was as if I were seeing clearly for the first time. A nurse told me Rosaline and I both tested positive for cocaine. I was not surprised, but I was ashamed. My beautiful little girl, what had I done?  I will never forget what happened next. A woman walked into my hospital room at precisely 4:15 p.m. and told me my two sons were in the process of being removed from my care. Five-year-old Nathan went to live with my cousin, while one-year-old Julian was placed into emergency foster care. As my daughter and I both lay in the hospital suffering from withdrawal, a wave of helplessness and hopelessness engulfed me. I decided then I had to change, and it had nothing to do with the trouble I had just gotten myself into. I wanted to live. I wanted to live for my children and for me.

The courts created a treatment plan for me, and I willingly complied. Step one involved my entering into an addictions program. I remained there for 90 days. In November, I entered into a homeless shelter program. I learned about recovery. I learned how to be productive. I learned about self-sufficiency, and I learned that I could never walk down the road that I had been delivered from again. In February 1995, fifteen months after entering the shelter doors, I graduated and moved into transitional housing through another local social-service agency. On March 17, 1995 my case was closed, and my children returned home to me for good.

I thought I had it all together. I was working hard; my children were home, and I was drug-free. Life was not easy, but I was able to maintain. Yet, on June 4, 1995, devastation came knocking at my door once again. My precious Rosaline was visiting with a relative for the weekend. During that visit she was badly burned. She died 10 days later. She was 22 months old.

If there were ever a justification to use drugs in order to escape reality, the death of Rosaline was it. Although I was devastated and heartbroken, I was determined not to fall prey to my addiction again. I had two small children at home who still needed their mom. After everything I had already put them through, I owed it to my boys to stay focused. I understood going back to drugs would not bring my precious daughter back; therefore, using could never become an option.

After Rosaline’s death, life was difficult, to say the least. I often found myself living from paycheck to paycheck. Nevertheless, determination was my motivation. I would not allow myself to be homeless again because getting high was more important. I continued to fight hard in order to change my life for my children and me. Even though my income was stretched thin, I refused to go back to my former lifestyle in order to supplement my finances. Selling drugs would only lead me back into active addiction, jail, homelessness, or possibly even death. I preferred the struggle compared to the alternative.

As I healed, I began to change my focus and I decided to help other women who had issues with addiction and homelessness. That is when I truly began to see transformation in my life. After working for several years at some of the same homeless shelters that helped me, I decided to attend college and obtain my degree. In 2011 I received an associate’s degree in general studies. In May 2013 I will obtain my bachelor’s degree in human services.

Life is good, and I have been clean for almost 20 years. My boys are healthy and happy. They have given me six wonderful grandchildren. I have maintained stable employment in addition to going to school full-time. I am thankful for the people who have impacted my life positively and have helped me to get to where I am today. Throughout all the trials I remained drug-free. I realized a long time ago, if I ever made the choice to pick up a crack pipe again, I would not be able to tell my story. Telling my story is too important, and it’s much bigger than me. Someday, someone will need to hear that life can be good after the death of a child and that it is possible to have a real life after living through homelessness and years of addiction. I want to help someone just as I had been helped when I reached the lowest point in my life.

The ending to an addict’s story is always the same: jail, institution, homelessness, or death. I had already been to jail, to an institution, and homeless. The only thing waiting for me was death. My path has not always been peaches and cream. Even so, I love life on this side of the street and that is where I plan to remain. My ending has yet to be written, but I know it is much greater than my past.

This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Lutheran Social Services and the Office of the Mayor in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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