What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?

by Jerry Martin

Years ago, homelessness was an issue confined mainly to larger cities, and mostly involving men. It was common belief that the main contributing factors were as simple as laziness, alcoholism and that homeless people wanted to live "the life of Reiley" and enjoyed being bums. Today, however, homelessness is a problem for every city in the U.S., and we are seeing an increasing number of women forced onto the streets. Even more alarming is the inadequacy of the services provided for them. To the question, "How did you become homeless?" people are realizing that one answer does not fit all. The main contributing factors vary as much as the types of people they apply to. Here, four women explain how they became homeless and arrived at Dignity Village.

Domestic violence is the largest contributing factor to homelessness for women, but 25-year-old Sara Burrera of Albuquerque didn't know she was an integral part of this statistic as she fled from the terror of an abusive relationship, she just knew that she was going to escape to someplace far away, someplace she'd never been before, someplace where he couldn't find her: Portland, Oregon. "I figured he'd never find me here, but he did," said Sara. Her abusive husband tried to talk her into coming back to New Mexico, but she stood firm and told him to hit the road. "I decided that I needed to help myself and get off the streets," said Sara. She stayed at Harbor Light for a while, but didn't like the fact that if you didn't have a T.B. card you had to sleep on the kitchen floor, and they chase you out at 5:30am when nothing is open and there is nowhere to go. Her new boyfriend brought her to Dignity Village where she has discovered self-worth and peace. Sara said, "Everybody gets along. People talk instead of argue and fight here. You get up in the morning and your neighbor is there to help with your problems." Sara has two and a half years of law school under her belt and Dignity Village is providing the stability she needs to go back and complete her degree.

Gaye Reyes, 56, who is suffering from degenerative spinal disease and chronic arthritis, has been in and out of a wheelchair for the last two years, rolled into Dignity Village a little over a month ago. Last September, she had reached a point were she could no longer work and applied for disability. Six months later, while still waiting for a disability determination, she finally ran out of money and was evicted by the sheriff. Gaye said, "I come from a middle-class family. I didn't know what to do." And because of her inexperience, two weeks later all of her belongings were taken to the dumpster, leaving her stuck on the street with nothing but her wheelchair. Gaye went to the women's shelter, but there were no openings, and she was put on a waiting list. They did, however, offer her a blanket which was the only immediate assistance she could find. She became very distraught and wheeled herself down to Pioneer Square, where, in despairation, she asked a police officer what to do. He told her about Dignity Village. "The only thing offered to me outside of Dignity Village was a waiting list," said Gaye. "They gave me a home here; they've been caring and loving and supporting. I don't have to be afraid here." She intends to start keeping the books for Dignity Village once they obtain 501(c)3 status, and in the long run she would like to stay on at the village, helping to organize and set up more programs for newcomers. As for the common belief that all homeless people are lazy and want to be homeless, she said, "Absolutely not true. There are people here working 8 to 10 hours a day for minimum wage who just can't afford housing here; there are people going to school; there are people who have kicked drugs and are trying to get back on their feet, but nobody will take a chance on them."

One month ago, 20-year-old Lauren Bates and her boyfriend left Texas and headed for Portland where she planned to go to school. On the way, their traveling companion ripped off most of her money, so when she arrived here she had to rent a room from some shady characters, forced to take what she could get, as she found the rent in Portland to be astronomical. When neither she nor her boyfriend could immediately find work and their money ran out, the situation went from bad to worse when the home owners threatened to have them beat up and threw them out onto the street. She went to Greenhouse seeking shelter but was turned down because of her boyfriend. What she found out was that there are no shelters that take couples. Lauren said, "It's ridiculous that so many shelters and organizations don't take couples; at least one should." That's when they found Dignity Village. She said that the village has helped keep them off the streets and served as a stepping stone in getting their lives back together, and more importantly, it has kept them together. "It's a great community and a refuge from the harsh, cold world and the reality of being homeless," said Lauren.

Many homeless people start out as under-age victims of broken homes and are labeled "street youth." Often they are runaways, and sometimes, as in the case of young Jenna Miller, they are thrown onto the streets by their own families. Jenna's father had disappeared from her home when she was 9. Her mother passed away and her brother, who obtained control of the estate, kicked her out of the house. Jenna was 17 years old. Forced to fend for herself and deal with her losses on her own, Jenna dropped out of school, turned to dope and got hooked on crack. Jenna doesn't want to be an addict, and she doesn't want to be homeless either. She's gone through Hooper Detox twice, but always came back to the same situation. She's giving Dignity Village a shot, because of their no drugs and alcohol policy, and for now it seems to be working; she's staying off the dope and beginning to think once again about her hopes and dreams her connections with nature and her goals to become a veterinarian. Jenna said, "Dignity Village is laid back. You have support, and there's animals around here. I love animals, they have personalities just like humans."