How To (really) Help Homeless Women

People become homeless in myriad ways and have vastly different experiences with homelessness depending on their location, health, and connections. This is one in a series of interviews with homeless twentysomethings about their personal experiences.

At the age of 15, Sarah* left her mother's Los Angeles house feeling unwanted and finding it too painful to continue living at home. She spent years living with friends, boyfriends, and in her car, while trying to go to trade school and find a job. Now 26, she's finally feeling better about her place in the world, though she is still homeless and struggling. She spoke with Cosmopolitan.com about her experiences being a homeless woman in her early 20s. 

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I left home for a lot of reasons. My mother was going through a rough time because her same-sex partner had recently died, and it was really hard on both of us and changed a lot between us. I also think she was using drugs at that time, so she was in her own world and didn't have time for me. She didn't really care what I did or where I was. 

My decision to move out was really impulsive, but I felt really angry and I felt like if I didn't leave, I would just be stuck with someone who didn't love me. I was also dating someone at the time. We were together for almost four years, and I spent a while living with him and his family. I alternated between living there and with friends and also with my cousin. Basically I was traveling around and wasn't "sleeping on the streets" homeless, but in a way, still kind of homeless. I stayed in high school for a while, but when I was nearly 17 years old, I completely dropped out of high school.

After a year and a half, my boyfriend's parents said they didn't approve that I had left home at such an early age and did whatever I wanted, and wouldn't let me stay there anymore. That was really hard. We still kept dating, but it was really hard getting kicked out of his home. Plus, his family and everyone else started really influencing him and telling him he shouldn't be with me, and so we broke up. 

Dating was hard because I've been through a lot and I was afraid to really reveal everything to him.

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So I moved on and decided I wanted to find myself. I was almost 18 at that time and tried to go back to school to get my high school diploma in Venice or Culver City at their adult high schools, but that never lasted because I didn't have a place to stay down there. I was staying with friends but they didn't let me really stay for long periods of time. I started bouncing around to different programs to try and get my high school diploma. A year later when I was 19, I reconnected with a guy I'd known when I was 15 and we started dating and I ended up living with him. I was trying to help myself and care more about myself, but I was still nervous about living together because it was still really new. 

Dating was hard because I've been through a lot and I was afraid to really reveal everything to him. He came from a great family and had a brother and a sister and a mother and a father, and they lived in a home. I never had anything like that. But he was really open and when I had met his parents, they were really understanding of me also. I felt really loved and accepted. But I was really afraid because I kept feeling like I was going to do something wrong because I didn't know how to interact with people like that. And I knew if we broke up, I wouldn't have anyone or anywhere to go. 

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I was also kind of, like, in awe at the fact that someone actually wanted to, you know, be with me despite where I've been. And he saw me for myself and we fell in love. We eventually got engaged and I was really happy about that. I was dealing with my depression because I'd never had someone care for me like he did; I'd never felt that happy, and I was afraid I was going to lose it. I told my fiancé this and he would tell me that I needed to go and talk to a therapist. He was always looking out for my best interest, but he was also the only person I had in my life. I didn't really have a mom, I didn't have a dad or anyone I could like confide in besides him, and he thought that was too much pressure to put on him. And I knew it was too. Finally he told me he couldn't do it anymore and I kept telling him, "I'm trying, please don't just leave this relationship!" You know, "We wanted to be together, we're engaged! Why is this happening?" 

Right before my 21st birthday, we broke up completely, so I just I packed up my car with whatever I had and lived in it. It was really hard because I hated that I'd made him feel like that and that I couldn't even talk to him about it afterward. It was just done and I didn't have anyone. I didn't know what to do, and honestly, that was the first time since I was like 15 that I had suicidal thoughts. 

Sometimes I'd call my mom, but I didn't always have a phone around, so I

would be the one calling her and trying to get a hold of her. I didn't want her to worry, because I did care

about her and loved her, but I just didn't know how to deal with her. Sometimes I'd try to be honest with her and tell her that I didn't want to live with somebody who had an addictive personality. But I think she was just in denial about how bad things really were for me and between us. At the same time, deep down, I really wanted to live with her because I felt like I needed her, but I just didn't know how to do that. It was really, really hard. 

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I tried not to stay in shelters because there were older men there who made me feel uncomfortable, so it was hard finding places to shower.

Being a woman and homeless was fortunately a little easier for me when I was staying with people because they were usually women, so if I needed a tampon or something they usually had one. I'd hoard them whenever I'd come across them. At the same time, my period in general was kind of irregular, so sometimes I didn't need tampons that month. That was really helpful, but I went to the doctor about my irregular periods anyway because I knew that that was something that I needed to take care of. They prescribed birth control for me to regulate my periods and that helped a lot. Fortunately, I was still under my mom's health insurance until I was 21. Now I don't go to the doctor that often and if I do, I just go to the free clinic. Mostly I try to take care of myself so I won't get sick because I don't really want to have to go to the ER where they would have to charge me. 

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If my cousins or someone nearby didn't have things I needed, I would steal. I would never steal money or from people directly because morally I think that is just wrong, but if I really needed something, I would go and take it from a store. Because there was no other way. Nothing big, but if I needed socks, underwear, pads, or medicine if I was sick, and I couldn't afford it, I would take it.

I'd try my best to make the money to buy them, but most jobs that I applied to weren't OK with the fact that I didn't have primary housing or that I dropped out of high school. I was trying to do everything I could to help myself and take odd jobs even though I still felt really lost. 

I lived in my car for a year when I was 21 to 22. I made friends with some nice people who were homeless as well, and we were all kind of helping and protecting each other. I tried not to stay in shelters because there were older men there who made me feel uncomfortable, so it was hard finding places to shower. I'd sometimes go to the mall and use their bathrooms or buy myself wipes and just kind of take a birdbath. I always tried to keep myself clean because I knew it was important to not just be presentable in your appearance for other people, but also for yourself. 

I finally started going to trade school at 22. I got financial aid, which paid for most of it, and I am slowly paying off the rest. That year I also got back in touch with my mother and I told her I wanted to see her and she agreed. She was really happy to see me, so I told her that I started my trade school and she said, "Well, why don't you stay here?" Once I started staying with her and going to school, I felt more comfortable. I felt like maybe I could stay with her again and that it would be OK because we were trying to work our relationship out. 

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I was so used to not really staying in one place, so sometimes that would bother my mother that I was going out a lot and was never home. That would frustrate me because I was like, "I've been doing this for like my whole teenage years and you didn't really have a problem with it, but now that I'm 22, you want to lock me down and trap me inside." So some problems started coming up and she was seeing someone who I didn't like at all, and she told me, "If you don't like it, you can go." So I left again. I was living in my car again and living with my cousin as well. I came back to live with her again after three months because I really did want to work it out with her, but it didn't last. 

People don't really have much sympathy for homeless people. People would tell me, 'Oh, go get a job,' and I would be like, 'You don't know my story.'

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Throughout the last few years, I've mainly been living in my car or in a tent in Malibu or with friends. I recently turned 26, and I have graduated trade school with honors and have worked as a dental assistant. I was really happy about that but also had trouble finding enough work. Every time I tried to apply somewhere, they needed a lot of experience that I didn't have. I also worked at a dog-grooming place for a while and I've tried to sell art in galleries, I've tried to sell art on the Venice boardwalk, I've tried to sell it in a lot of places. I just finished a web design coding program (which is free for women in need through St. Joseph's Center) so now I'm doing web design, which is really nice. 

People don't really have much sympathy for homeless people. A lot of times when I was on the street panhandling, people would tell me, "Oh, go get a job," and I would be like, "You don't know my story. You don't know what I've been through. You don't know that I've been to school and what jobs I've had. Right now this is my job because I don't have anything." There's a lot of judgment there. I care, but I try not to mind it because their opinion doesn't matter in the end. 

In general, I'm trying to do everything for myself right now. I'm becoming my best friend, and that's been the hardest thing: really trying to like and love myself every day, and giving myself what I need and what I never really had as a teenage girl. I never really cared about myself

because I didn't ever really have people who were caring about me. I still feel depressed a lot, but when I'm happy, I'm elated, so I'm trying to balance everything. I'm also looking into getting counseling and possibly medication to regulate some of those things. And I'm thinking about going to live with my mother again, and making that a good relationship.

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I think as long as you have a good mindset, a good heart, and a good head on your shoulders, you can do anything. I always think about people in other places in the world and their situations and how they don't even have what I have, and I'm really the lucky one. 

*Name has been changed to protect her identity. Safe Place for Youth helped coordinate this interview. Safe Place for Youth's mission is to inspire, nurture, and empower the resilient human spirit of homeless youth by providing immediate and lasting solutions, one young person at a time.

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Source : http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a47312/what-its-really-like-to-be-a-homeless-woman-in-your-20s/

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