This is the first in a series of interviews profiling people who are homeless in East County. If you know of a homeless person willing to be interviewed, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By Miriam Raftery
January 28, 2010 (El Cajon) – “I’m trying to get off the street,” says Dawn Marie (last name withheld), who has been homeless for three months and is currently sleeping in an abandoned building in El Cajon. “I’ve been to college, but I can’t get a job because I have no experience, and you can’t get experience if nobody will hire you.”
Complicating matters, Dawn Marie suffers from a genetic medical condition known as neurofibromatosis. “I get fibrous tumors wherever I have a nerve,” she said, rolling up a sleeve to reveal bumps on her arms. She also wears a brace on her knee, which had previous surgery for a sciatic nerve tumor. She needs more surgery, but has no insurance. Waits for medical care through County Medical Services are long and coverage is limited.
Dawn Marie says she became homeless after her boyfriend broke up with her for another woman. She had a temporary job working in a Halloween store last fall, but has not had work since.
“The first night, I was scared and I was cold,” she recalls when asked about her first night on the streets. A friend came and camped out with her that first time. She relied on advice from other homeless people, soon forming “my street family” with others in a similar situation who help look out for one another.
Before finding an unlocked abandoned building several nights ago, she sometimes slept outdoors, occasionally sleeping on friends’ sofas. In rainy weather, she has slept in a tunnel.
“I’ve lost all my stuff twice,” she says. “But material possessions, clothes, I can replace, as long as I am safe.”
She has led a hard life. As a child, she moved to San Diego from Florida with her mother following a family dispute. “Back then, they had shelters for families here. They don’t have those anymore,” she notes.
She attended elementary school in East County and graduated from Sweetwater High School in National City. She worked at Taco Bell as a senior. The night of her senior prom, she reveals, “I ended up getting raped.”
Not long after, she met a military man at a shopping mall and married him. “I was five months pregnant when he was on West Pac, so I had to grow up very fast.”
Eight months after the wedding, however, she was a divorced single mother, due to what she described as “obsessive/compulsive and stalking” behavior.
She began using crystal meth to lose weight after her daughter’s birth, a mistake she deeply regrets. “I’ve been clean since 2005,” she says, adding that she has never been arrested and never gone to jail, though she was once cited for “unlawful lodging” while homeless.
She raised her daughter until age nine, when the girl chose to go and live with her father. “He’s remarried with five other kids,” she reflects. “She was happy there, so I couldn’t say no.”
She worked two jobs putting herself through community college at Grossmont, studying medical billing and other medical-related fields. She recently graduated, but has not found work yet in a down economy.
Dawn Marie was homeless once before, while living in Seattle. But back then, the situation was far different—and more of an adventure. “I hitchhiked across the Cascades,” she recalls. “Up in Washington, there were places to do your laundry and take a shower. We don’t have those in East County.”
East County has no homeless shelter. Asked why she doesn’t go to the closest homeless shelter in downtown San Diego, Dawn Marie cites several reasons. “To go there you need a trolley pass. That’s $5 for a day pass, each day. If you’re busted without a pass, it’s around a $170 ticket.” There are also waiting lists to get into shelters, she says, adding, “The horror stories I’ve heard scare me—lice, bedbugs. At least where I’m staying, it’s clean and dry.” The abandoned office has a bathroom, and she has food stamps, but no money for anything else.
During our interview, I bought her a chicken dinner at a local restaurant. It was obvious she was ravenous, though she was hesitant to accept any charity. “I haven’t eaten in two days,” she confided, adding that she hasn’t been in a restaurant in a long while. At times, she has resorted to panhandling when she needed money for food.
Dawn Marie says she knows ten homeless people within a three-block radius in El Cajon. “I know one guy, 50 years old, he’s perfectly happy living like this. Another couple, they’re happy too, but I am unhappy living like this.”
Despite the hardships she has endured, she maintains goals for the future. “I want to get a stable roof over my head, work part-time and go to school part-time. I’ve done in-home care, which I really liked. I’ve done customer service; I know how to do deli platters.”
One social services agency suggested she do in-home care in exchange for discounted lodging. “But they still wanted $200 a month, and I don’t have it,” says Dawn Marie, who worries she will soon run out of makeup and have difficulty being presentable for job interviews.
Asked what kind of work she would accept, she replied, “Anything legal. I’ve cleaned apartments. I’m not proud. I will scrub a toilet to earn money, but I’m not going to prostitute myself.”