Interview by Ranya Forgotson, The Curbside Chronicle
Where are you from?
I’m born and raised in Oklahoma City. I lived in Midwest City for a while, but I’ve been back in Oklahoma City for about ten years now. I’ve been a couple other places – Ohio and Georgia – but for the most part just here.
What was your family like growing up?
I’m the oldest of five. I’ve kind of always had the responsibility of taking care of my siblings, which got a little stressful here and there. We pretty much grew up in foster homes. My mother died when I was eight. We stayed in foster homes, a couple of homeless shelters, with friends and family, a lot of different places. Things were never really stable for me.
What was it like losing your mother at such a young age?
Well, she first left when I was six and we made it for about three weeks in the hotel room without her. My stepdad had left to go get her. But before they came back, we got picked up by DHS. I found out later that he got arrested somewhere along the way.
I guess the term would be foul play. I found out on my eighth birthday that my mother had passed away two weeks prior. It was kind of hard to take. I was kind of saddled with these siblings and losing her put everything on me. Not only did I have to figure things out for myself, but I also had to be a support system for my siblings.
Do you remember times with your family before DHS?
It was pretty much a difficult thing even when I did have both parents. He was a Vietnam Veteran and of course there was no PTSD training back then. He couldn’t keep a job. He was having nightmares. There was all kinds of stuff going on so things just never stabilized for us.
We had an apartment for a little while when I was a kid. And we rented a house for a few months, but my stepfather had another episode and we ended up leaving. So, most of my life was living in hotel rooms and the van. It was doable. We got through it. My mom was a housekeeper. That’s how we were able to get hotel rooms to stay in.
What was your experience with DHS like?
When we got picked up, we were immediately separated. It’s kind of hard to find a place to put five kids. We bounced around for a pretty long time. It wasn’t until I was about ten that we lived with my grandmother. That lasted a few years, but it was too much for her to handle. She was by herself and on a fixed income, so she wasn’t able to afford all of us. After that, we kind of just scattered. For the most part, we all ended up somewhere different.
I ended up in Lawton for a couple of years for junior high and high school, but I came back to Oklahoma City my senior year and stayed with a friend for a while. I don’t really like to cast a negative light on the whole foster program. For the most part, it was tolerable. There weren’t always ideal circumstances, but it was better than anything else we would’ve been stuck with. In high school my foster parents were military and when they were reissued, I didn’t want to go. I had a lot of friends, so I stayed with them. That was most of high school.
Did you like school as a kid?
Life was never easy. I had some tougher times than I would’ve liked, but I got through it. That was my goal – to survive. I liked school for the most part. I was sort of popular, I guess. I never had problems making friends and made some really great friends I could fall back on. But senior year is when everything changed.
What happened senior year?
That really kind of ruined everything for me. Over Christmas break of my senior year, I got in a car wreck. We slid on a patch of ice and got hit by oncoming traffic. I ended up with a shattered hip and some pretty heavy hardware to fix it. From there, things really changed for me. I was a really active person and I planned on joining the military. They told me that my hip disqualified me because I couldn’t carry a load into combat. So that really threw everything off for me, not to mention spending a couple months of my senior year in the hospital. But with strength, grace, and test scores, I was able to get a Walmart scholarship very last minute, thanks to one of my counselors.
What was college like for you?
I didn’t really have a college plan. I ended up dropping out after I found out my girlfriend was pregnant. I felt like I had a choice to make. I could spend the next few years in college, or I could get a job and support this baby. So, I dropped out and started working in fast food. I could pay child support and bills, but I was stuck in a rut.
In the beginning, I got to spend a lot of time with my daughter. But as my relationship with her mother deteriorated, I got to see her less. It hasn’t been the easiest arrangement, but she’s doing what she’s supposed to. She’s seventeen now and she’s already been receiving invitation letters to college. I’m really happy that my circumstances didn’t bring her down too much. At this point, I’m just hoping to get something in line so I can actively support her college education and not be a burden on her improving her prospects. It’s been a few months since we’ve talked, but I see her posts on Facebook. Once I get a phone, I’d like to talk to her more.
What did life look like after you dropped out?
I was at Taco Bell for a while. I was actually working several stores as an assistant manager. Then I got in a second car wreck. I lost my transportation. Everything got a lot more difficult from there. I ended up moving in with a friend. I started working multiple jobs to pay child support and bills.
Later, I got arrested which made things even more difficult. It was much more challenging to find employment, and on top of that, not having a place to stay but having financial obligations – fines and fees – really threw everything over the top. My offense wasn’t super serious. They suspended my sentence as long as I paid the fees and everything, but I didn’t have a place to stay or transportation. It was like I was just constantly trading one challenge for another.
What has been one of your biggest challenges in life?
My biggest employment challenge in life was always the commute. At one point, I was walking to NE 122nd from the day shelter downtown, which took over three hours, to work a ten-hour shift at Waffle House. That was a really big pain because I knew I’d be on my feet for at least seventeen hours. I did this five days a week for about a year. I made around $200 per week after child support. It was something, but it wasn’t really helping.
You could say that things have always been really back and forth for me, and I’ve never really gotten a strong grip on progress. I’ve just tried to stay afloat most of the time.
What about your experience with homelessness?
I was homeless for thirteen years. It was definitely a learning experience for me. I just kept everything in a sleeping bag and carried it around with me everywhere I went. For the most part, I just slept wherever I could until someone told me I couldn’t.
Did you ever feel judged for your situation of homelessness?
Oh yeah. That was a common thing. It was just like a blanket discrimination. Being associated with the homeless population has a really negative impact. It can get discouraging, not everyone is nice.
How did you keep from giving up?
My kids. They’re reaching college age, and I want to know that I did whatever I could to get them where they’re going to make it in life. I don’t want to be a burden on them. That’s really my only concern – what’s best for my kids.
What is it like being back in housing after homelessness?
It is a serious improvement but also an adjustment. I had to sit and write out a checklist of things to do when having a home, just day-to-day things like keeping it clean and stocked. I finally feel like I’m settling into a routine. It’s been a great relief to get some privacy and to get away from some of the negative attitudes and people that I was around in my homelessness. I was feeling a lot of pain towards the end of my homelessness. It wasn’t good for my condition. Even having a couch to sit on is such a huge improvement. Sleeping and sitting on the ground, it’s pretty painful.
Being homeless was pretty difficult for my body. I think it made my injury more painful. I’m not supposed to do any heavy lifting. But I’ve done a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t have in regards to my hip, and I’m really hoping I didn’t put myself in a position to make it worse. I’m thirty-seven, so at this point it’s not that big of a deal. But I know in another twenty or thirty years, I’m probably going to be pretty uncomfortable. I kind of just feel a clock ticking to get stuff together before I get any serious health issues.
What are your goals for the future?
I’d like to get into more permanent employment. As long as I can get my financial obligations taken care of and pay child support to take care of my daughter, I don’t really care what kind of work I get. If I can avoid heavy lifting, that would be good because of my hip. I would go into food service again, but it kind of depends on the nature of the work. There’s a lot of bending and lifting involved and it can be pretty intensive. There’s not really a great market for middle-aged, restricted individuals in that area. The fast food industry is a little more difficult than people think. I volunteered with a caterer at a local church for a while and that was a great experience. I’d be interested in a catering job.
How did you find out about Curbside?
People had been talking about it for a while. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. It wasn’t really what I was looking for, but things never really came together for me in another way. Ultimately, I realized it was the best possible solution for me. Once I learned more about the organization and the mission, I realized it just made sense to be part of it. I feel like it supports the exact things I was worried about, but I also feel like I’m helping other people. For the most part, it’s been great. I really enjoy dealing with people and spreading the message. People are really curious about Curbside and how it’s helping people.
I’ve always loved talking to people and it’s been really uplifting. It’s been really positive for me, and I haven’t had problems paying my bills each month. If you put in the time throughout the month, you don’t really have to worry. Curbside has been a huge help to get away from the negativity of being on the streets. After all these years, it’s nice to see things head in a positive direction. It’s been a real gift, especially after all of the time and effort, to see all of my possibilities now.
What brings you happiness in life?
I always played instruments in school so music was always something I did. But for the most part, I don’t really have a lot of interests other than basketball. The Thunder, of course, are my favorite team and Russ is my favorite player. Someone bought me a Thunder ticket so I could go to see his triple-double ceremony after I got into housing and that was a really great memory. I can’t believe someone would do that for me.
I’ve really been wanting to read lately. That’s something I did a lot as a kid and I’ve been wanting to get back into. Just thinking about my children and what kind of relationship we can have now and environment I can provide makes me happy. Having received Section 8 housing and having a way of making money, I feel like things are on the up. Hopefully it won’t be much longer before I find something more stable and really get my legs under me.