My name is Lisa Lee and I experienced the rollercoaster of episodic homelessness for about eight years. I am sharing this story to encourage others to speak their truth and expose their vulnerability. This is vital to our connections with other people and an important element in creating solidarity and educating others. I also mean to disrupt assumptions people often make about people experiencing homelessness and invoke a sense of trauma informed awareness and compassionate interactions.
My story is full of firsts and lasts. Please be aware that it is full of content that may cause discomfort and I will not be offended if you need to walk away as it may trigger some audience members.
The first time I attempted to come out as lesbian, my mother shot me down stating that if I liked girls, I would “be dead” to her. I was in fourth grade. The first time I drank too much, I was eight. The first time I smoked a cigarette, I was eight or nine. I started smoking weed at 11. That was the only drug I tried until after a violent rape at 13 which resulted in pregnancy. My mom said I had to get an abortion or move out. Her friend raped and molested me for the next year, threatening that if I told anyone, he would kill my mother. Later, I found out that he had sexually abused little boys and girls for years. He was a minister, family counselor, and politician.
I spent my youth bouncing between my grandma’s house located within a high density gang ridden neighborhood—“the hood,” “barrio” and my parents’ home in the boonies. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with a known child molester. My memories are foggy from these early childhood experiences but I am still plagued by glimpses caught within nightmares. The first time I saw someone get jumped I was about nine years old.
Police violence and harassment was rampant in that neighborhood and it was clear that immigrants and poor people were made to know their place by constant police surveillance. Most of my friends from the neighborhood had children young, were stabbed or shot, and most ended up in prison. The cycle of poverty and criminalization of class likely reproduce in future generations as options for mobility foreclose to their parents. According to science, adverse childhood experiences are linked to chronic disease, addiction, incarceration, suicide, and premature mortality.
Many people who experience homelessness are intelligent and creative.
I was in AT since first grade and later in all honors and advanced placement courses and graduated high school a full year early. I worked and had my own apartment my final months of my junior year after getting kicked out of my house and living with my grandma briefly. Shortly after graduating, I packed up my car and the little cash savings I had and went to Seattle where I rented a room in a house full of other poor youths. After not being able to find a job and running out of money, I drove my car and a few items to store in Reno where I sold my car and took a bus back to Seattle. I wanted to get as far as I could from this place. After running out of money and not being able to pay rent, I moved to a nearby park and began my journey of homelessness. I was eighteen years old.
I met a lot of interesting people and grew to love my nomadic existence. I went to Rainbow Gatherings, and Grateful Dead shows before I began a love affair with the ultimate trauma numbing elixir—heroin.
This is really when I became entrenched in the chaos of homelessness. I mostly squatted in abandoned buildings, but also found myself sleeping on cardboard on loading docks and in doorways, in parks, ravines, beaches, forests, and in tent cities. I moved around a lot thinking that addiction was linked to place and finding that everywhere I went, there I was again.
I carried my homelessness with me from Philadelphia to Austin to Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, and always returning “home” to Seattle. My daily life centered around survival and staying “well.” During these years, I was assaulted, beaten, shot at, and bent not broken. The experience of living in a young female body meant violence and assaults at the hands of men. It meant waking up to men on top of me, to box cutters in my mouth. It meant living in a hyper vigilant state, always in flight or fight. Afraid of civilians and police. Afraid of losing everything over and over. Afraid of not being able to exist anywhere. I can’t imagine the devastating effects of cortisol and adrenaline production on the body.
I tried numerous paths out of addiction. Methadone, “pill kicks,” cold turkey, and finally treatment on my own accord. Although I relapsed shortly after discharge from treatment, I eventually made my way to freedom from all of this chaos two years later. You see, there was a counselor at the treatment center run by the state that planted a seed. I carried her words and fierce love with me.
She never got to see her seed grow. Her job was a thankless job that focused on the immediacy of detox and the early stages of sobriety. I wish that I could thank her for what she saw in me that I could never see in myself. The last two years of my homelessness and active addiction were full of tough lessons. It was during these years that I delved into polysubstance use with crack cocaine and heroin. There was so much sexual exploitation and violence during this brief period. I ended up living in a tent city and then under a bridge in San Francisco where syringes littered the ground like tainted confetti and people lined up every morning to use the mirror glued to the cement to inject in their necks. This was a time of abscesses and sickness of the type of filth that lodges in your insides as you internalize your social exclusion at the margins.
The last time I went to jail was around June 2001. The last time I got high on heroin was January 4, 2002. My path out of homelessness took shape when I took a job in a fishery in Alaska where room and board was provided as well as transportation from Seattle to Dutch Harbor. I went there with a focus that I would not return to the same life I had lived and was willing to change at all costs. I kicked methadone while working seven days a week, 12-18 hours per day. My bones hurt, I couldn’t sleep, and worked through waves of nausea and tremors. My mantra was I will never feel like this again. I went to Alaska a broken 26-year-old. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, with rounded shoulders from looking down all of the time. I left Alaska a strong young woman (really, I was ripped) who boldly shook hands and looked everyone in the eyes. I knew who I was and what I was made of. I was in my power.
Back in the lower 48, I cut ties with everyone and everything from my past. I got a job right away and enrolled in alcohol and drug counseling classes. I took every class they had to offer. I reinvented myself and my priorities.
April 22, 2006, I gave birth to my first child. October 4, 2007 I bought a house. I worked, and attended school. It was a slow process but true to my street name, Turtle. On May 10, 2012, I had another child with multiple congenital anomalies and a genetic disorder and took care of my dying father on hospice in my home.
In May 2014, I graduated with a BA in anthropology and minors in sociology and religious studies. I was accepted into graduate school, conducted independent fieldwork, research, and fell in love with the mission of HOPES. I finally got a chance to really improve things for my people. My people. It was much more than a job to me.
In December 2017, I earned a master’s degree and in February 2018 I purchased my second house. Can you believe it? Once a broken junkie, now a fearless warrior.
Now in my role as a Program Director at The Life Change Center, I work with individuals affected by their use of opiates which often intersects with homelessness. I get to develop programs that challenge stigma and save lives. I’m part of a team of dedicated professionals ranging from counselors, case managers, therapists, and peer recovery and support specialists. This is my passion. It’s what I live and breathe. It’s what keeps me up at night, it’s what I research in my free time, it’s what wakes me in the morning. It also rips all of my scabs off everyday, the wounds I thought were healed. It triggers anxieties and motivates me to stay the course. It keeps me grounded and gives me gratitude that I stand on this side of the path. A lot has changed in my life in the sixteen years I have been housed. Addiction and homelessness tore me down to my foundation. I hit bottom and with a spoon and a syringe I kept digging to see if the bottom had a basement. My recovery journey taught me how to build everything back up, from the foundation, and live a life worth living. How to repurpose from rubbish.
My path out of homelessness did not involve traditional services or service providers that work every day to end homelessness. Although without youth drop-in centers and community clinics, I probably would not be here today. Those lovely folks gave me just enough humanity to not become completely feral, though I was wily and skittish.
The friendships and compassion of other people like me—my tribe, so to speak, are what really kept me alive and kept me going. Although I lost far too many radiant friends to drugs or violence, I would like to mention a few of them: Little Stevie, a kind and funny young man was burned to death as someone poured gasoline on him and lit him on fire as he slept. Squid was stabbed to death. Frenchie is dead. Boyd is dead. Alex is dead. Raven, Kevin, Cunt, Chuckie, Teddy, and so many others are dead.
And my sweet Indio died of an overdose and was found a week later with his dog leashed to his leg. Good people taken too soon. The camaraderie, sense of community, and love from the folks I camped with or squatted with is unmatched in places I have experienced as a housed person. In fact, a few people that I suffered the streets with are still in my lives, every one of them has a Master’s degree, and every one of them works as a service provider to help the community we love so much.
You see, the term homeless denotes that a person has no place of belonging. In our culture, we construct the term “home” with cultural idioms like “home is where the heart is,” “home is where you hang your hat,” etc. When an entire group of people are socially imagined as an amorphous blob that negates a sense of belonging anywhere, the sting becomes internalized.
Each moment, each day, in each city, one is reminded that they don’t belong in these places. One cannot use the restroom to relieve bodily functions, sit in a public space without ridicule, scorn, and the “hairy eyeball” (trust me, you know it when you see it). Sometimes, you just become invisible—sometimes, to the point where you lose a sense of existing at all.
This is an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. For me, I became extremely skittish and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. In reality, I had trouble re-assimilating. When you see a person without a house, say hello, ask their name, sit down and have a conversation. Trust that it will help both of you. Trust that kindness carries the power to quiet internalized oppression and symbolic violence. Trust that kindness fights stigma. Dare to see how structural forces like poverty, class structures, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. intersect with houselessness.
Dare to see how cultural reproduction affects everyone around you. Challenge these structures any way you can. Connection and relationships can repair what was damaged due to adverse childhood experiences. Lastly, before you or anyone you know paints a person without a house as a victim or as “undeserving poor” know this—we are resilient despite our struggles. We are deserving of having our basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and fulfillment met, despite our mistakes. You do not have to “save” us, or find us “worthy” of being saved. Plant a seed. Smile. Be kind and love one another.