Senior is homeless, but hopeful
When Mary* spent the holidays with her family last year, she didn’t tell them she was homeless.
Mary, age 61, is a former waitress, with a bright smile and an easygoing nature. She has always prided herself on being a strong, self-sufficient woman. Becoming homeless is something she never expected.
She waited tables for 35 years, and typically earned $1,600 to $1,800 a month. While she enjoyed her job, the years of being on her feet took its toll on her legs. Mary had to take a pay cut to work as a cashier, which brought in $1,000 a month. However, even with just standing at the register, she was limping on swollen feet and ankles by the end of her shift.
Then her roommate left with no notice. The rent on their condo was too much for her to afford on her own. By July 2013, she had no place to go.
“I didn’t want any of my family to know. And I know that sounds stupid, but pride goes before a fall,” she said. “I was always very independent, always worked, always took care of myself. I didn’t want to be a burden to any of my family and friends.”
Mary went to a shelter, but couldn’t climb up into the only bunk that was available. She next called her friend, Rose*, who allowed Mary to sleep on her couch. However, it couldn’t be for long, as Rose was moving out of state at the end of the year.
Mary knew she had to find work. She landed a position at a call center, but it turned out to be selling timeshares, so she didn’t stay long.
The end of the year arrived, her deadline for finding a job and a place of her own. Rose and her daughter were moving.
“I had a little bit of cash, a little bit of savings to pay for my own food, get a bus pass, and pay for my storage unit,” she said. “I didn’t tell Rose. She thought I was going to my sister’s. I didn’t tell her I was going to be out on the street.”
Mary began living out of a 24-7 McDonald’s in December 2013.
“I never looked homeless. I always took care of myself, always cleaned up at McDonald’s when they were slow, overnight, so I wouldn’t be bothering anybody,” she said. “I always had on clean clothes, I didn’t smell, my hair was always combed. The only thing that gave me away as a homeless person is that I always had a suitcase.”
For the first three nights, she slept with her head on the table. After that, a female manager told her she really was not supposed to sleep there.
“She said, I know you’re going through a bad time,” Mary recalled. “If you can figure out a way to sleep without your head on the table so it looks like you’re sitting up, you can sleep here overnight.”
Mary stacked two library books and a couple of towels on her purse and slept with her arms folded under her chin, resting on her belongings. She slept this way for six weeks.
During the day, she used the laptop she kept in her suitcase to search for jobs using McDonald’s free wi-fi. Her bus pass enabled her to submit job applications around town.
This system of survival worked until her suitcase – with everything she owned – was stolen. To make matters worse, she was sick with the flu. She panicked, and made a decision that still follows her today.
“I went out to Sears and shoplifted. I’ve never done that before in my life,” Mary said. “It was completely against my character.”
She stole pants, shirts, and underwear, plus dress slacks and low-heeled shoes for job interviews, hiding all the merchandise in her purse. Security caught her on the way out of the store.
The total cost of her theft added up to $303 dollars. Since anything under $300 is considered a misdemeanor, and over $300 is a felony, Mary spent 27 days in jail.
“I slept for the first week I was in there. I just slept, because finally I could recline,” she said. “Even though it was a jail cot, I could lay down and cover up, and I was warm.”
At that point, she called her sister, who was shocked that Mary hadn’t called sooner. She stayed with her sister and roommates for several weeks before calling the Coalition one Friday morning. A bottom bunk in at the Center for Women and Families was available for her on Monday.
“My sister wasn’t crazy about my being in a homeless shelter, but at least I wasn’t out on the street. She felt really bad that she couldn’t help me, but they were in a gated community,” Mary explained. “The biggest thing for her was the probation officer was going to have to come there, and then her roommates would find out that I was a felon, and her landlord might find out that I was a felon, and they need background checks to get in there.”
Once she got to the Coalition, Mary took advantage of several resources. She attended the Goodwill Employability Skills class. For the first time in her life, she created a resume, something she had never needed as a waitress.
She now spends most of her day at CareerSource Central Florida searching for employment. Applying for jobs online was new to her, too. Between hunting and pecking, learning how to navigate online, and having to ask for help, each application takes her two to three hours. She’s improved her typing skills over the last few months, and can now type 35 words per minute.
Job options are limited because of her felony charge, which she said is humiliating. Employers are hesitant to hire someone with a past crime of theft, although Mary does have a bonding letter for interviews.
“I take full responsibility,” she said. “This is my fault. I’ve made my life much, much, much more difficult.”
Mary said her age is also a hindrance to finding employment. This February will mark one year that she’s been looking for a job, but she is still optimistic.
“I feel like I’m going to get one eventually,” she said. “It’s just taking a lot longer than I wanted. There are places that do believe in second chances.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.