Featured photo: A shot taken by Stella during her time living unhoused. All photos taken by Stella Oh.
This essay by Stella Oh is the first in our “My Unhoused Story” series in which we share the first-person experiences of people who are currently experiencing or have experienced houselessness. Read future stories here.
A note on language: We at Triad City Beat use the words “homeless,” “unhoused” and “houseless” interchangeably. But with this series, we have chosen to use the word “unhoused” for the title. Here’s why. However, each story will use different words because we allow the writers themselves to choose the words that best describe their experiences.
No one chooses to be homeless, you say?
Well, I did, because I thought it would be better than living with my parents after yet another psychiatric hospitalization. The pandemic was a turbulent time for me, with every year landing me in the mental hospital. I was broken and beaten up, and believed that I could make it outside of the comforts of my home. I thought living with my parents was useless and even dangerous. When they sent me to a mental institution in Hickory last year outside of my resident county of Guilford, I declared I did not want to return home to my parents. I was adamant, and they told me: “Well, then I will be going to a homeless shelter.” It turned to be the Salvation Army in the area.
I have bipolar disorder. I have lived with it since my late teens. I believe it robbed me of many things, although my constant mantra is, “I cannot blame everything on my mental illness.” I think it ruined my chances of being successful at most things I’ve tried, especially as a career. I try to cope, doing what I can to survive. Currently, I have not worked for several months.
The Salvation Army in Hickory was like an adventure for me at first. And I wonder if I stuck out, as I did not see anyone like me there. I wonder if many wanted me to make it, and I wonder if many thought that I just might not.
But as things would go perhaps inevitably for me, I met a man and struck a romance. That resulted in a pregnancy, and I soon decided that it would be better to return to my parents with whom I have made amends. I remember the moment I had a meal with my parents and my long-time boyfriend after the father of my child left me. With his help, I revealed that I was pregnant. And at the ripe old age of 40 at that. My parents were surprised and upset at first, but they supported me in the end. God truly blessed me. The father of the baby practically abandoned me, but my family and trusted boyfriend did not.
I was desperate when I chose my homeless life. I was not quite in my right mind either, I can now admit. I remember upon being discharged from the hospital, I was driven to a location not far away in a taxi and had to get myself to the shelter. I tried to do well there. I volunteered at the kitchen. I went to the women’s day shelter regularly and spoke with a counselor for guidance. I got two jobs, one after another.
Things seemed bleak at times, however. I did not do well on my own, and Section 8 Housing seemed like an arduous process and dangerous for me, as I was not fond of living on my own. I doubted there was a real chance with that. An opportunity came to go to the halfway house for women looking for housing, but I lost that chance as I soon disappeared into a birthday road trip with my long-term boyfriend. I was also going to grad school online, which turned out horribly in my situation.
People come to the homeless shelter for different reasons, and I don’t imagine them to be good. I have known people who shared they were abused, were in prison, had mental illnesses not too different from mine, and on. I cannot say that every single one of them has not given up on life. However, a lot of homeless people do their best to make a better future for themselves. I do not think it is fair to label them as crazy, lazy and addicted, although that is the harsh reality at times.
I did my part in trying to help as well, giving people rides and buying them items as able, although some were not for the best reasons. Others helped us, too. I remember a homeless Christian ministry that shelters people. I was fond of the pastor there as he cared tremendously for us. He was a Southern guy with an accent to boot, a very caring man. He drove the buses back and forth from the church several times just to corral us all there.
Eventually I realized that Hannah, my newborn daughter, is God’s gift to me, and perhaps a big stop sign in the chaos of my life. I have someone else in my life to take care of now. I need to wake up and straighten up. I am still treading the waters, trying to learn how to be a new mom and find a job.
But what I want to say is that homeless people are people too. They have needs and they have desires. Sometimes they make wrong choices in life, but there are certainly plenty of those who try to do good and share. Some I can tell have been touched by God and transformed and could help someone else. I heard so many heartbreaking stories during my time at the homeless shelter. Sometimes I felt helpless. Sometimes I thought, There are only so many things a person can do, it has to be God to help them. I hope that some have found their way today.
Mine came as a bundle of joy.
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