Dawnell’s Story

Being a woman on the streets is terrifying. 

My children were out there living their lives and I had to try and tell them that I was okay and that everything was going to be alright. Calling my family and telling them I live in a tent… it was really hard. Really, really hard. Finally I just separated myself from everybody and stayed by myself.

I was able to get into Housing Matters by the skin of my teeth. I was kicked out of my place on Thanksgiving and had nowhere to go, so I came to Housing Matters. They were able to help me get a housing voucher and I moved into a place within a year. 

I settled into my new place and had started working but I was really afraid that I was going to be homeless again. I was constantly on edge about possibly losing my voucher or my place. 

It has been a year and a half, and by Christmas this year it’ll be two years since I’ve been housed.

I am really proud of myself. It feels so good to not have to worry and stress and be frantic about coming up with rent. I live in a trailer and pay $2,300 which is just so unobtainable for me and so many people in this town. I am so grateful every day for my voucher and the support I receive.

I was homeless for five years. Five years out there was hard. The first three were crazy and then the last two weren’t as bad because I was finally ready to ask for help. At the end, I was staying with a friend but then COVID hit and they didn’t feel comfortable having people in the house, so I was back on the streets. I was so scared to become homeless again but then a miracle happened and Evyn found me a spot at Housing Matters.. 

Every single day I had to plan where I was gonna lay my head, that was the hardest and scariest part. Some nights I even actually slept on the street underneath a light so that I’d know I’d wake up in the morning because I wouldn’t know what’s going on in the nighttime. The nighttime gets crazy out there… along the tracks and everywhere. 

For the first year, I stuck with a friend of mine and he helped me out a lot. He’s an older gentleman and has been out there for years on the streets. He built a structure like the barracks that they do in the army so we stayed completely dry. My first winter out here, I stayed completely dry because of him. I moved on to other people, and then I tried living alone, but that’s really hard on the tracks by yourself, as a woman especially.

It’s hard to know who to trust. People will rip you off. They take everything from you so if you leave your place to go get some food for your day or a shower and you come back people may have ransacked your tent. I would come back and see three women with my clothes on. I made friends with a lot of the old timers because it’s safer that way. They help protect you because they’ve been out here forever. You learn hard lessons quickly, very quickly. And I learned that keeping your stuff out here is not good. You just can’t do it, there’s no reason to even try. 

The second year my place caught on fire, so everything burnt to a crisp. The whole tent and everything inside was fried while I was away getting food in town. I thank God every day that I was not in that tent. 

So I started over and over again. It’s really best to just keep a backpack on you and only that because everything else you own will be destroyed one way or another. 

Plus my self-esteem was low the whole time. I felt the pressure of society on me and there is so much shame. I never saw this for myself and never imagined it going on for a year let alone five years. 

I was trying to use the facilities as much as possible, take consistent showers but I wanted more. Brian Lands worked with me a lot too, I kept coming in for evaluations and taking them as often as I could to stay on his radar. When Evyn said you’re going into shelter, I was like, “oh, thank God”. It was getting to be too hard for me. I wanted to own things and have stability. I was so tired of moving my stuff around and around and around and sitting with it and protecting it 24/7. 

I got to bring my stuff in and it was the biggest relief. I can’t even tell you how much I felt like a new person, a brand new person with a new drive. 

I was placed in the shelter and had two different case managers who are still in my life to this day. They were very supportive of me getting a job and it was just like my own cheerleading squad. It felt really good having the support from them and it was really nice. 

Because of Housing Matters, I found out about the methadone clinic, so I was able to get in, which helped me wean off of the opioids. Now I’m clean and have been for 2 years. I got a lot of stuff out of being here. I have my primary care providers right here at Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP) and that’s the only place I’ll go for a doctor because they treat me with dignity.

I wanted to be off of the drugs but just couldn’t do it on my own. I was so tired of hurting myself. Using [drugs] was taking a toll on my body. I’d get abscesses that were super painful. It’d take me out for a week or two because they’re so painful to have and they last very long. It’s hard to not get infected out there because you can’t be clean every day. I got on the methadone immediately because I just couldn’t stand hurting myself anymore. I was so tired of that.

I have had extremely lower back issues for a while now. I have a shattered tailbone and I can only sit or lay for so long. Doing drugs helped that go away. Opioids took the pain away and I could actually move and get around. That was the only way I could deal with it on the streets. Because it’s so cold out there.

You’re on the concrete or on the ground and if you can’t find cardboard, you’re screwed, you freeze. It’s so painful. So it got to a point where opioids truly felt like my only option to ensure my survival. Any doctor I went to just wrote me off as a crazy person because I was homeless but in reality I was in an unmanageable amount of pain. 

Everything has changed since I became sober and being housed is everything. I have my daughter and I have a relationship with her now. She comes over and spends time with me which I didn’t have before. My other kids are getting to know me. My son has gotten ahold of me and he’s starting to come around.

They’re seeing that I’m back in the world doing things and doing life again. That’s been really nice. Having the security of having a place to lay my head every night is the greatest gift there is. And when you come from the bottom to the top like that, it makes it much more valuable to me now. More valuable than it has ever been. I come to Housing Matters on a weekly basis because I check my mail here. I talk to people that are still out there and tell them “you know, what are you doing? Get yourself into this. Do what I did.” And they say “Where are you? We haven’t seen you.” And I say, “because I got a house, I got a job, I got a car, you know, I have a driver’s license”.

Now I have everything again. But I didn’t sit out here and complain continuously. It was something I wanted. When you get tired of it, you get tired of it.

We’re humans too and treat us with respect. Don’t be so judgmental. Definitely don’t be so judgmental cuz we’re not all the same. We all bleed the same. Every one of us feels the same, we’re all experiencing the same things. 

If you don’t show up for your life. How can you have one? How can anything get any better? . 

My daughter’s having a baby boy. So what’s next for me is being a grandma. And my house allows me to truly be a grandma. So I’m looking forward to watching him and helping her out with that and supporting her. 

It’s still hard. I still worry that they might decide not to want me there anymore or I could go back to being homeless any day. I think that it could all be taken away, just like it was given to me. 

This story was collected in June 2023 by Andrea Feltz, Community Conversations Program Manager