When you’re a child, you should wake up from a nightmare in a warm bed with parents who comfort you.
My sibling and I were awake when we had our nightmare. We lost our childhood on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 pm. My first experience of being homeless was the great earthquake. We lived in an old cabin in Boulder Creek, California. I was doing my homework when everything came off the walls, the windows shattered and it became dark.
It was winter and our rental was red-tagged. We were staying at the Saint Michael’s church shelter. I was given soft toys with smiling faces and was told it would make me feel better. I could not sleep in the giant room in the rubber bunk bed in sleeping bags. I could hear my mother screaming when the church shelter was closing.
We hid in the red-tagged home. It was not heated and dark. We could not turn on flashlights because people would know we were there. My siblings and I learned how to move in the dark and adjust to our new reality. Eventually, we got housing in another cabin deeper in the woods of Boulder Creek. For a long time, we still slept outside in fear of another earthquake.
My mother struggled with mental health and was not able to keep us a healthy home, even while working multiple jobs. Our mother struggled to keep food on the table and pay the bills.
It left us vulnerable to the world. Often we were taken advantage of by men — the violation of skin and physical harm. My siblings and I couch-surfed and would try not to come home.
I became pregnant at fifteen and was put in foster care. After they arrested the dark man who assaulted me in my mother’s home, my son and I were placed in different foster homes. A Santa Cruz cop and his family took care of my son. While I was put into a foster home in Watsonville and the family was not happy I was there. I left immediately. I ran from CPS and the officer’s family let me see my son.
I got a place for my son and I at 18 years old and we began our new chapter. My education was stopped at 6th grade. I was “homeschooled” so I could work and help watch my brother so my mother could work. I went to Cabrillo and did my gen ed. in criminal justice. I wanted to work in criminal rehabilitation.
I went to school for a couple of years when I wanted to reclaim my roots. I began to go to indigenous gatherings where I found my partner and his family. My son and I moved to a reservation in the desert, and I began an internship at the county probation department.
Another son was growing in my belly and the medical care was poor there. I didn’t have good prenatal care. When my son was born, he was purple and had complications. Just a few weeks old, he became seriously ill and we were told to drive him four hours south to a children’s hospital for his care.
My partner slept in the car while I stayed with my newborn. My baby was exposed to bacteria that made him bleed from his guts, the hospital said. He was in isolation and I could not feed him. He was taped up with IV and given strong antibiotics. His grandmother called the bear dancers to come to the hospital and pray over her grandson. When the bear men came and did their blessing, my son grew strong and we left the hospital, returned to the rez, and took him into the lodge with the elders.
My fears arose as our home was unsafe for my children. My son had medical needs that a small clinic on the reservation couldn’t take care of. I had made a decision to leave after we could not figure out what was making my baby sick. I left everything, just took my kids and whatever truck I got working in the driveway. For my oldest son, it was his last day of school the next day, but I could not wait. We gave no notice to anyone we just left.
The truck kept breaking down, and the family on the rez were looking for us. I eventually broke down on the highway in the middle of the night. It was freezing on Donner Pass. I put one son in his cradleboard and held the other son’s hand as we walked on the dark highway a few miles to a truck stop. I had enough change to make two calls: I made one to our family on the reservation and a call to my family in Santa Cruz. I told both families where I was and that whoever got here first would determine our future.
It was a thirty-six-minute difference. My family from Santa Cruz showed up first. We had lost everything, but I knew we were safer in Santa Cruz for my kids to get better health care. I tried to live with my biological mother but her mental health was suffering and we needed to have another place to stay. We got into the Rebele Family Shelter. They gave me a plan to follow and enough time to give my family a chance at a healthier home. I still suffered from my own PTSD and I felt I needed to find another native male to keep me safe.
In this new world, I could not navigate. I slipped into another domestic violence situation with a partner who struggled with alcohol. We left the shelter and moved into a small van. I became pregnant with my third child. I wash my kids in the Safeway sink and parked the van in different places throughout the day. I only ate once a day and breastfed my son who was not even two. I lost a lot of weight. No one could tell I was pregnant.
My partner got intoxicated one night and kicked me in the stomach and tore my daughter’s placenta. I was flown to a hospital in the city and was told I needed to be monitored daily. It was unlikely my baby would make it. My partner left us in a broken-down van on Highway 1 covered in his piss and vomit.
We were placed in a Watsonville women’s shelter where I could go daily to the hospital to monitor the baby. My children and I slept on the bottom bunk bed on a rubber mattress. I was familiar with this situation. Like the last time at the shelter, I remembered how unsafe I was and let the kids sleep while I stood watch. This shelter woke us up at the crack of dawn and we were out till nightfall.
I roamed with the kids to different parks trying to stay at the Capitola Mall’s children’s play area because it was warm. I was placed in a transitional shelter. My children and I stayed in a one-room studio. The toilet was at the end of the bed. It was a miracle to me and I was able to give birth to my 3rd child. The doctors could not believe I was giving birth. It didn’t even look like I was pregnant. She was born with no body fat, and thin red skin. Preemie clothes were big on her.
I got a section 8 voucher and found a home in Felton. My kids grew up in a stable environment with a yard and a warm place. The baby got fat and my son got proper medical attention. We were displaced again and went home to the rez for a while before we got our second home in Santa Cruz.
It was a different world from the cabin in the woods. I struggled with keeping my kids indoors away from gang activity. We dealt with shootings and would hide in the bathtub, scared of crossfire. The kids missed having chickens and playing in a yard climbing trees. I got a Japanese maple and promised them by Christmas we would move and plant the tree in our own yard and they could climb trees again. But the years passed; each Christmas passing and children losing hope. As their childhood slips away, the dream of a yard with a tree they can climb becomes distant. The tree began to lose its leaves and I tried everything to keep the tree alive, but it died and my kid’s hopes died with it.
We try to make our space work even with the issues. It is a place where I can keep my kids dry and make them food. It is not a home but it’s a step to a someday impossible dream. I don’t complain. I know it could be worse. But my children need land, a place to grow roots again. We live on top of each other in a tiny place. My son still has lifelong health issues. Walking and doing basic tasks are a huge struggle for him. We live in a second-story apartment with cement stairs. He has a walker he can use in the home. We have to park the van far from our place even with our disabled placard.
I am blessed we have good health care and my kids are able to have proper care. Our hopes are to find a sustainable living situation for my kids’ special needs and where they can feel safe to go outside.
This story was written in June 2023 by Mace Crowbear
10% of survey respondents from the 2023 Santa Cruz County Point-in-Time Count report Family/Domestic Violence as the primary condition that led to their homelessness while 34% reported experiencing domestic violence at some point in their lives.