Mary’s Story

My name is Mary and I was homeless for 10 years. I am here to share my story. 

My son was born in Santa Cruz and became sick when he was 17. I had enrolled him in five different schools but he couldn’t focus. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at Austin State Hospital in Texas. A while later I got married to a man who drank constantly. He hid his mental instability by lying and making up stories. This disastrous union made me flee to Santa Cruz. By this time I had moved three times and was scrambling to maintain my own sanity. 

When I moved back to Santa Cruz, I was unaware of the security deposit program from the Housing Authority that I was eligible for. I was going through various degrees of alcoholism and was dealing with two mentally-ill people when I became homeless. I found some people I knew and was invited to camp with them. It was between two highways and rather dangerous to get to. 

We started asking CalTrans for garbage bags. Lee (the supervisor) was cool and we developed a good rapport. He started leaving the bags for us up by the guardrail. We unofficially called ourselves “Pack Your Trash”. The camp had greenery and seemed like an oasis. Keeping the area clean made it seem normal when living outside. I was motivated to clean up the various trails and camps I’d find myself in. One of the hazards was needles and since I didn’t use gloves, I once got poked.

At first, living outside was fun. It seemed like an adventure of sorts. Getting arrested changed all that. San Lorenzo Park was the hangout place, like a social hour without walls. It was routine for the police to come by to conduct random checks on people. I had been drinking and this afternoon I was targeted. Officer E. Butler (rest in peace) was the arresting officer. She told me I had an out of county warrant which was why I had to go to jail. 3 nights later, I was extradited to Butte County for a domestic violence warrant. I was in jail for a total of 31 days. When I went to court, the charges were dismissed. This jail thing was a total DRAG! I ended up hitchhiking back, trying to beat the cold rainstorms. 

Over time, finding myself on the wrong side of the law became more common. It was comical to me, giving an alias when issued a ticket and signing “under duress”. Becoming notorious for my questioning authority, people started calling me “Crazy Mary”. Changing strategies; I would get up and walk away to avoid confrontation. 

If justice is a woman, is law a man? This was my version of comic relief. So much for being profiled!

My cosmic feng shui is a road trip. A friend had a car so we traveled to Big Sur a couple of times. One time I took the Greyhound up to Humboldt County, thinking we could get employment with a grower which never happened. To get back we got bicycles with trailers and rode 200 miles. South of Fortuna, we turned onto Highway 254. It is called “Avenue of the Giants” and the trees there were fantastically huge. Riding long distances on bicycles is an adventure I will always remember. Hitchhiking to New Mexico in 2009 to participate in Rainbow Gathering was another positive trip I did. 

At one point, I had bugs (head lice) so bad, I walked into the Dominican Emergency Room. I got seen by a doctor and then took a shower for my hair treatment. This took a while. When it was time for my discharge, I refused to leave, saying I was depressed and didn’t want to live. A security guard escorted me over to behavioral health behind the hospital. Another hour and I was interviewed. The nurse clinician said I needed to quit alcohol. They paid for a taxi to a Beach Flats motel at 2 am for which I was grateful. 

I was on the street briefly in the late 70s, traveling and getting work through temporary agencies. Life seemed simple back then. This last experience of being on the street was hard. I knew some people who joined a church for help with housing. What was required was a shift in my attitude. I applied for every housing list I could find. The people at Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP) helped me get out of a rut. In 2007 I got signed up for housing through them. It was 4 years and after I was attacked, I finally got off the streets. I was in Mariposa Women’s Shelter for 2 months and then River Street Shelter. 

Then an opening through the MATCH Program occurred. 

Walking into my new place was exhilarating. This made up for the years I tried to escape an abusive relationship. Transitioning was a bit harder. I suffered nightmares for months and anxiety attacks. I enrolled my son and I in a peer-to-peer National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) class. I signed us both up for community service to work off all the tickets and repair my credit. I wanted to feel like a citizen. I also enrolled in a mail-order bible study and read this to my son. My spirit was willing but my body still rebelled. I found out I had an autoimmune disease from living in contaminated dirt which I had to get treatment for. 

Now I meditate and am in counseling and energy therapy. I feel stronger. I am defying the odds. 

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