Smiles of Humanity
Debbie is 52 and has been in and out of homelessness for the past 4 years.
Her dream of building a homeless shelter for women motivates her every day and she has recently registered "Deb's House" as a nonprofit organization.
Debbie, what makes you smile?
"Oh, babies. Honestly if I hold a baby, there's just such peace in that.
And helping people brings me joy.
Under the bridge, they'd call me mom. That's why I want to build Deb's House, so I can take care of people like they're my own."
Tell me about yourself.
I'm a work in progress. The goals I have are opening Deb's House and helping all these women that are treated like crap and ignored and really want help. And I'm not there yet. And the things I want to change about myself, I'm not there yet.
How did you become homeless?
I was middle class, then it all came about because backstabbing family when my mom died. And it just went downhill after that. Stuff happens. I reached a point where they took my kids away from me and I just didn't care anymore. I lost 5 people in 9 months and my world collapsed.
What was it like? To become homeless?
No belongings, just there you were with nothing. It was a rude awakening and terrifying. Very terrifying. What do you do? How do you act? Where do you go? I locked onto the first person that didn't try to take advantage of me and begged him, "What do I do? Help." and luckily I found somebody.
What happened next? How did you survive?
I lived under the bridge at Runberg for 3 years. And I have an ex who lives up there off of Runberg at the trailer park. He did all these odd jobs like mowing parks and cleaning parking lots, and I kept begging him like "Put me to work, put me to work. I don't wanna wash windshields, I wanna make real money." Finally he couldn't find anyone to work for him one day and finally he said "Here's your chance." What we did was cleaned parking lots at night. During that time I fell into the on-offs for the big businesses, it looks like a manhole. It's this deep (standing up, mid thigh), and I walked right into it, middle of the night. You're supposed to lock on the manhole covers, and it was totally missing. So when I went in, I did like this and slammed back. The last thing I heard was my back went "Crrrrck" and boom, because I slammed my head. So I now have unspecified seizures, migraines, and my back's fried. It took 3 years to get my disability.
What happened after that?
We had broken up, I was homeless again for a while. I got housing, I was in the housing, and a dope dealer shoved in my door, took it over for his dope house, so I quit paying the rent and got evicted because I was terrified he was going to kill me.
And you went back to live on the streets again?
So then, another ex said "Come stay with me." We lived right here at Manchac by the library. When the apartments got bought out, they remodeled every empty apartment and sent notes out -- "You can move into a remodeled apartment." It was smaller than the one we were in and they wanted $300 more every month. And we said "No, we'll sit out our lease" -- we had 6 more months. The next month, we get "Well, we found a loophole in the lease, you're evicted. Get out now." So he moved to Houston to take care of his mother. So I ended up at the Salvation Army.
How did you know to go to Salvation Army?
I spent a week there before and when it happened, I caught pneumonia and ended up in the hospital. When I got out of the hospital, all my stuff had been locked in my locker and they had rifled through everything and every pill that I had that was sellable was gone. I left that day and didn't go back. This time, I slept in front of the church the first night, got up the next morning and went to sign up. I got lucky, I knew the lady that was running the front desk. So instead of getting "safe sleep" where you have to tote your stuff with you, she went ahead and put me in a bunk. I stayed 90 days there. You still get treated less than. Nobody should be treated that way -- nobody.
What do you do day to day?
Make people smile, help as much as I can, even if it's just "Hey, I know this resource" or whatever it is I can help with. Every single day. If it's a bus pass, or if it's a warm jacket. Whatever I got, you got. It's not a lot, but it's gonna make people smile and change their lives a little bit and let those people know that somebody does care.
Were there people who did that for you?
No, not really. There was a few, who were awesome. The day before my disability hearing, I was flying a sign at Lamar and a lady says "Can you meet me in the parking lot at the gas station?" And I said "Sure." And I ran over there. She says "Why are you out here doing this?" And I told her that I was homeless and I had my disability hearing the next day and that I was trying to get enough money to go to the cheap motel and go to sleep and get a shower and look nice for my hearing. She took me to dinner, called her wife, told her she was talking to this really nice lady who was homeless. She got me a motel room, gave me all the cash in her wallet, which was about 40 bucks and said "Good luck" and I never saw her again. I want to be that awesome person for people that I see. Because she really touched me. You know, for her to just treat me like a real person and listen to what was going on in my life and care. That made such a difference to me. I want to be that for everybody.
How do you see the world since that happened?
When you're homeless, people won't look at you in the face. Um, even when you're walking down the street, they try to ignore you like you don't exist. I don't know if it's because they don't know how to treat you, or if they don't want to think about "Oh, there's homeless people here," or if they're afraid that they're gonna end up like that. I don't know. But it's very degrading. When I was homeless, I just really wanted people to look me in the eyes, give me a smile -- acknowledge me. I'm not invisible, I'm here, I'm not a bad person, and I'm not contagious. I just hit a bump in the road.
How would acknowledgement have changed your circumstance?
If people smiled at me, it would have just made me feel human. A lot of times, you don't feel like there's that light at the end of the tunnel. And having people acknowledge your existence changes that.
What does that smile mean for you?
To be able to smile like that? It means, oh gosh, that things are going good. And something's right in the world. And to see it on somebody else, that's everything. It's just everything. It means joy -- in spite of everything, they still have joy. And that's beautiful.
What's the light at the end of the tunnel look like for you?
Having a place to lay my head. When I shut the door, it's just me. And having a place for everyone else to lay their head. That they don't have to worry about "Oh, I only have 5 more days and I have to find somewhere else to go." I have God in my life, and I care about people. I don't want anyone else to go through what I've been through. I want to be the crash-test dummy and now it's over. I just know that I did it and I don't want anybody else to have to do it. Let's change that.
What would you say to everyone out there?
You don't have to say anything. Eye contact and a smile says everything. If you just look at people and smile. That true smile -- that means a lot. To be able to do it, and to be able to see it.