In March 2023 Third-term AmeriCorps Member Heike Hyson helped house a woman who had been on the streets of Santa Barbara for six years.

By Heike HysonAmeriCorps Member

When I first started with homeless outreach, I was very unsure of myself. There were a myriad of thoughts and fears ranging from safety concerns to how to respond to mental illness. The truth is, I did not understand the homeless and was operating on my social conditioning and my stigmas surrounding homelessness. I quickly learned there is nothing to fear, they are people just like the rest of us, only they do not have a roof over their heads.

One of my first encounters as an AmeriCorps homeless outreach member was when I met Gina in the fall of 2019. I navigate my way down a steep embankment in a wooded area with a slippery path and heavy leaf cover. I was feeling confident as I had visited this homeless encampment before and had been introduced by an experienced team.

As I approached the area, I loudly announced myself. Gina cheerily responded and invited me “inside.” She and her partner had partitioned off their area with wires strung up around the tree trunks and tarps attached to them. I immediately noticed her nicely done hair and make-up.

Gina explained that she heats water on their two-burner propane stove and sponge washes each day. It is important for her to maintain normalcy and a routine while she is homeless and figuring out her next steps. She noticed the laundry flapping in the breeze, and she confirmed that she uses dishwater to wash her clothes each day.

I listened as she retold her story. She had voluntarily left an abusive relationship and then fallen for someone who introduced her to heroin. Before that she had worked as an office manager at a Family Service Agency. As she became more rooted in her addiction, she lost her job. Nothing mattered anymore. Her children were taken from her by Child Protective Services and placed into foster care. Everything continued spiraling downwards, and she now had two DUIs on her record as well, and her car was taken from her. She had lost everything.

Rather than continue her spiral downwards, she made the decision to end her addiction and change her life. She left the relationship and the drugs behind and went into treatment and intense counseling. She struggled over the next few years to stay sober while being homeless, agonizing over the reality that she had lost her children due to her addiction. She persevered with her Zoom counseling sessions through the pandemic. She was determined to succeed and to rebuild her life.

At one point, I lost touch with Gina. A year passed, and Gina called me in tears after being exited from her hotel. She had lost her housing voucher, temporary hotel accommodation, and was back in her homeless encampment.

Fearful and with few supplies for outdoor living, she reached out to me for help in the afternoon of January 2022. She relayed her story to a reporter who aired it on the local news station. I listened to the tearful summation, infused with frustration, regret and anger. How tempting it may be for any of us, when circumstances do not unfold the way we may expect, to shift the responsibility onto another. As AmeriCorps case workers, we always strive to empower our clients to be accountable for their decisions, actions, and end results.

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Everyone’s heart went out to Gina and all those involved could feel her pain and anguish. Gina herself refused to give up and claim defeat. She and her partner rescued themselves from repeated and complete flooding of their encampment after torrential rainfalls this winter. She suffered through three poison oak infections and spider bites causing unbearable itching. She stayed sober through it all despite the stress. What was her primary motivator? To get custody of her children back.

The AmeriCorps team coordinated efforts with multiple agencies and advocated on her behalf: The Public Defender’s office helped her work towards getting her license reinstated after seven years. Other agencies donated funds to pull her car out of the impound. Even her Child Welfare Services case worker vowed to assist her complete the paperwork for custody of her children, again.

A place was quickly identified. Her housing applications were signed, stamped, and approved, and she spent her first night in her very own studio apartment, March 8, 2023. Full of joy and happiness for her, I went to visit Gina in her new place. She flung the door open to welcome me, beaming with victory! After the grand tour of her studio, sat together on her bare mattress.

As we reminisced about the “old days” in her encampment, she reminded me of the time I visited with a trunk full of donated clothing, that somehow, miraculously, were all her size. We both recalled the joy of the moment, how she rummaged through the clothing pulling one favorite color or style after another out of the bags and stuffing them under her arm. She had paused back then, suddenly, and looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, “This is like Christmas, and I haven’t had Christmas in a very long time.” I felt the tears well up in my own eyes. That day, over two years ago, and today as I sit next to Gina on the bare mattress in her new home, I feel the warmth in my heart as I am reminded why I do this work. Tears of joy, again fill my eyes, and I embrace her in a big hug.

We do not change the world all at once, but each day, one person at a time.

AmeriCorps Member Heike Hyson (R) with client Gina housed 03 2023