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Alaina Watson

June 3, 2009

What is homeless?

One woman's story

Alaina Watson’s semi-trailer was loaded with 40 tons of charcoal when she started down the West Virginia mountain.

She was only an hour into a long shift of driving, but hoped to make good time so she could return to Louisville in a week. Strictly as a precaution, she activated her engine brakes and began the steep descent.

That’s when Alaina realized the truck’s speed was inexplicably creeping upward. She stepped on the brake pedal but there was no response.

Panic swept over her as the rig accelerated down the steep grade. Alaina steered for the middle of the road, trying desperately to stay away from the treacherous mountain ledges. Whenever a car came from the opposing direction, she managed to maneuver her truck back to its lane. “If I was going to die, I didn’t want to take anybody with me,” she said.

Finally, she decided there was nothing more she could do — the truck was out of control. She resolved to pick up her cell phone and dial her mother to say goodbye. She would just take one hand off the wheel and surrender to the inevitable. She’d careen off into space, perhaps not even feeling the crash.

Then she saw a road sign indicating that she’d almost reached the bottom of Allegheny Mountain. She gripped the wheel tightly. She would do everything possible to survive.

Alaina came to the last steep turn. She wrestled her wheel around the hairpin curve, thinking perhaps a miracle had happened; maybe she’d made it down unscathed. But at that moment, on that final turn, one of her rig’s overheated drive tires finally blew out.

“My truck, it just flipped,” she recalled. It crashed through a flimsy guardrail and turned upside-down, with the cab hanging precariously off the highway and the trailer dangling into a steep ravine. Windows shattered and metal groaned. Her rig, seemingly in slow motion, finally ground to a halt on its back. She was hanging upside-down from her seatbelt, completely winded — but alive.

Two good Samaritans ran to her truck and cut away her seatbelt. One man held her hand as she lay trapped in the wreckage, waiting for the rescue squad. It took the crew almost an hour to cut through metal, extricating Alaina from the remains of her cab.

It seemed like forever waiting, but once she was out, Alaina could understand why it took so long. Her truck was a only mangle of metal with a dark hole where the driver’s compartment should have been. She was lucky to be alive.

Wreckage

It might be fair to say that strip of mountainous highway provided the most harrowing few moments of Alaina’s 35 years. But the road wasn’t the first time she was trapped in wreckage and emerged, wounded but alive. She’s spent years trying to crawl out from the aftermath of one disaster after another.

After all, Alaina Watson has been homeless twice in her adult life.

Perhaps we should begin with Alaina’s eviction from her apartment in November 2004, or the day, soon afterward, when she moved in with an abusive man so she wouldn’t have to live on the streets.

Or maybe we should look even earlier in life, when she stopped attending school in the 1990s, or the time she fell victim to depression and refused to set foot outside her mother’s house.

But really, the debris in Alaina Watson’s life started to accumulate far earlier, during a childhood marked by almost constant sexual abuse. Being raped by your own brothers could set anyone up for a life of disasters.

It’s only now, at age 35, that she’s emerging, breaking a long cycle of self-perpetuating calamities. In comparison, crawling out of the wreckage of her tractor-trailer was easy.

Alaina was the youngest of four kids raised by a single mom in Tampa, Fla. There was never any open affection in their family — Alaina remembers her mother saying that hugging and kissing were things white people did. But without a doubt, Mom did all she could to support the family financially. She worked 40-hour weeks as a nurse, and her children were often left at home alone, a common setting for abuse.

The first time was just before Alaina started kindergarten. An older boy molested her in full view of her siblings. Her brother and sister promised to tell their mother, but the subject was never mentioned again.

“I thought it was because nobody cared,” Alaina remembered.

A few years later, her brother invited Alaina into his room, where they lay on the bed together. He began touching her.

To a little girl who’d rarely been hugged, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing. “I thought he was showing me love. I thought that was love,” said Alaina, shaking her head. The abuse continued for years — first with one brother, then the other — sometimes while Mom slept in the next bedroom, exhausted from her long shifts at the hospital.

In fifth grade, Alaina realized what was happening was not normal familial affection. A teacher explained molestation and asked her class if anyone in the room had been a victim. Alaina timidly raised her hand — but no one noticed before she quickly lowered it again, filled with shame.

By the time she was a teenager, Alaina recalls, “I was in a fog. Food became my medicine. Instead of confronting my problems, I just got bigger and bigger.”

She fell further into severe depression.

“At night, I would pray that tomorrow I wouldn’t wake up.”

She tried to commit suicide. An irrational fear kept her from leaving the house, and she stopped attending school.

But no one was paying attention. Before she was out of her teens, Alaina was well on her way to becoming a statistic. She was one more future welfare case from one more abusive, single-parent family.

Patterns of failure

Anyone who assumed Alaina was destined for drugs and despair — or worse, suicide — underestimated her resiliency. She patched together her courage and enrolled in “Adult High School,” a program for struggling students. She surprised herself by graduating at the head of her class.

Then she looked for healing. When her mother wouldn’t send her to counseling — and, she said, refused to believe her story of incest — she started reading books by sympathetic authors like Maya Angelou.

Alaina enrolled in college. That’s when she discovered that her healing was incomplete. A pattern began that would haunt her for the next 10 years.

She would begin a new project with great enthusiasm and succeed for months, or even a few years. But then some setback would inevitably occur, the feelings of despair and worthlessness would creep in, and she would abandon her efforts. Another failure would be added to her résumé.

Her college experience didn’t last long — she stopped going to classes when they got difficult. She found a retail job, but quit in eight months. She decided to join the military, even dropping 60 pounds to meet the weight requirement. But once again, she abandoned her plans over a minor setback: The recruiter forgot to show up for a meeting and Alaina chucked the whole idea. “I overreacted one day,” she said.

It was also during this time she first discovered addiction. Her drug of choice was credit.

“I maxed out so many cards,” she remembered. “I wanted to pay the bills, but as soon as I got cash in my hands ...” She shook her head ruefully, remembering the exorbitant, frivolous spending. She splurged on clothes, dining out, and gifts for others. She’d pay just enough on an account to get her credit limit raised, then spend more.

At 24, Alaina was living with her mother and mired in credit card debt. She had no job and no plan for finding one. The bill collectors were calling and she was once again depressed. Then she awoke one morning to find all of her possessions packed in garbage bags. Her mother was kicking her out. Alaina was homeless for the first time.

Homelessness

Alaina does not fit any stereotype of homelessness. She’s not a drug addict or schizophrenic. She’s never slept on a park bench or panhandled. I was surprised when she introduced herself before our first interview: To be honest, I expected a bag lady. Instead, with her carefully braided hair and well chosen clothes, Alaina could pass for a teacher.

Nina Moseley, chief operating officer at Wayside Christian Mission, said Alaina is part of a rapidly expanding portion of the homeless population: women and children. According to Moseley, two-thirds of homeless people suffer from an addiction or serious mental illness. But the remaining one-third have typically suffered tragic losses, and are simply left with no choice. They may be the most-ignored face of American poverty — perhaps because they remind us uncomfortably of ourselves, of how close the line really is, and of what we could be if our lives had begun like hers.

Newly homeless, Alaina lived in a shelter for a few months. Then she heard about a federal program that helps troubled young adults learn a trade or earn a college degree. She moved to a Job Corps center in rural Kentucky, where she started college and got involved with a church.

Alaina felt like Job Corps got her life back on track. “They helped me a lot,” she said. “I didn’t want responsibility ... but the requirements were strict. They helped change my image of myself.”

She completed the program with renewed confidence, an associate’s degree and $3,000 in savings. In May 2001 she moved to Louisville, planning to work at UPS while she pursued a bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville.

She managed to start at UPS just in time to pay her rent and enroll in school. But handling money was still a problem: Her savings account was empty within a month. “It was like money was hot in my hands,” she said. “When I got it, I had to spend it.”

After a night of loading packages, she would fall asleep in morning classes. She failed some. Depression followed. Alaina always went to work at UPS, determined to make ends meet — but sometimes did little else.

Finally, three years after she moved to Louisville, she made what she calls “the worst decision of my life.” Although she was behind on rent, although she had bills due, although her bank account was already stretched to the limit, she chose to go visit her family in Florida. “I needed to escape,” she said.

The relief was short-lived. When she returned to Louisville, there was an eviction notice waiting.

She tried to find the funds to catch up on rent. Her church gave her a small gift, but it wasn’t enough. Her mother refused to send anything — she had already been helping her 33-year-old daughter with rent for some time, and said she was finished. Because of poor grades, her Pell Grant expired. Alaina’s financial house of cards was finally collapsing.

Then, on the morning of Nov. 8, 2004, a Jefferson County sheriff knocked on her door with legal documents in his hand.

“Did you pay the rent?” he asked.

Alaina admitted the obvious — she’d fallen far behind.

“Do you have the money to pay the rent?” he asked.

Alaina said no.

The sheriff escorted her out of the building in her pajamas.

Alaina walked to the pay-phone to call friends, desperately hoping someone might pick her up. She finally reached a man with a pickup truck who could collect her belongings. Then Alaina walked back to her apartment — where the owner was loading all her possessions into garbage bags.

Once again, she stared at her whole life in front of her, wrapped in black plastic sacks. Only this time, the landlord was not her mother, Job Corps was not going to bail her out, and there was no place to go. “It was the most embarrassing thing in the world,” she said, eyes lowered. “I was in shock. I was humiliated.

“But [my landlord] had the best garbage bags in the world,” she added, with a gallows-humor chuckle. “I used them for a long time after that.”

Sharing the blame

Along the road to homelessness, amid the wreckage in Alaina Watson’s life, it becomes impossible to separate the sins of the parents from those of their children. In what proportion, exactly, should her uncaring mother or incestuous brothers receive blame? How much should Alaina bear responsibility for her own financial mismanagement and lack of perseverance?

Perhaps the only solution for the downtrodden and despairing is to grapple with the reality that they must claim full responsibility for their lives, regardless of causation. And perhaps the only solution for us, the bystanders who gaze with a mixture of pity and blame, is to be moved by compassion to help however we can.

Moseley reminded that giving to panhandlers is not wise — if the person is an addict, “you may be giving someone just enough [money] to kill himself.” Such “gifts” salve the conscience of the giver and do nothing to address the insidious causes of poverty. Moseley suggested that if givers want to offer something immediate, they might start with a meal at a nearby restaurant.

Better still, would-be donors can contribute funds, household goods, or time to an organization that provides holistic care for impoverished people. Concerned citizens can campaign for more affordable, livable housing in Louisville — which Moseley said is one solution to homelessness.

But at least those who give to panhandlers are doing something. Perhaps the greater transgression is walking by, unseeing and unfeeling, erecting mental and emotional barriers to keep out what — and who — is beside the road. Edmund Burke famously wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

That’s part of the reason Alaina Watson wound up homeless: No one was paying attention. No one except the people who would drag her further down.

Hitting bottom

After she lost her apartment, a friend from work offered to let Alaina stay at her place, where four women and a newborn baby shared two bedrooms. “I ended up sleeping on a mattress in the living room,” Alaina said, adding that she often caught naps on the sofas at school.

A man we’ll call Jarvis, another friend from work, offered his apartment instead. He told her not to worry about rent — “Right now, I just want you to save up money so you can get your place sooner,” he told her. She offered to do chores like washing dishes, but he told her it wasn’t necessary.

“It went from being friends to where we were more than friends — you know, sex and stuff like that,” Alaina said uncomfortably. For a woman who’d been victimized by men before, the situation was terribly familiar.

Jarvis, who was much older than Alaina, wanted to make her dependent on him. One night he asked, “Do you feel like going to work tonight?”

Alaina stopped to think about that question. It was one she’d been refusing to answer, ever since she started at UPS three years before. “I didn’t go to work because I felt like going to work,” she said. “I went to work because I had to pay my bills.” But she suddenly realized that no, she did not feel like loading packages for eight hours. She would prefer to sleep in her own bed. “Next thing you know,” she said ruefully, “I didn’t go to work. And that was the worst thing in the world to do.”

Soon after, Alaina started to notice Jarvis’s temper. He cursed and yelled at her with little provocation. Then the drinking and drug use — which he conveniently blamed on her — began.

One night, he threatened Alaina with a stun gun. Another time, he hit her in the head when she changed the TV channel. Afraid for her safety, Alaina stashed a knife beside her bed.

Finally, Jarvis took a two-week vacation to visit family in California. “While he was gone, I looked around and started thinking: ‘I deserve a lot better than this,’” Alaina remembered. “He had roaches. He had no teeth. I didn’t want to be dependent on someone else to take care of me.”

So Alaina looked for work. She wanted to drive big rigs. Jarvis was not happy with this burst of independence. When he returned from California, he told her, “You don’t got a job and you’re never gonna get a job ... You’re not gonna do nothin’.”

She searched vigilantly for employment, but was mystified when no one called her back. Finally, she discovered that Jarvis was sabotaging her efforts. When people called, “he’d curse them out and hang up the phone — tell them not to call anymore.”

Alaina knew she could get away from her abusive partner by moving to a shelter, but she dreaded the thought. She’d experienced that once in her twenties, and now she thought she was “too good” for it.

Finally, one night when Jarvis began screaming at her again, telling her to get out, she found the courage to do it. She walked out the door and checked into Wayside Christian Mission. She realized it was the only way to move her life forward.

She went back to Jarvis’s apartment only to reclaim the possessions she’d left behind. When she arrived — with a sheriff in tow and a court order in hand — the sheriff had to threaten Jarvis with arrest before he gave back her belongings.

Sheltered

Wayside Christian Mission is not a comfortable place. It’s a last resort, somewhere for the city’s most desperate residents to eat and sleep. It is no home.

The dining room on a summer day in 2008 was a crowded mass of plastic tables with the unpleasant smell of dishwater, stale food and unwashed people. When I visited the former Wayside women and children’s shelter on East Market Street, which is now closed, I saw a shouting match started by a woman who seemed to have difficulty keeping touch with reality. The room always empties quickly after meals.

Upstairs, a double row of bunk beds stretched the length of a long, low-ceilinged room. Some beds were made with simple sheets and coarse blankets; others were piled high with stuffed animals or fancy pillows — a remnant of home amid crowded squalor.

Between the beds there was barely room to walk, but somehow, a tiny dresser was shoehorned into the space. Each woman has about 30 square feet to call her own, and privacy is nonexistent. One night the lady sleeping on the bunk above Alaina defecated in bed. The stench permeated the room.

Yet Wayside still provides a modicum of hope to desperate people. There’s a recovery program for addicts, a “Safe Haven” for the mentally ill, and a work therapy opportunity for people who can’t keep a job. Those who are willing can plan their route toward a better life.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the recovery process easy for anyone. From the day she moved into Wayside, Alaina wanted out. She staffed Wayside’s front desk while her caseworker helped her learn to set a budget.

Meanwhile, she was beginning to find ways of pairing her dreams with action. Tired of her so-called life, Alaina was ready for a change.

Truck driving

She resumed her search for trucking jobs with a new fervor. Finally, one company gave her a chance. She passed the interviews and squeaked through her test for a CDL. Alaina was employed again — to drive a semi all over the country.

She certainly didn’t fit the trucker image. A short, determined African-American woman wasn’t the person you expected behind the wheel. She reveled in the freedom of the road.

Her life had a strange contrast. She enjoyed complete liberty as a driver, making the miles on her own schedule. But when she returned to Wayside, she had an 11 p.m. curfew, a tiny living space, and a plethora of rules to follow.

So she stayed on the road, building a savings account along the way. Alaina’s future finally seemed present.

Then came the accident. One day in early 2007, she was hauling a full load of charcoal down a West Virginia mountain when her brakes failed.

As the truck rolled over, Alaina suffered severe lacerations on one arm. The aftermath was brutal: She couldn’t walk more than a few feet at a time, and a spinal injury sent shooting pains like electric shocks down both legs.

The psychological trauma was also a challenge. In nightmares, she said, “it was like I was on that mountain all over again.”

Yet even that wasn’t the worst part of the accident. The state trooper’s report read: “It appears [the vehicle] experienced a loss of brakes.” For some reason, however, her trucking company pinned the blame for the accident on her — and fired her.

It would have been easy, while she spent months in physical therapy, to give up on everything and chalk up another big failure. “I told myself I don’t have an option for a pity party. I don’t have an option for depression. No excuses,” she said. “Everything that’s happened to me is for a reason. God can work through all situations.”

As she looked for a new job, she found ways to keep her spirits high. She spent regular time in prayer. She worked out, dropping eight jeans sizes. In time, she made a full recovery.

Moving on

When I interviewed her at the Market Street McDonald’s in March 2008, Alaina was still out of work. But she was confident that when the right opportunity came, she’d be ready. Her bills were almost paid off and she couldn’t wait to find a place of her own.

“God has removed a lot of crutches from my life. But I’ve gotten through so much,” she said, smiling. “What is there to be afraid of?”

After finding steady work, she hoped to get back to her degree program at U of L, and perhaps pursue her dream of acting. Most of all, she was eager to offer advice — founded on brutal experience — to women in abusive situations.

“If you don’t have family or friends to help you,” she said, “go to a shelter ... [If you’re being abused,] talk to someone about it. Then as soon as you can, leave — even if it means leaving your belongings there. The longer you stay, the harder it is to get away. And the [abuser] will just grow more possessive.

“But it starts off with talking to someone,” she continued. “What you hide controls you. What you talk about, you have power over.”

Afterword

It’s a Saturday night in the fall of 2008 — six months after my interviews with Alaina. My wife Julie and I are wandering downtown on our “date night,” and we decide to stroll into one of the fancier hotels.

We can’t afford to stay there on the bread of a freelance writer and a grad student, but it’s fun to look at the lobby.

When we walk in, I’m surprised to spot Alaina standing behind the hotel’s front desk, checking in a guest. It’s silly, but I feel something like a proud older brother while I wait in line to speak with her. I feel like a part of her story.

Alaina is happy to see Julie and me. She tells us she’s found an apartment, and offers to get us a room at her hotel with an employee discount if we ever need a weekend getaway. I’m taken aback by her generosity — most people don’t share such things with virtual strangers.

But I shouldn’t be surprised: Alaina’s giving spirit has impressed me since I met her. While we sat chatting in McDonald’s the first time, an old man in tattered clothes approached our table and asked for lunch money. I fumed inwardly that our interview was being interrupted, but Alaina silently reached into her pocket. She was homeless, yet she could still help someone even less fortunate.

Now, standing behind the desk in a luxury hotel, there is something different about Alaina Watson. There’s a new confidence. There is self-assurance. The fresh attitude that was emerging when we met for our series of interviews has now been proven by experience. She is no longer homeless, and certainly no longer helpless.

When we met six months ago, I asked about Alaina’s dreams for the future. Like all of us, she had many goals, but emphasized one thing again and again: “I see myself having my own place, and enjoying life — and facing my fears.”