By Jeeni Criscenzo
Nanette’s eyes tear up when she recounts the day she was chased down the block by a group of kids throwing rocks at her and calling her names. “That was the lowest I got. I was nothing. These kids were screaming at me to get out of here. They were only about ten years old, boys and girls, who were telling me I was so worthless that I couldn’t just sit in the park on J Street.”
Looking back now, Nanette can understand why even kids might have found her repulsive. Even the drug lord at the house where she would sometimes hang out would tell her, “You stink!” She confesses that one night, just to get out of the pouring rain, she and her boyfriend sought refuge in a full porta potty. But even that wasn’t enough to get her clean and sober. It’s not that she didn’t want to be sober, she just didn’t want to stop drinking.
It’s not that she didn’t want to be sober, she just didn’t want to stop drinking.
You’d never know it, sitting in her office at a San Diego non-profit where she works as director, that Nanette had been one of the thousands of people in San Diego who had no place to live. And for years, she was the cliché that is often used as an excuse for not offering humanitarian assistance to those who are experiencing homelessness – she was an alcoholic. And she’ll be honest about it, her drinking was the reason she ended up without housing, and her drinking was the reason family and friends gave up on her.
It’s easier to refrain from judgement knowing that the woman sitting there telling her story is no longer that pathetic, smelly loser huddled under a tarp in J Street Park. How she transformed herself is nothing short of a miracle, but what it proves is that no life is beyond hope. Alcoholism is a wretched disease that drags its victims into its wretchedness, but recovery is possible.
Alcoholism is a wretched disease that drags its victims into its wretchedness, but recovery is possible.
Many people facing poverty and despair will turn to alcohol or drugs to dull the overwhelming emotional pain of failure and fear. As the Housing First approach demonstrates, with some assistance getting housing and income, many people can stop self-medicating and get on with their lives. But there is a percentage who won’t be able to make the best of that opportunity. These are the ones too often held up as representative of the entire homeless population being drunks and drug addicts.
Housed or not, alcoholism is a lifelong affliction. It can often result in homelessness, although many alcoholics manage to stay housed. An alcoholic must come to terms with the fact that they cannot drink successfully. For these people, total abstinence is the only solution. These people often benefit from a 12-step program such as AA. Like Nanette, they might need to do it over and over again, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
Nanette started drinking at fourteen years old, two years after her mother had died of cancer. Despite being indulged by her father, who she thinks had actually enabled her addiction, she went from booze to cocaine by the time she was sixteen, so she could “keep the party going longer”. She was good at hiding it, or so she thought. For a while after high school she was working as a temp doing clerical and customer service jobs.
Nanette started drinking at fourteen years old, two years after her mother had died of cancer.
Then her father died of cancer. Nanette became clinically depressed and was offered disability benefits if she could prove she was working on her sobriety. Under the program, she paid only $100 per month for an apartment. She thought she had it down, as far as getting herself together just prior to her doctor visit every 90 days, and then resuming her drinking.
Eventually she couldn’t hold it together any longer. Nanette and her boyfriend Brian were evicted from their North Park apartment. She remembers that first night, sleeping on the porch with all of their stuff piled on the lawn. The next day a friend helped to put most of her stuff into a storage and she credits him with paying that storage fee throughout her entire homeless saga. A former neighbor took in one of her cats, but the other was “taken.” She still grieves that loss.
Nanette recalls walking past houses in the evening, seeing the people inside with their families and feeling outside of the rest of the world.
The first six months without housing, Nanette and her boyfriend camped in the alleys and shadows of the area near where they had formerly lived. They would walk the two miles to get lunch at Fr. Joe’s, although, because of her drinking, she seldom ate much. Her boyfriend made money collecting recyclables. Every day was about survival, which included getting the alcohol she needed. She would hang out at bars at night and bum drinks from men, although she never actually resorted to prostitution.
Eventually Nanette and Brian gravitated to the Ocean Beach and Mission Beach area. Nanette recalls walking past houses in the evening, seeing the people inside with their families and feeling outside of the rest of the world. She never thought about the future because she saw no way out of her situation.
When it got cold, Brian suggested going into the City’s Winter tent. But she had become very dependent on Brian and they would have to be separated in the tent. She would also have to be sober, and that wasn’t on her To Do list. So they braved the cold.
Nanette was on summary probation which required her to attend a weekly class for anger management. Since she didn’t have the $25 for each class, she stopped going. That made her even more wary of the police who she only saw as a threat.
This would be the first of many times that she would go through the horrible process of detox entirely on her own.
One day they were approached by an elderly woman who invited them to the Baptist Church across the street from a drug house they frequented. She told them God wanted them to be baptized. The entire congregation was clapping and welcoming them. Nanette remembers how, for the first time in a long time, she felt valued.
The experience changed Brian. He had an outstanding parole violation and decided to turn himself in. Together they went to the police station. Watching him being led away in handcuffs, she decided to take up the offer of a friend in La Mesa who said she could stay with her if she got clean. This would be the first of many times that she would go through the horrible process of detox entirely on her own.
She kept sober for almost three months, going to meetings every day and even getting some temp jobs. But then there was that one drink that she thought she could have. But, she explained to me, her brain becomes a different brain when she has a drink. “Once that alcohol was in me, there was no stopping me. I was back to drinking again. And back out on the street.”
She ended up in jail again and was told by the judge this was her last chance. With the help of a friend who was letting her live with him with the stipulation of no drinking, Nanette tried sobriety again, starting with self-detoxing.
This story has a happy ending. Nanette and Brian were married and are no longer homeless.
The day Brian got out of prison, Nanette met him in front of her Anger Management class. But it wasn’t the happy ending one would hope for. Brian got into trouble again, and Nanette relapsed.
She remembers the exact day she had her last drink – March 16, 2003. Brian was in jail and she was in a sober living facility. A friend found her a place to rent and bought her a bed. She got a job at a supermarket. She had one more 1-night relapse, but that was it.
Finally sober, Nanette slowly began to rebuild her life. Brian got out of jail but she decided to stay focused on her sobriety. And she did. This story has a happy ending. Nanette and Brian were married and are no longer homeless. A recent photo on Facebook shows them together at a friend’s wedding. They look like the happiest couple in the world.