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Penny Callan

Being a single mother of four on welfare with no education and no job skills not only held me back from getting jobs, but also played into becoming homeless.

I initially became homeless in 1989 after losing my children to foster care and when plans to move to be with my husband fell through. A couple of months later, I got a job driving a cab and was able to rent a room from the owner of the cab company. But after two months in the position, I got into a car accident and lost my job. I was laid up in the hospital for a few weeks with injuries. When I got out of the hospital I stayed a couple of weeks with another cab driver before going from shelter to shelter to shelter for ten years.

My first shelter was at Elinor Kennedy Shelter in Fort Belvoir, VA where I did some healing from my accident. I started doing allot of walking up and down the hills in a wild life trail on Fort Belvoir’s military base. As I got stronger I was able to get a job at a fast food restaurant and after working for a couple of weeks, I fell and re-injured myself. In spite of my condition the staff at Elinor Kennedy Shelter claimed that I was alright and said that my time was up and I had to leave. That’s when I moved to the Carpenter's Shelter in Alexandria, VA. I was in a lot of pain, but didn’t know where to go for help. When I lost my kids, Social Services told me that I couldn’t apply for any state assistance, but I misunderstood what they meant. Now I know that I could have applied for foodstamps and other assistance for myself but not fight for custody while on state assistance. After my thirty days Carpenter's Shelter said that my time was up and I had to leave. When I refused to leave they called the police. I told the police the same thing, and they arrested me. When the police put me in the squad car I said "Thank You". They looked at me funny and then realized that I just wanted to be safe from the streets. They set my bail at a high rate so that the magistrate wouldn’t release me that night. I stayed the weekend and went in front of the judge that Monday morning and the judge couldn’t understand why the officers set bail so high. I explained why and I was released.

And that’s when I came to the House of Ruth in Washington, DC. One night as I was walking back to the House of Ruth shelter I saw ambulances and fire trucks. I wasn’t used to seeing them allot and thought to myself "what now". I heard "there she is" off in the distance, but didn’t know they were talking to me until I got closer. When I found out they were talking to me, one of the other girls told me that another resident ran into the shelter saying "you know that white lady with blonde hair just got jumped outside" and they thought it was me. About ten other ladies ran out to take up for me and when I realized that they were there to protect me, we all just stood in the middle of the street hugging and crying. I finally realized for the first time in my life, I was safe in my own skin. After about five months my time was up, and I moved to Mount Carmel House also in Washington, DC. After two months Sister Ann referred me to JMC which was a mental health organization that had their own housing. Sister Ann said that they could help me get my kids back, so she thought. JMC did help women with children, but they had to have only one child. JMC evaluated me and didn’t find anything wrong and didn’t know what to do with me. After nine months they referred me to two places: Jobs for Homeless People and Vocational Rehabilitation. And I had to move out of their housing too. I moved to CCNV and Vocational Rehabilitation did various test and found that I had a learning disability and sent me to the Lab School of Washington to obtain a GED. It took two years, but I achieved my GED in 1994. Stevie Wonder was at my graduation!

While I was staying at CCNV, one of the guy’s named Cowboy asked me why I got along so well with the black community. Jokingly, I looked at my arm – my own white skin – and I looked up at him and screamed "Oh my God, they’ve been lying to me all these years" and cracked up laughing. It is important to have a sense of humor to survive.  Also when I was at CCNV, my mother died the day before my birthday. The staff at CCNV was understanding and let me go to Virginia for three weeks without losing my bed, so that I could be with my dying mother and family.

The following year, I celebrated a much happier birthday at CCNV. One of the ladies bought a cake and a couple of other girls pitched in for candles and sang happy birthday to me.

While in DC, I worked on my education, achieving my GED in 1994, completing two semesters at UDC, and various other trainings. I held sporadic jobs, but most of them were through temporary agencies or paid so little that I was unable to stabilize my life. Finally in Aug 2000, after being on the housing list for about five years, my name came to the top of the housing list and I moved into NE DC. With the permanent housing, I was stable enough to hold down a job and worked for the Pentagon for two years. I had to quit for having pain in my hands and several parts of my body, that’s when I started attending Potomac College. After five years at Potomac College, I received my Associates of Science in Management.

In September 2007, I started at (formerly) "Dinner Program for Homeless Women (DPHW), now Thrive DC" administrative job training program. Halfway through my internship, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I continued working while undergoing the cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In March 2008, the doctor told me I was cancer free, but still had to endure chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I completed my internship soon after my last radiation treatment. But the chemo left me with memory problems and hot flashes. Therefore, having trouble finding work again I applied for SSI, and I’m still awaiting a decision.

I continue to look for permanent employment, but also am filling my time with volunteer work helping those who are in a similar situation as I was. Being homeless was a blessing in disguise because previously I had years of abuse as a child and adult and I didn’t feel safe in my own skin and I self-sabotaged relationships. Being homeless in DC, I found places that helped me be okay with me, therapeutic places like Community Connections, where I got the help I needed. Most other homeless people I know dwell on the negative experiences, but for me there were more good experiences than bad.

If I could leave you with one thought, it would be to be mindful of how you treat people, they just might be your guarding angle in disguise.

National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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Page last modified: January 25, 2012

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