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Finding a way to get back home again

Once a typical mom, Jeanne is now homeless. There are many like her.

Jeanne is dedicated to giving back. As a homeless woman herself, she is rebuilding her life and once lived at Ruth’s Place. She now volunteers at the downtown Wilkes-Barre shelter, helping other homeless women.

S. JOHN WILKIN PHOTOS/THE TIMES LEADER

Jeanne, who volunteers at Ruth’s Place, downtown Wilkes-Barre, talks with R.J. Beaumont during a shift at the women’s homeless shelter.

Jeanne lends emotional support to a friend while visiting Reach, a ministry at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in downtown Wilkes-Barre. During the week, the homeless can also seek help in acquiring community resources at Reach. On Saturdays and Sundays, they cannot enter Ruth’s Place until the shelter opens at 7 p.m.

Jeanne uses public transportation to get around town. Here she waits for the bus on Public Square to go visit a friend in Kingston.

Jeanne, who volunteers at Ruth’s Place in downtown Wilkes-Barre, looks over the basement area where other homeless women live. There was a time when Ruth’s Place was Jeanne’s home. Sometimes so many women are seeking a warm place to sleep, the facility runs out of beds and makes pallets for people to sleep on the floor upstairs.

S. JOHN WILKIN photos/THE TIMES LEADER

Jeanne had all she ever wanted.

After falling in love and marrying Neal, whom she called Prince Charming, they had three children – two boys and a girl.

Neal worked as a laborer to support the family, while Jeanne was a typical stay-at-home mom. Her days revolved around providing for her children’s needs.

The children were her life, she said. Some of Jeanne’s fondest memories are of those little triumphs in her children’s lives.

When she wasn’t transporting Kevin to his mini-football practices where he played the defensive position of nose guard, she was running Marisa to Girl Scout meetings and helping sell cookies every year or taking her youngest child, Daniel, to his Head Start classes.

But, that was a lifetime ago.

Jeanne now lives in a homeless shelter – one of tens of thousands of women across the nation seeking shelter on a nightly basis.

During a January 2007 count conducted by Reach, Inc., 188 people in Luzerne County were classified as homeless. These are the most recent numbers available.

The exact numbers of homeless women locally is not known because some stay at Ruth’s Place in downtown Wilkes-Barre for a few days. Others stay for weeks at a time. On the coldest nights of the year, as many as 30 women seek a warm spot to sleep at the shelter. Other times there might be only a few women looking for a place to sleep.

But, one thing’s for sure, say advocates for the homeless: The number of women using the shelter has steadily increased by 50 percent annually.

Every woman living on the streets has a different story, but many of those are similar to Jeanne’s.

After a series of bad decisions that led to drug abuse, Jeanne not only lost her freedom but her family, too. She served 23 months in the Carbon County Jail for selling a prescribed pain killer to a family friend and eventually lost custody of her children.

Instead of driving her children to their activities, she walks around Wilkes-Barre, even to and from doctor visits for treatment of a recent bout with pneumonia and asthma.

Instead of taking care of her home, the 42-year-old now sleeps in a small room at Bridge Housing, a transitional housing facility in Wilkes-Barre, surrounded by walls covered in the remaining photos she has of her three children. When she lies her head down at night, she sleeps with a stuffed dog that her daughter Marisa gave her during a recent weekend visit.

“I liked being a stay-at-home mom. Everything hit rock bottom very quickly,” she said.

Sitting with a reporter in a restaurant talking over lunch, she noted home and family life seem like a distant memory.

“I didn’t choose to be homeless. It just happened. I wish there were more resources out there to help us. It’s very hard out there to start over,” she said.

Stefanie Wolownik has worked with the homeless for the last seven years as executive director at Reach, a drop-in center for homeless people housed in the basement of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on South Franklin Street.

People don’t just decide to become homeless one day, she said. Usually, it is a series of traumatic events, mental illness or drug abuse, which eventually results in people losing their homes and being out on the streets.

“Life on the street is hard,” she said. “Women have a commodity that men typically don’t have. So they make terrible decisions, both morally and legally in order to keep a roof over their head.”

Love story turned sour

Jeanne’s fairy-tale life took a U-turn when her husband suffered an injury.

Neal injured his back while moving a commercial-grade refrigerator into a home for a client. He couldn’t work, started to receive disability payments and their love story turned sour.

Neal began hitting Jeanne. Then mental abuse started.

“We were fighting more,” she said. “It was a very rough relationship after a while.”

At the same time, her son Kevin’s bipolar and schizophrenia disorders became more pronounced as he grew older. Even though he was undergoing treatment, he began lashing out at Jeanne and Marisa and tried to attack them with knives, Jeanne said.

In 2001, shortly after 3-year-old Daniel was enrolled in a Head Start program in Carbon County, where the family lived, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, neuroblastoma. Jeanne watched the disease ravage the little body of her son, whom she called her angel.

For more than three years, she watched Daniel wither away as the tumor grew in his intestinal track.

“The tumor grew from 6 to 12 centimeters in a month. It was crippling his intestines,” Jeanne said. Daniel’s cancer did go into remission for 18 months, but then returned and ultimately proved deadly. Jeanne tried to remain strong and be the loving matriarch to hold her family together, but the pressures got to be too much, she said.

“I try to be strong. But nobody sees what goes on inside. I am a wreck,” Jeanne said.

To numb the pain, she used money from Neal’s government checks to begin self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol, but eventually used heroin and cocaine – or any other drugs she could acquire.

After Daniel underwent two surgeries, his doctors prescribed oxycontin, a prescription strength painkiller, to ease his pain. His father, Neal, was also prescribed the powerful pain medicine to ease the back injury.

Selling one of Neal’s oxycontin pills to a family friend landed Jeanne in the Carbon County Jail. After she was charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors for delivery of drugs, possession with intent to deliver and possession of drugs, Carbon County Children and Youth placed Daniel in medical foster care in May 2005.

Three weeks later, Jeanne was escorted by county jail guards to Daniel’s bedside at the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Carbon County. Daniel died in Jeanne’s arms on June 18, 2005.

Five months later, in November 2005, Kevin was arrested after he punched his juvenile probation officer during a court appearance. Kevin is now serving a five-year jail term.

Jeanne said Kevin doesn’t like taking his medication because of how it makes him feel, but when he is off the pills his illness takes over, causing him to become violent.

“I lost both my sons in a matter of months,” she said, noting her drug use increased as she began using heroin and cocaine.

Thinking about how her family was falling apart, she often thought of her parents and their reminder that, without family you don’t have anything.

And, that’s how she felt.

“I kept numbing myself with drugs. I used to use whatever I could get my hands on. I self-medicated,” Jeanne said.

Her daughter, Marisa, was placed in foster care and Jeanne and her husband eventually separated.

She now visits with Marisa, 15, when she can arrange for transportation to get her daughter to Wilkes-Barre from Carbon County on selected weekends.

Divine intervention

A turning point in Jeanne’s life came in December 2006, when she found herself wandering the streets of Hazleton in the middle of the night with nowhere to go.

One night she said she had a divine intervention when she saw a vision of her children acting as angels from God encouraging her.

“I basically saw the light. I saw Marisa and Daniel and they said, ‘You need to get your life together,’ ” she said.

She checked herself into a drug treatment center in Kingston. After completing the 50-day drug rehabilitation course, she realized she had no home to return to. She was still homeless, but this time there was somewhere positive to turn to.

Jeanne began living at Ruth’s Place in the basement of the First United Methodist Church in Wilkes-Barre.

For five months, she slept at Ruth’s Place each night and left the property each morning to start rebuilding her life. It was also during this time she was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and severe depression.

The Rev. Keith Benjamin and his wife, Julie, opened Ruth’s Place at the church on North Franklin Street four years ago on a seasonal basis to serve as a safe haven for homeless women. The Benjamins were convinced there was a great need. They began operating the shelter year-round last September.

The nonprofit shelter is fully supported by volunteers.

Now every available space in the church basement is used to provide shelter to the area’s female homeless population. Each woman has a bed, dresser and two old milk crates to store what little belongings and toiletries they’ve been given thanks to the donations of others. Some of the beds are couches. Some are small cots. Some are made of white PVC.

Women staying at the shelter are given toothbrushes, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products because most do not have any money when they walk through the facility’s front doors.

“Now everything I own is donations. I thank God for donation banks because I can’t afford to go buy clothes,” Jeanne said.

Women at the shelter not only get a warm, safe place to rest at night, but they are referred to community service programs to help them rebuild their lives.

During the week, the women and homeless men can also seek help in acquiring community resources at Reach. On Saturdays and Sundays, the homeless women cannot enter Ruth’s Place until the shelter opens at 7 p.m. If volunteers are available, the shelter can open earlier to allow the women to seek shelter if the weather is extremely bad.

VISION, the men’s shelter in Luzerne County, has two programs open daily. VISION’s day program on Davis Place in South Wilkes-Barre allows men and women to seek shelter during the day and weekends, VISION’s Executive Director Vince Kabacinski said. The other program provides nighttime accommodations for homeless men seven days a week.

Homeless people not using VISION’s services on the weekends often seek shelter from the weather by roaming through the Ramada Inn on Public Square, the downtown Barnes & Noble bookstore or by seeking cover on the steps of a church.

Rebuilding her life

Jeanne’s story is one of the success stories advocates point out to show that, with compassion and proper resources, homeless people can become productive members of society – as long as they are motivated.

Jeanne is working toward getting her own apartment in an attempt to pull her family back together. But even that simple task could be months or years away because subsidized housing is not available to homeless people with felony convictions, said Wolownik, the Reach executive director.

Although Jeanne has served time for her drug-related offenses she will not be off probation until August.

Jeanne is dedicated to rebuilding her life to regain custody of her daughter. She doesn’t know if she will ever be able to rebuild her life with Kevin. Drug-free for 15 months, she now volunteers to help other homeless women at Ruth’s Place by passing on her two mantras: “Everything has a way of working things out” and “Life is too short and precious to be ignorant to everybody.”

Types of housing: Local statistics: National statistics:

• Transitional housing allows people to live in a facility with their own private room for up to two years as they attempt to obtain their own apartment.

• Emergency shelters offer women or men, depending on the facility, a place to sleep in a dormitory-style environment.

• 98 percent of homeless women in the Wyoming Valley are from Luzerne County – Stefanie Wolownik, executive director of Reach.

During the Jan. 25, 2007, count of homeless people, local advocates found:

Families with children: Nine families with a total of 24 people were in emergency shelters, 19 families with a total of 46 people were in transitional housing.

Families without children: 53 families with a total of 73 people were in emergency shelters, 22 individuals were in transitional housing, 23 individuals were sleeping on the streets.

A total of 188 people were classified as homeless during the one night of this study.

Of the homeless adults: 16 were chronically homeless, meaning they’ve been without a permanent home for more than a year; 25 suffered from severe mental illnesses; 44 suffered from substance abuse issues, 14 were veterans and 27 were victims of domestic violence.

• “In no state does a full-time minimum wage job cover the costs of a one-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent, and in 45 states and the District of Columbia, families would need to earn at least double the minimum wage in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent.” - Out of Reach: Can America Pay the Rent?, via the National Coalition for the Homeless.

• “It is estimated that 760,000 people are homeless on any given night, and 1.2 (million) to 2 million people experience homelessness during one year.”- National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, via the National Coalition for the Homeless.

• “Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 15 to 20 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty.” - The National Coalition for the Homeless.

• A quarter to 50 percent of homeless women have suffered from physical, mental or psychological abuse, NCH Executive Director Michael Stoops said.

• Single women with no children account for 10 percent of the total homeless population, Stoops said.

“I didn’t choose to

be homeless. It just

happened. I wish there were more

resources out there to help us. It’s very hard out there to start over.”

Jeanne
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