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Story of a survivor

A woman with a tragic past and no home offers an example of human resilience

Story of a survivor

Mary outside her tent in Venice Beach, Calif. (Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos)

I recently wrote a story about homeless women. The main purpose was to highlight one of the most vulnerable populations in our country, particularly at a time when all sorts of groups are calling attention to gender inequality and social justice issues. 

But I also want to emphasize one more point: The women in my article have suffered great injustice and abuse and deserve help and compassion, but they’re also not helpless victims. They’re neither weak nor lazy. They admit they’ve made some very bad choices, but they cling to life, hope for goodness, and long to help others. They’re beautiful women, and they’re survivors. 

Take 64-year-old Mary, for example. I first met Mary last year while volunteering with a nonprofit that feeds the homeless in Venice Beach. The homeless in Venice are a mixed bunch, but a good chunk of them are young, drug-addicted vagrants and artists who for now seem content with their lifestyle. Mary, though, was a single woman with a walker, a stooped back, no upper teeth, and a creased face. She had osteoporosis and kneecaps that sometimes popped out when she landed on her feet too hard. She didn’t seem to have a drug or alcohol problem, and her mind was clear and sharp. She clearly didn’t belong there, but had somehow, by sheer force of personality, wiggled her way into the Venice homeless community and gained a title as “Grandma.” The homeless are fellow human beings with a heart: The young men took care of “Grandma,” made sure she had food to eat, and paid her a few bucks to sell trinkets at a booth on the beach walk. 

When she gets her monthly disability check, Mary blows most of it by taking her buddies—Bear, T, Doose, Johnny, and the gang—out to a sit-down dinner at a restaurant. She spends the rest of the money helping them buy little things they need, such as new batteries and extra hoodies. Her money runs out in four days, but Mary says she doesn’t regret it, because “these kids deserve to have at least one meal where they can sit down and be waited on without worrying about homelessness.” Spoken like a true grandma.

Be warned if you take her out to eat, though. This 137-pound lady can in one sitting down 10 giant, cheese-laden, sour cream–drenched tacos on all-you-can-eat $5 Taco Tuesday nights. The two times my boyfriend David and I took her out to dinner, she ordered a 14-ounce bone-in ribeye with clam chowder and thick-cut steak fries. As we watched with wide eyes, she polished off the massive meat slab, then licked the marrow off the bone. It was one expensive meal (David and I had cheesecake and water), but the delighted expression on her face was worth it. For Mary, this was a rare treat, and she was determined to enjoy every sip and chew, even if she had to skip a couple of meals after that.

Later, when Greg (the photographer for my story) offered to treat her to “anything on the menu,” I forgot to warn him. Greg later sent me a picture of Mary holding up her $29 steak next to her $7.50 margarita (extra salt). “Mary is in her happy place,” he texted me, adding an “astonished face” emoji. He himself had a hamburger and a glass of water. 

Every homeless person I’ve met has an interesting story to tell, and Mary’s story is tragic: She says her mother left the family when Mary was 9 months old. When she was 6, she almost died from rheumatic fever. She was raped when she was 10. Ten years later, her father died as a crewman on the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, and she still carries his picture around and can rattle off every obscure detail about that ship. She hitchhiked to Southern California when she was 17, worked as a roadie for a rock ’n’ roll band for three years, then got pregnant with her then-boyfriend. That man beat her up for getting pregnant, so Mary fled to Pennsylvania to deliver her oldest son. There, she met and married Allen, the “love of my life,” and moved with him to Wisconsin.

Mary gave birth to two more children with Allen—one daughter, one son. While she was nine months pregnant with her third child, the doctors diagnosed Allen with leukemia, and he died within a month. Mary sunk into a deep depression and spiraled into drugs. Eventually, realizing she was in no condition to take care of three kids including a baby, she gave her kids up for adoption. “I regret that decision every day of my life,” she told me, eyes glistening. “I gave my babies away! Just because I couldn’t handle it. I thought I did the best thing I could for my kids.”

Over the next four years, Mary found her way back to California, an 87-pound, homeless addict. Then someone on the streets offered her help, and she took it. She went through detox and says she hasn’t used drugs ever since. Desperate for work, she lied her way into a technician job with Warner Bros., until the night in 1994 when she says a gang of men raped her and tossed her half-dead into an alley. Two homeless men saw her and saved her life.

As she told me her story, I teared up too, and Mary gently brushed the drops off my face with her fingertips. There is much to Mary’s story beyond homelessness: abandonment, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, loss and grief, love and motherhood, injustice and mercy. I was amazed that one woman could bear so much in her 64 years on earth and not be comatose with despair and bitterness. 

No, Mary is determined to wring the most out of life, even as a homeless woman. I admire her resilient spirit, which is a gift from God. This New Year’s Eve, she took the two-hour metro ride to Pasadena with her sleeping bag, a big orange jacket, a thermos full of hot chocolate, a beanie, and a folding chair to camp out in wait of the 2019 Rose Parade. While I watched the parade on TV beside a fireplace the next morning, she was out among the crowd in 30-degree weather, soaking in the live entertainment. She texted me later saying she felt like a sardine squeezed into a can, but she had great fun. 

People sometimes paint the homeless as having a sense of entitlement and demanding free housing and services, but that’s mostly untrue regarding the homeless people I’ve met. A few nights before Christmas, David and I went to visit Mary at her new shelter in Santa Monica. Some people who knew about Mary had been creating a fuss to the city about a 64-year-old woman out on the streets, and now three nonprofit teams are trying to help her find housing. Mary was thrilled—not just about the possibility of housing, but also the idea that random people have been advocating on her behalf. “You know what this means?” she told us, fists clenched and trembling in excitement. “That means ... I’m endorsed!” 

But as she told us of her upcoming birthday and Christmas plans, I felt sad, realizing that while she was making plans to make the occasion special, they all involved being with a group of strangers, such as a free dinner at a comedy show club. It made me realize a common trait homeless people share: They’re alone. 

Before we said goodbye, David and I handed Mary a Christmas gift. I had baked her banana bread with chocolate chips and cranberries, and David and I had picked out a velvety, burgundy sweater for her. As soon as Mary unwrapped her gift, she clasped the fuzzy sweater to her chest. “Ooooooh! I love it, I love it!” she cried. Then she threw her arms around me in a tight hug, and did the same for David before scurrying back to the shelter: “I have to go before I ... before I …” she said, sniffling. 

That Mary. Stubborn as always, a tough cookie. She can’t even let us see her cry.