Stories of homeless women

Second of a two-part series

Neither Kim nor Susan ever dreamed they would end up homeless.

Most people don’t. But as the community has seen during the economic hard times in recent years, more and more people are finding themselves unable to afford a place to call home.

Kim and Susan, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, agreed to share the paths that led to their homelessness with The Tribune readers. Both are working with staff at The ARK Shelter for Homeless Women & Families in Elkin and the community resources available to them there hoping to get their lives back on track. Kim story’s ran on Wednesday. This is Susan’s story.

Susan’s story

Susan, who turned 59 a week ago today, said homelessness has been a vicious cycle in her life.

Born in Miami, Florida, she was the third of five children in her family. Susan was only 16 when her father died of Huntington’s disease, which would later claim the lives of two of her three brothers.

A year after her father’s death, Susan moved with her mother and two younger brothers to Hinesville, Georgia, where her father’s aunt lived. By then, Susan — who described herself as “a typical rebellious, stubborn teenager” — already had dropped out of high school.

Marrying soon after moving to Hinesville, Susan and her new husband managed a 98-unit mobile home park, most of them rented by military personnel at nearby Fort Stewart, the Army’s largest installation east of the Mississippi River.

When Operation Dessert Storm started, Fort Stewart was one of the first bases deployed, and the town’s economy was hit hard. Susan said the man who owned the mobile home park they managed lost his business, and subsequently, they lost their jobs.

With no job prospects in Hinesville, Susan said her by-then former husband, with whom she continued to live after they divorced, accepted an offer from his brother to go work for his construction company in North Carolina. She stayed behind to take care of their three children, and they made plans to follow him later.

When Susan and the children went to join him the following year, they discovered that her former husband and their father had moved in with another woman. Susan said she and him remained on good terms, and he continued to support her and their children.

Susan said getting a job wasn’t an option for her then because she had to care for their daughter, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

After three years, Susan and her daughter moved to a county adjoining Surry, where she worked at a restaurant for two years before her new boyfriend showed up at her job demanding money and caused her to get fired. That was the beginning of a cycle during which Susan worked and did well on jobs for a while, then ended up losing them for a variety of reasons.

She worked as a housekeeper for a year. Susan even worked with the construction crew building Highway 421, doing everything from planting explosives to driving a dump truck and paver. She said she enjoyed the work, but when the road was completed, she was once again out of a job.

After that, Susan worked for various factories through Workforce Carolina. She fell and broke her right knee on her last assignment, which caused the peripheral neuropathy in her legs from which she now suffers.

Looking back at her life, Susan said she was unable to pay her rent after each job loss and had to move in with family members or a homeless shelter until she could get on her feet financially. During one of her periods of unemployment, she was admitted to The ARK.

Susan is in her fourth and final stay at The ARK, which limits residents to four, six-month stays. Executive Director Cynthia Cothren explained that The ARK staff work with residents during this period, referring them for help as needed so that they will be “stable and able to sustain themselves” when their time is up.

During the first three months of her current stay, Susan has worked on getting her GED (General Education Development) diploma at Surry Community College and, with the help of a local attorney, is trying to get approved for SSI disability benefits due to her peripheral neuropathy.

The neuropathy causes burning and numbness in her legs to the point that Susan said sometimes, she can’t even feel them. “I have to hold onto something to keep from falling down,” she said.

Susan said she hopes her disability will be approved so she can afford her own home and end the vicious cycle of homelessness. When she gets worried about what will happen to her when her three months left at the shelter are up, she said she turns to the Bible and reads about the trials of Job.

“He lost everything,” she said, “but his faith never faltered. No matter what happened to him, his faith remained strong, and he had everything given back to him.

“I love that story.”

Kathy Chaffin may be reached at 336-258-4058.

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