61: From Homeless to Happy

61: From Homeless to Happy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

From Homeless to Happy

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

~Dalai Lama

I stared down at the $14.86 left in my hand after paying the weekly rent for the grimy motel we’d found. We had only a small amount of food in our kitchenette. I wondered how I could have gotten my eight-year-old daughter and me to the point where, we were this close to homelessness.

They say that poverty is a downward spiral, and until that day, I hadn’t understood why. Just make one or two wrong assumptions about being able to find new employment, or think that a financial expenditure makes sense when it doesn’t and you can find yourself in a real life version of the game Candy Land, on a ladder sliding downward, with no end in sight.

It did no good to ponder whether or not I should have left my ex-husband and the job I had then, because returning to either wasn’t an option. Nor could I gain back the lost savings or the time spent looking for new employment without success. I had returned to our old neighborhood with my tail tucked between my legs. I was desperately trying to figure out what to do, so that my eight-year-old daughter and I didn’t have to move into our van — the final act of desperation.

Our motel was an apartment house that had been converted to weekly rentals. Staying there were druggies, single moms trying to escape from abusive marriages, seemingly happy gypsies, alcoholics, and people who just seemed to have a hard time fitting in.

I felt normal, so what was I doing here? More importantly, was there something these people could teach me about surviving until I could climb out of this pit?

I swallowed my pride and began to knock on door after door. Single parents or travelers, I always asking the same things. How are you doing? And what are doing to keep going?

I was told how to donate blood to earn a bit of money. How to apply for emergency food stamps and housing assistance. How one family worked at a local temp agency that paid daily. It was humbling, but doing everything they recommended allowed me to keep going. Then one mother told me about a program that would accept my daughter back into school, on a subsidized basis that gave her free breakfasts and lunches, which meant two less meals a day for me to worry about.

The whole time I continued to go on interview after interview in search of a regular job. I was grateful that living at the hotel allowed me to give a “real” address. So many homeless people don’t have that and therefore can’t find employment.

But I knew I couldn’t stay there much longer. The management allowed no leeway, and I wasn’t making enough money to pay rent.

I signed up for every temp-to-perm agency I could find within a reasonable distance. I worked so many mind-numbing jobs that it’s painful to remember them. The experience reminded me how lucky I had been to have a job that provided a reasonable income and even interesting work. It also reminded me that if you want to get ahead you need to be a worker who stands out in the crowd, one who is willing to go that extra mile.

I landed a job as a receptionist. I saw all the partners as they came and went. Whenever I had an opportunity to make any kind of a positive impression, whether offering to return calls, making reservations, recommending a solution to a callers’ problem, or anything else, I did so. I tried not to be obnoxious, but I wanted to appear both helpful and knowledgeable.

The effort paid off. My temp-to-perm job was extended for another two-week period. I was moved from the reception desk to the second assistant for one of the partners. This gave me the opportunity to see even more of what went on in the firm. I offered the executive assistant help in completing her work so that we could both go home at a more reasonable time.

Even though I knew it was rare for this firm to move anyone from temporary to permanent, I decided I’d do my job as if it were already mine. I organized the files. I set up a follow-up calendar. I made sure whatever was needed for meetings was there beforehand. I planned lunches and anything else I could think of to make myself indispensable. I figured that if I could keep working there for over four months, I might have a chance.

I had been working there eight weeks when my boss’s executive assistant became ill and was hospitalized. Since she was expected back shortly, I offered to step in and do what she had done as well as my own tasks. It was hard work, and it kept me away from the motel longer than I would have preferred. Fortunately, one family there welcomed the extra babysitting money it earned by taking care of my daughter.

Sadly, the executive assistant never did fully recover from her ailments. After working six of the hardest months of my life, I was permanently offered her position. It provided benefits, stability, and eventually the opportunity to move into a better, closer apartment.

From time to time, the partner I worked for would try to get me to discuss my past. I was never willing to disclose that I had been homeless and panic-stricken. It was simply too embarrassing.

I worked for that firm for almost five years. I eventually took over the operation of a legal department and was promoted to the position of manager. Who would have imagined?

My time as a homeless person had given me a new compassion for people in trouble. Instead of simply evicting everyone who couldn’t pay, my department developed an award-winning program for allowing them to work off past-due rents by providing needed services, such as cleaning, gardening, or painting, somewhere in our portfolio of apartment buildings.

Because of that program, our apartments became the most profitable of any firm in the area, and received the Mayor’s Award of Excellence.

I went on to have other corporate jobs, and I now live on my own farm. But that stint with the druggies, hippies, and hopefuls made the biggest impression on me. It taught me never to take any of life’s blessings for granted. The saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” really is true.

Whenever I see a person who needs help today, I wonder what their story is and how they got onto the Candy Land slide. And I try to offer them at least a warm cup of coffee or something to eat. Who knows, some day it might be me again. I’d like to think that someone would help if they could.

~Kamia Taylor

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