by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]he is attractive and full of energy as she urges shoppers at the Berkeley Farmers Market to buy a Street Spirit. Belinda Gibbens has been selling the newspaper for more than two years now, and she appears to be the very model of a successful salesperson.
But it isn’t always easy for her to maintain that up-beat manner. For the past five years, Belinda has been homeless, often harassed and abused, and is dealing with physical and emotional pain.
We sat together in a quiet spot in People’s Park in Berkeley one afternoon as Belinda talked about her life. Hers is a painful story and she sometimes came close to tears, as did I when I listened to it. But then she would recover and find a way to express gratitude for the good things and good people in her life.
Belinda was born in Los Angeles in 1962. She said, “My parents were hippies.” She tossed out familiar names and places from that countercultural period. Some of that era’s hippies were not always the best of parents, and that seems to have been true in Belinda’s case.
Her father was irresponsible and mostly absent and in trouble, while her mother worked three jobs and had little time to spend with the kids. There was no-one to set an example and guide her in making good life decisions, she said.
Belinda’s father died at 45 of cirrhosis of the liver, and her mother is also an alcoholic, as was her grandmother. “It’s in our family, we’re Irish,” Belinda said ruefully. She too has struggled over the years with alcoholism.
She started out on a seemingly successful path in life. She was the first in her family to own a home. She had a job at Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego, starting out as activities director, then working her way up into a responsible, well-paying administrative position.
Then, Belinda got married, and had a son and a daughter. The children did well in school, she said. Her son enrolled in ROTC “instead of a gang” and became an officer in the Navy. She told me with pride, “He’s an air traffic controller on the biggest Navy ship. He did Afghanistan, Iraq.”
But her manner changed when I asked if she worried about him. “Of course,” she said. “It was the hardest time in my life.”
When an opportunity came up to buy a business. Belinda and her husband bought the flooring company where he was working. For the next ten years, she managed the company, handling the business end, while her husband worked construction.
When they divorced after 23 years of marriage, her husband got the company, and she got the house. Then came the crash. When everything fell apart in 2006, the building industry in Southern California was among the first to be hit. The company and the house were lost.
At that point, an earlier back injury flared up and she needed major surgery. “I got a titanium disc,” she said.
Belinda described the difficult aftermath of her surgery and the hardships during the prolonged, painful recovery. “You’re down, down for a year,” she said. “I was down. They put you on oxycodone. They should only do that for six weeks. They should not put you on that for a year.”
Despite expressing bitterness about her medical care after surgery, she said, “I’m so grateful. I walk around like I’m OK.”
Afterwards, she moved up to the Bay Area where her daughter lives. Her ex-husband came up and they remarried, a very unwise move, as she admits now. It turned out he went bankrupt and eventually she lost everything and her credit was ruined.
“When everything crashed, I was 46,” she said. “Now am 51. So these last five years, life was totally out of control.”
Now she has no money, no home, and she is alienated from her children. “My daughter has a daughter, my son has a son,” she explained. “They have spouses. I know they’re fine. I taught them so good that they ‘tough love’ me. They just want me to have a house, they don’t want me to be out here. But I feel like I’m an apostle or a wanderer….”
These past five years have been wandering years for Belinda, with no place to call home. She’s gone through a couple of short stays in shelters, an episode with a boyfriend who turned out to be abusive, and another relationship that didn’t work out, then back on the street again.
“I’m not indoors, I’m outdoors,” Belinda said, describing her life on the streets. “I’ve got a sleeping bag, warm coats. I have a safe shelter.
“But you have to be alert. You know I’m tired. I’m exhausted because the truth is that you never can go fully asleep, especially a woman, especially if you’re an attractive woman. I really get a lot of haters for that. It’s weird, like once they find out I’m not a prostitute or addicted to drugs, then they kind of don’t like me. But after a while they respect me.”
Her mood changes once again and she added, “The good point is there’s a lot of nice people in Berkeley, a lot of good people around the world, and you got to trust in God.”
Not having a home makes it hard to hold on to her possessions. “I’ve been through 17 sleeping bags, and nine backpacks in the last three years,” she said. “And then I always figure, ‘Well the other people need it more than I do.’”
When somebody steals her purse with her ID and her phone, it takes time to get them replaced. “It’s just relentless,” she said. “Living outside, you become feral because you’re out here fighting for your life. It’s cold, it’s brutal, people are crazy.”
What’s also dogging her life is police harassment and the threat of jail. It’s the system’s routine treatment of people who are homeless — citations for sleeping in the wrong place, warrants issued for not responding to the citations, picked up by the police, sent to Santa Rita jail.
She described how those legal troubles recently happened to her. It started when she was caught sleeping near a high school. “When you sleep outdoors, you get stay-aways (police orders). They don’t want you to be sleeping by the high school or by a building so you get a stay-away.
“Between that and the open container for drinking beer, you go to jail because if you don’t take care of those little tickets, if you don’t have the money, they pick you up on a warrant. All of a sudden you’re a criminal because they have a warrant for your arrest.”
The alternative to jail was a program subjecting her to court-ordered probation for three years.
“That’s how that started — a three-year, court-ordered probation so that when the cops come out they can search you,” Belinda said. “Any altercation with a police officer, if they choose, they can put you straight in jail without you even doing anything, just because you’re in contact with the police.”
She said that one officer in particular continued to harass her, and she was incarcerated. “So now I’ve been in jail and it’s very scary. It’s like…” Belinda pauses, searching for the right words. “It’s like you’re in the pound because you’re not really a person.”
She was issued a personal file number by which she is identified whenever the police question her. “Now your personal file number is more important than your Social Security number.”
Court-ordered probation means going into rehab or to jail. She’s terrified of jail.
“This is what happens to good people, business people that have been shafted,” she said. “If you go to jail enough, you’re going to learn how to do crimes. You don’t even want to know, but you hear so much stuff in there, not to mention there’s big, fat people that want to hurt you — they’re haters. Basically, you’re scared to death and they treat you like you’re in the pound.”
But getting into a rehab program turns out to be difficult. There are not enough spaces, so every place has a waiting list. Every day she calls, and each time she’s told she’s on their list, but she’s still anxiously waiting.
Right now her life remains in limbo. “Every day is about survival,” she said. “Once I live in the rehab, I’ll have a roof over my head, and I’ll be able to get my ID again. Once I get into a program I’ll have a little structure.”
At present, she has no income except for what she earns selling Street Spirit. She feels she has no place to turn for help.
“And the government isn’t there, this is the hard part,” she said. “They’re there for the veterans, but what about the veteran’s moms? They’re there for women with small children, but what about the women that raised their children well?”
She comes close to tears, thinking about her alienation from her own children. Again, she finds strength in being positive.
“I think maybe something good is going to come out of it,” Belinda said. “There’s a lot of times, a lot of things in my life have been really good. I think sometimes the hardest thing is what pushes through to get to the best thing.”