My Mom Was Homeless
Updated: Jul 11
When I was 10 years old, my father abandoned my mother. He packed up everything we owned, ordered his four children into the car, and fled from Gallup, New Mexico, to a new home on the Navajo Indian Reservation. My mother was 35 years old, with a ninth-grade education and no employment skills.
Dad left her with a broken-down car, whose brake lines he had cut in the hopes she would get killed going down the steep hills near our house. She had less than $200 to her name and no place to go. It didn’t help that she was mentally ill and completely helpless.
Throughout my life, I’ve had nightmares about what she went through. Luckily, she was afraid to drive more than 20 miles per hour or on hills. When she hit the brakes and discovered they were gone, no cars were in front of her and none were close behind. She walked to a gas station and begged a mechanic to help her. He fixed her brakes for next to nothing and told her it wasn’t an accident—someone had meant to kill her.
Mom remembered a man she knew who helped people in trouble. Tom Collins was an insurance agent in Albuquerque and a volunteer with the Civitans association. She drove the 140 miles there in her rickety car, leaving a trail of oil behind her, and looked up his phone number in the directory. It took many calls over several days before she finally reached him. She was living out of her car next to a park and couldn’t leave a number. One night, a police officer found her and offered her a blanket to ward off the cold. “I hope you have somewhere to go, lady,” he said. She didn’t, of course.
When Mom blurted out her story to Tom, he immediately got her a room, some money, a job as a waitress trainee at a truck stop, and legal help so she could get in touch with her four children. To see us, she had to save all her tips from her dollar-an-hour job. It took her months to scrape up enough money.
A waitress friend drove her to our new home in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Even though Dad threatened her, she stood her ground, knowing she had legal help, a job, and a place to stay. She had a difficult time reconnecting with her children, but she was safe and sound and had the means to support herself. I shudder to think what would have happened to her if Tom hadn't helped her.
As I was writing my memoir, The Pale-Faced Lie, I made a commitment to donate part of the profits to a worthy women’s shelter. I wanted to find a shelter that would help a woman like my mother get a fresh start.
After searching, I chose the Barrett House, run by the Barrett Foundation, which “has been committed to transforming the lives of women and children suffering from homelessness for more than 30 years through emergency shelters, transitional housing, and support services.”
Within three days of entering the shelter, each guest works with the Housing Stability Advocate to formulate a plan for finding a home, living independently, and becoming a contributing member of the community.
The Barrett Foundation is in touch with shelters all over the state of New Mexico and works relentlessly to ensure that no homeless woman sleeps on the street. When I saw the women in the shelter feeding their children, changing their diapers, and acquiring skills that would help them provide for themselves, I knew I had found the right place.
I highly encourage everyone to find a shelter near them and donate time and money. If you are so inclined to help, go to www.barrettfoundation.org or call (505) 243-4887 and contribute.
Especially now during the pandemic, shelters need contributions more than ever.