Jackie was homeless, high, and living with her granddaughter in a tent behind the John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School in the spring of 2017 when the trajectory of her life—and her granddaughter’s—began to change. “It was long ago but not so long ago,” Jackie remembers. “I was a mess. I was really a mess. I can hardly believe how different our lives are now.”
Jackie had been living in an apartment on St. Paul’s East Side with her granddaughter and daughter. Her daughter is one of the world’s 21 million people diagnosed with schizophrenia. While taking medication, Jackie’s daughter managed to navigate life without experiencing voices and paranoia that often accompany the illness. While not taking medication, hallucinations were frequent; she self-medicated and often called the landlord in the middle of the night, saying she believed people were living in the attic.
Eventually the landlord evicted them, and Jackie found herself living on the streets with her then 5-year-old granddaughter. After she was raped—like so many homeless women are—she lost her grip on sobriety.
“The rape tipped things for me,” she says. “I relapsed and started using meth, which prolonged our homelessness.”
And that is how, during the winter of 2016-2017, Jackie and her granddaughter ended up living in a small tent behind John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School. Looking back, Jackie can still feel the worry and despair that were her constant companions. “Every day was the same in terms of tasks but the desperation and fear that I couldn’t meet my granddaughter’s needs—or having someone finding out that we lived in a tent and having her taken—those were the worst fears.”
Jackie spent every day figuring out where their next meal would come from and how she could make “tent life” more bearable. She rummaged through trash for discarded blankets or tarps to cover their tent to keep out the elements. She scavenged firewood to cook meals and old couch cushions to fashion a bed. “One common theme was having to steal our every meal,” she says. “Stealing was an all-time low for me, and I wasn’t good at it. Tent life was the heaviest, most daily desperate living for me.”
Amid that desperation, as winter melted into spring—after more than a year of being homeless—Jackie walked through the doors of the John A. Johnson Neighborhood House Family Center and came face to face with an opportunity for help. “I think I was asking about the food shelf or something like that,” she says. “The woman there must have seen that I was living behind the school and she asked me if I was homeless. I said, ‘Yes, I am homeless with my granddaughter and living in a tent.’”
Neighborhood House Family Center connected Jackie with Project REACH—a St. Paul Public School shelter and street-based program that promotes school stability and academic success of homeless children and youth; as well as Ramsey County Coordinated Access to Housing and Shelter (CAHS), which provides housing services and support for people in Ramsey County who are homeless or facing homelessness. “I wanted help, but at the time because I was using I didn’t really see much beyond the tent and shelter,” Jackie says.
But even so, shelter was a first step toward so much more. While in the shelter, Jackie was connected with Shellie Rowe, Neighborhood House Family Centers Manager, who found more permanent housing for Jackie and her family. “My boyfriend at the time and my daughter were also homeless and I insisted we put them on the lease,” Jackie says. “I didn’t want to leave them out there.”
It wasn’t long before Jackie regretted putting her boyfriend on the lease. He had been abusive before, and the abuse didn’t stop once they were in housing—and Jackie continued using drugs. Eventually, warrants that had been issued when she was homeless and had stolen food caught up with her. “I ended up in jail once and then again,” Jackie says. “I talked to Shellie and she told me if I went to jail one more time I might lose my housing voucher.”
“I left it up to Jackie,” Shellie says. “I told her she could continue down this path and end up in jail and one of these times lose her voucher because we couldn’t find her when we needed to, or she could go to treatment.”
Jackie’s response: “I’m not going to treatment.”
But after a week of thinking about it, she called Shellie and said, “I think I’m going to do this.”
Shellie found a treatment center that would allow Jackie to bring her granddaughter with her. “My big thing was: Who is going to take care of my granddaughter?” Jackie says. “I’ve been her consistent one person, even though I was out of my mind much of the time. I couldn’t leave her.”
After nine months, Jackie and her granddaughter emerged from the treatment center—and once again Shellie helped them secure housing (this time without the boyfriend). “I just hit the ground running,” Jackie says. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re 45 and have a granddaughter and you gotta piece it back together.’ So that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Much has changed for Jackie since she entered treatment. She’s been sober for a year and a half. She’s in stable housing and is entering a training program to become a Recovery Coach for Minnesota Recovery Connection. And her granddaughter is enrolled in school and getting the help she needs to deal with the trauma she’s experienced. “She’s doing well,” Jackie says. “It’s taken her a long time to adjust. She always thought she had to be the adult in every situation—but she was raised by high people, so …” Her voice trails off.
Jackie is proud of getting through treatment, surviving the trauma of being raped and experiencing domestic abuse and grateful for the help from Shellie and Neighborhood House. “And I’m proud of being a good grandmother now, and a role model for my daughter who is also now clean—and someone my [adult] son can depend on,” Jackie says. “Now I look at people who are homeless and think, ‘Wow. That was me.’ But I get it—and I’m thankful for the experience because it helps me empathize with other people.
“My only goal now is to live one day at a time and give back on a daily basis.”