My family went up in smoke
Julie, 15, writes about what it’s like when the homeless woman on the street is your drug-addicted mom. Reprinted from 1994.
Reprinted from September – October 1994
As a couple of friends and I cruise down an alley to find a spot to kick back and smoke a joint, we see a head with long blond hair pop up from a dumpster. In front of the dumpster is an old 10-speed that has been put together piece by piece. Every piece on the bike is a different color. We all say, “Oh! It’s only one of those dumpster divers.” Then I realize that it’s my mother. I tell my friends, “Hey! That’s my mom! Turn around.”
My friends know my mom is homeless, so they said, “Cool. Maybe she’ll smoke a joint with us!” So we turn around. Now it’s been about two and a half months since I’ve last seen or heard from her. I go through the whole “hey! Long time no see” conversation. After the small talk, I realize there is not much else to say. We sparked it up and offered it to her. She said, “Geez! That’s a big joint!” Then she told me how she doesn’t feel like it because she was too amped. My mom is a speed addict.
Whenever she has money it almost always goes for drugs. Once in a while she gets a motel room but that never lasts long because the drugs run out and money is spent. My mother is also a dumpster diver. She digs in dumpsters for food, clothes, anything to recycle, and anything else she likes. On Christmas I got a bag filled with a fluorescent pink Frisbee, silver rings, a plastic watch and other fun things. All of this stuff came from somebody’s dumpster. But I don’t care because I love her and it’s the thought that counts. To prove it, I wear all the rings and sometimes even the watch.
Life hasn’t always been this bad. Before I was in the fifth grade, my mom and papa were still together. My papa worked as a mechanic, plumber and repo man. Both of them sold pot. Sometimes my papa lost his job and got evicted and we’d stay at a friend’s house. For a while I stayed with my grandparents and my parents and sisters stayed in a schoolbus at the beach. Then we got an apartment, and it went on and on like that. Then they split up. We all had known that it was going to happen by the fights and all, but it was still a heartbreaker when it happened.
During the next year a lot of things happened. Due to the breakup and a loss of money and heart, my papa became homeless. In the daytime he sleeps in a park or at a friend’s house (it’s safer) and then at night he would ride his bike or walk around to make the time pass. But if he happened to find a dumpster with goodies inside he was even happier.
Around this time my mom went back to school. She got her GED and planned to major in journalism. She was dating a younger guy. Just as things seemed to be going great, everything got reversed. Her boyfriend moved. Her next boyfriend was younger and dealt speed. He got my mom hooked on it. It went from her doing speed once in a while to an everyday thing.
Life with a speed addict
I’d get up, get my sisters dressed and get us breakfast and tell my mom to get up. She would be burnt out in bed. “Can’t you stay home today? I don’t want to get up.” I’d say, “No, get up!” I’d go in there four or five times to get her up. One time I poured water on her. She was mad, but she got up! I got lots of tardies and had to serve detentions and got principal’s notes and stuff because I was late all the time.
After being with her boyfriend for over four years, they broke up. She waited until her welfare check came on the 1st or 2nd, then we left. It was a good thing too because the next month, cops raided the house and sent nine people to jail for dealing or buying.
I was sent to my grandmother’s house for what was supposed to be two months. That was two and a half years ago, and I still live with my grandmother. My mom and two younger sisters who are now 8 and 10 lived in and out of motels and friends’ houses for the next one and a half years. When my sisters were in the first and second grade they didn’t attend the last 4 months of school and had gotten kicked out of five or six schools due to tardies and absences.
A month before school started my sisters came to stay with my grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle and I. My mom didn’t have a place to stay again. She said she’d come get them before school started. The day before school came around, and my sisters’ bags were packed but my mom never showed. About six weeks later, she finally came over. She told us that she felt guilty and knew that she had flaked but also that she had nowhere to live with my sisters. She said that it was better for them.
At first they liked it because they had a pool and more toys and more fun. They got to stay up late and watch TV and eat cookies and ice cream. They didn’t have to roam from one motel to another, or sleep at a friend’s house.
After a while, they missed Mom and wanted to move back with her but there was no place for them to move to. A lot of times my sisters come in my room and want to spend time with me, but they’re too young. I make them sit in the corner and not talk or do anything. It’s obnoxious because they worship me. They want me to spend more time with them, but in the little time that I spend with them, they get on my nerves real quick.
My sisters miss mom
I love them and I’m glad that they’re off the streets, but they’re so annoying. They tell me how they miss Mommy and ask me to call mom’s friends. It’s really sad. Once my sister had a pile of toys and comic books on the floor in her room. I asked her why she had it there and she said, “It’s everything that Mommy’s ever given me.” I went and tried to get a hold of my mom but I couldn’t.
After my sisters moved in, my mother got food stamps and a welfare check for the next four or five months. But she didn’t turn in the papers every month like you’re supposed to, and she was never at the places she said she was living.
One day at six in the morning my uncle woke me up to tell me there was a welfare agent to talk to me.
“Where is your mom?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know where she’s living?”
“Do you know that some of the stuff your mom has been lying about could get you, your mom and your two sisters in trouble?”
“Yeah, but what do you want me to do about it?”
“The way she’s handling the situation right now, your mom could lose custody of you.”
I felt like he was expecting me to be able to change it. He made me feel guilty.
After that my mom stopped getting her checks. My grandmother could get food stamps and welfare if she got custody, but she doesn’t want to, so she’d rather just struggle to make ends meet.
My mom is helpful in odd ways. When I was a stoner, I paid the normal street prices. My mom told me that I could do a lot better than this. So she had one of her friends start selling pot to me for really good prices. After a while I became a “good hook-up.” People gave me $20 to buy them an 8th of an ounce. It only cost me $5 so then I made a profit of $15.
I hated doing it but I did it anyway. People knew I got the pot through my mom so they told me that my mom was cool. I guess at first it was okay, but after a while I realized that I didn’t see my mom unless I was buying pot. Then one of my friends started smoking pot all the time, and he turned stupid. It was like an eye opener. I don’t want that to happen to me, so I rarely smoke pot.
Then my connection started to get scared. He thought the cops might get him. I used that as an excuse to back off. Since I’m not willing to be a hookup anymore, I rarely see my mom.
Whenever I see her, it always starts out good. She’ll say, “Julie I love you, I want to get your sisters and go to the park.” Then she’ll ask one of those questions, like “Will you go help me get cans out of the high school dumpster?” And I’ll say, “I’m not a tweaker, I’m not like you. I don’t need to get off on digging in dumpsters.”
She gets really mad because I shove the truth in her face. I wish I could keep my views to myself, but I can’t keep my mouth shut because it bothers me so much the way she is and I know she used to be so much more. I guess she still has the ability to get her life together, but the drugs get to her first.
Her friends think I’m really smart. They always tell me, “I don’t know where you get your brains from.” I say, “My mom used to have them.” My grandma said my mom used to get As and Bs in high school. Then she dropped out her junior year and everything was downhill from there.
I love my mom anyway
Now don’t get me wrong. My mom and I do have our good times. For instance, on my birthday, I happened to see her on the street. We made plans to meet at 7-11. When we met each other, her friend drove us to Tommy’s to eat dinner. We had cheeseburgers, fries and sodas. Then they dropped me off at a friend’s house. She gave me a stuffed animal, money and more silver rings. Then we said our goodbyes. This meeting only lasted about an hour or two so there wasn’t much time to fight. It was a good day.
Now I feel like I haven’t said anything good about her. So let me tell you I love my mom. She always means well.
Once her friend just had a baby boy and didn’t have any boy clothes. My mom filled up two or three shopping carts with clothes she found in the dumpster. Her friend was homeless too and had nowhere to put it all.
Once my great grandmother got her an apartment and a car. I moved in for a month, but it was too crazy. Her boyfriends would get in fights with bicycle chains and axes. After two weeks, the electricity got turned off and my mom moved to a motel. I moved back in with my grandma.
Then she let a boyfriend borrow her car. He had just gotten out of jail and had no transportation to visit a sick relative. On his way back he got in an accident. It was his fault. He made a right turn from a center lane and caused a six-car pile-up. The people involved are suing my mom and she was no money to pay so she just avoids it all.
Now all she has is a bike.
That’s why my two sisters and I live with my grandmother. I have no rules and may do as I please. To many teens this would seem like the perfect life. To me it is not. It’s not a family.
My grandma is tired and has already raised four kids of her own. Now she has to drive me and my sisters to school, buy us clothes and books, give us money since we’re not old enough to work, and that’s stuff she didn’t have to deal with before. My grandfather didn’t want us to move in. She talked him into it, so now he blames it all on her.
Since we moved in, we have cluttered up the house with our junk. She has no time to clean anymore. It’s a lot of stress.
Because of all the problems I’ve gone through, I’m really mature for my age and don’t spend much time being upset over little things. I know I’ll never make the big mistakes my mom made. I’m not going to drop out of high school, have a baby at 17 or be a drug addict. I’ll have kids, but I’ll start when I have a job and an apartment. I won’t be upset because I can’t party anymore.
All I really want is for my mother, two sisters and me to live in a small apartment together, nice and cozy. We could be one big happy family. For now it’s only a dream.