Oral Histories of the Homeless: Melody

At Bean’s Café the project of creating ‘oral histories’ for our clients – the poorest people in our community – is important because it captures a story of an often forgotten group of people. Hearing their stories also helps us to understand where people come from and how they came to need the services we offer. With better understanding we hope to gain insight that will help us establish programs and services that will ultimately put us out of business.

Melody’s story was so eloquent, and her words so powerful, we felt it best to transcribe them directly.

I was born in Fairbanks in 1952. So I am one of the Baby Boomers. But I was raised here in Anchorage. My adoptive parents came to get me when I was an infant and drove back down here so I think I was about nine months.

I am half Athabaskan and half black. My biological mother, the reason why they said she gave me up for adoption, was because she had TB. At that time, TB was still kind of prevalent. In actuality, I think the reason why she gave me up was because I was half black. It was just getting to the point where whites and natives were getting comfortable. So a black was a no-no. So I had three strikes against me you know – Female, and mixed race.

Melody tells her story.

So I have lived in Anchorage all my life. I have lived other places – down in the lower 48 – and I’m going on 20 years of sobriety. Alaska is my home. For most people you either love it or hate it. This is my home.

I was adopted like I said by a black family. My mother and dad separated and then divorced. And my mother became my primary care giver. She was an alcoholic and very abusive. So, what was normal for me was not normal, but I did not realize this until later on. The last place that my mother and I lived in was Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I had been severely beaten and they contacted my dad up here. The Department of Protective Services put me on a plane and I came back to live in Alaska. He had remarried and the stepmother and I did not get along. She wasn’t cruel, but she had two children of her own and they came first. When I said something about it and it caused a rift. So from the age of 13 I was in the foster care system and I lived in foster homes, group homes, and receiving homes.

I gave birth to my first child at the age of 16. I gave her up for adoption. So when I entered treatment I learned a lot. If a child receives nurturing, loving care from birth to the age of three or five the groundwork for them is pretty much set. But if in between that time there is neglect, abuse or whatever, that child will end up with some issues. Some of those issues aren’t pleasant. So it made me realize that my life… I was depressed. One of the things the counselor said was, “Did you ever realize that some months are worse than others?” I said, “That’s pretty much all year for me!” But there were some months that were more traumatic than others.

And the issue of being a woman, even though women have made great strides. There is still prejudice in the workplace, also an under appreciation for women, even though we are just as smart as males, If not smarter – and I think we are (Laughs). We can multitask and they can’t, But it’s still there, you know. I lived through the segregation here. I remember as a little girl our house suffered two arson attacks and the neighborhood children ran around saying racial slurs and so forth. I remember taking the bus, riding around in the lower 48, and having to go in the back of the building and we had to order our food from the back of the restaurant. There were places for whites and coloreds. So, I have seen the changes. We have made some great strides, but prejudice is still well and alive in America. When they took the prayer out of school, I believe that’s when America started going down hill.

I have six children. I have six beautiful children. I was a single mother and single grandmother. I ended up raising my two older grandchildren because my daughter also suffered from substance abuse issues. In order for my grandchildren not to have to go to the foster care system like I did, I took them in. Because I wanted them to know that someone in the family loves them and cares for them.

When I was in the foster care system they asked me, “Well, what do you think of it?” I said, you know, it is very nice here because some children need it, but there is no place like your own home and your own family. So from the age of 16, ad I’m 59 now (I got sober when I was 40). Up to 40 I was a practicing alcoholic, drug user. I worked and I also stayed home with the children, but I didn’t realize how sick I was until I got into treatment and they explained things to us. Unfortunately, there were times when I hurt my own children, it was not intentional, but because of the way I was raised, that’s the way I was raising my children. I had such a hard head. People were trying to tell me, “Melody, I think you have a problem.” But I said, “I’m not hurting anybody but myself.” So I still suffer from guilt about that. And I’m also clinically depressed with PTSD. And now I’ve got health issues, but you know…

So I was staying with a family. In exchange for rent I did a lot of care giving. The couple… we were all around the same age and we got along. The husband died in April. I was alone with him at the time. I had never experienced that. His daughter, and all of us, have to deal with grief in different ways. The month before her boyfriend had been arrested for stupid, but serious stuff. So she became verbally abusive. When I did not respond to her she says, “Get out of my house!” So that’s how I ended up here.

I believe it was a blessing in disguise. I have met some very wonderful people. I have meat some not so wonderful people. But I do enjoy people. I care about people… maybe care too much. But I have a goal in mind of becoming self sufficient, getting my own place and getting employment and hopefully getting back in school, either as a paralegal or a certified medical assistant.

When I got out of treatment I prayed to God that if he would give me a second chance with my family I would do everything I could to make amends. When I was first sober, one of my neighbors, she would take me to the store. One day, I went over to her and asked her, “Can you take me to the store?” She just handed me the keys and said, “You go.” OK I said. I’ll hurry up and bring you back the vehicle. I went shopping and put some gas in the car for her. I came back and handed her the keys. I said, “Thank you for trusting me with your vehicle.” She stopped typing and looked at me. She said, “Melody, I would trust you with my life.” God is wonderful.

I went into treatment when I was 40. I was in 35 days. I’ve been sober ever since. It’s not been easy, but I’m a stubborn sort of a person. I don’t want to start back over again! (Laughs) If I can help another person who is in recovery. Show them that it can be done. That you can be happy without substances. I got a poem published called “Goodbye to Alcohol.” My younger daughter has that book. She was so proud of me. And I was proud of myself. I used to sing in the concert choir in high school and play the viola. So I have a little bit of culture (laughs).

Life is what we make it. Even though some days, you know, it takes and effort to get up and keep moving. If I wake up I’m really glad. And I do try to stay positive because it’s so easy to get into the self-pity mode, and be the victim. I’m a survivor and I’m gonna stay a survivor no matter what. There is support out there for people, but they have to be honest with themselves and that’s a hard thing to do. Sometimes you look at yourself and you realize ugh I was not a very nice person! That’s hard to take. But we have to realize that we are not perfect and we are bound to make mistakes. But the thing is, make your mistake, learn from it and go on.

Interviewer: Where are your children now?

My younger daughter is working and living in Chicago. She graduated in 2004, at the age of 23, with a masters in business. So, one out of six made it. But she divorced the family. I can’t blame her on that. We all have life choices. If it takes divorcing us for her to have a healthy attitude and success in life, than so be it. I have another child in Oregon and the other children are here in Anchorage. They are all grown. Like I said, I have six beautiful grandchildren. The two that I took in – Mom got her parental rights restored and took them back from me. With tragic consequences. But, it is what it is.

I have a son that’s been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When he was not on his meds he was hard to handle. It made me learn a lot about disease, and I worked for the crisis treatment center. This has shown me to show more empathy to the mentally challenged people here and to look out for them. Hopefully, they will find good caregivers. For the most part, that is quite a lot of the client’s here. Not just here, but in the rest of America. So many of them fall through the cracks. If I can give back in that way, that is something I would like to do.

When I first came here. There were a couple of women that gravitated to me . I would be open with them and kind with them. Anything can happen in an instant, and I hope… Even though my mother was abusive, one thing she taught me was, Melody, always treat people the way you want to be treated. So I try to live that.

Interviewer: What is the hardest thing about being homeless?

Being embarrassed. Things happen. I am independent and to have to ask for extra help is like, “I don’t want to.” I have such pride, you know. So I think that’s the hardest thing. And hopefully nobody looks down on me because I’m here. We are all in the same boat and we are all walking the path, we are just going about it in a different way. For the most part there are a lot of creative and intelligent beings in here. There really are. So, um, I try to say my prayers every morning and at night. And I say affirmations that I learned so that I can be happy and so forth. I think Jesus said, “You can be in the world, but not of the world.” And I refuse to be…. Just because I’m down, I don’t need to act down, or dress down. I like to smile and laugh. Because if I was to start crying, I wouldn’t stop.

I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it. So.. that’s me.