The Voice of a Homeless Woman in Boca Raton

Mary Stewart tells the difficulties of working on a college degree and bettering herself all while experiencing homelessness in Boca Raton.

By Mary Stewart

I never thought I would be homeless. 

I grew up comfortably in a beautiful three-bedroom house in North Palm Beach, Florida, that had a swimming pool in the backyard. I was a spoiled, rotten kid who owned a Lhasa Apso and wore designer clothes.

But, I remember when my grandmother would hand me a dollar for the collection plate at church, I instead insisted on putting it inside their basket marked: “For the Poor.” I explained to my grandmother that the church had money, but the poor had nothing. Little did I know, I would one day be poor myself.

Maybe that is part of the reason that I am so drawn to Boca Raton. It is an upper-middle class community that reminds me of my own childhood neighborhood. I also feel safe there.

Although I love Boca, I certainly don’t recommend it as a place to be homeless. The people of Boca tend to hold themselves to a higher standard. While they have been very generous to me, and have allowed my kind of people to peacefully coexist in their community, they have zero tolerance for poor hygiene, litter, and being harassed for change every time they pull up at the gas pump.

So, I do my best to look presentable. Last week, I painted my toenails and dyed my hair in the woods, using a $3.00 bottle of hair dye and two jugs of water. I regularly wash my clothes at the Sandalfoot Square laundromat, and try hard to keep my camp cleaned up.

Once I exit the woods in the morning, I pretty much blend in with the rest of the community. I attend college on a homeless tuition exemption, write blog posts to earn a little money, and dine at local restaurants.

But I feel like an imposter.

At the end of the day, I still sleep outside, and I occasionally need to ask for a little help. Just that alone is considered to be a problem in the eyes of the community and local law enforcement.

I know that my camp will eventually be discovered and I will one day need to move my belongings — that’s if they don’t end up being tossed in the dumpster first. As the saying out here goes: “All good camps come to an end.”

How, then, did a rich kid end up in this predicament? Honestly, it was a combination of unfortunate circumstances and poor decisions. 

At 13, my family refused to pick me up from the hospital, and I’ve never been welcomed home since. They couldn’t handle my emotional problems — I have high functioning autism, later was diagnosed as bipolar, and, as an adult, developed PTSD from being victimized while homeless. 

I spent the remainder of my childhood in group homes and struggled to achieve self-sufficiency as an adult.

Then Hurricane Wilma came and I was introduced to the world of homelessness. When my trailer was destroyed, I was forced to move to motels until I ran out of money, then I ended up sleeping on the floor of a church.

The isolation gets the best of me sometimes. I would love to really get to know the residents of Boca, but I feel like I’m a completely different species simply because I sleep in a tent. 

I did manage to get back on my feet, but only to lose everything once again during the economic recession. When social services took my oldest son from me because I couldn’t afford to care for him, they also took away my motivation to stay sober. I went on a downward spiral of alcoholism that has lasted for ten years and resulted in chronic homelessness.

Last year, I managed to get sober and get off the streets once again, but my husband and I separated and I returned to Palm Beach County. No, I didn’t come back for the beautiful weather. I grew up here, and it’s human nature to run home when you’re in trouble.

Although Boca is still a lovely place, it isn’t the same as it used to be. It gets lonely out here. I once had a group of homeless friends in Boca, and just as the community is unique, so was the local homeless population.

Since it is necessary for one to hold themselves together with dignity in Boca, and it’s hard to find drugs here, most of the local homeless people had a sincere desire to improve their situation. While it’s not the type of place where you can get away with wearing the same outfit for a week, many local businesses do have respect for a down and out person who is willing to work. A few of my friends managed to gain employment.

But they still struggled with finding affordable housing, so most of them relocated, and then successfully got back on their feet. I still keep in touch with them on social media.

A few of my friends didn’t make it though. Sadly, they died as a direct result of chronic alcoholism. Occasionally, I’ll buy a four-pack of cheap beer and pour some on the ground as a tribute to my dear friends.

The isolation gets the best of me sometimes. I would love to really get to know the residents of Boca, but I feel like I’m a completely different species simply because I sleep in a tent. 

Once in a while I will spend ten dollars at the Dollar Tree to put together care packages for the homeless people that I know in Lake Worth. However, even though that crowd consists of some good friends, they are also bad influences. I’ve tried to connect them with resources, but most of them aren’t ready to change.

Many people question my desire to help the homeless given the fact that I am homeless myself, but my generous heart is my secret to survival.

The homeless people of West Boca used to call me the “hundred dollar girl” because I had more hundred dollar bills handed to me than any other panhandler did. Many of them wondered what my secret was, but it wasn’t much of a mystery. Very simply, I shared my blessings with others.

I personally believe that small acts of kindness like that have helped me survive ten years of homelessness.

One year, I was panhandling on Glades road when a woman handed me a hundred dollar Walmart gift card. It was around Christmas, so I spent the card on a huge pack of pork chops and thoughtful gifts for each of my homeless friends. I personally believe that small acts of kindness like that have helped me survive ten years of homelessness.

While Broward County provides some excellent resources such as the Homeless Voice shelter and Broward Outreach Center, Palm Beach County offers little help to the homeless. All homeless services are funneled through the Lewis Homeless Resource Center, which often has a wait list and only provides ninety days of shelter. Afterwards, the homeless need to go on another waiting list for long term transitional housing.

However, Boca offers free hot lunches at Boca Helping Hands and outreach services through Changing Lives of Boca, which is funded by wealthy philanthropists.

I attend the Saturday outreach services at Changing Lives occasionally and have personally witnessed a couple of homeless people I know successfully turn their lives around as a result of the ministry, but what has touched my heart the most is the kindness of the donors.

One particular investor has taken the time to attend the ministry in an effort to get to know the homeless people who are being helped by his donations. 

One Saturday, he stood up and said that he just couldn’t understand why we wanted to sleep with the mosquitoes — he was trying to encourage us to go into halfway houses. There are plenty of nights that I spend in the woods battling the bugs and humidity only to realize that he has a good point. 

I find it to be truly amazing when people like that man make an effort to spend time with the homeless and try to understand us instead of judging us.

I started writing freelance last year, and no longer panhandle as frequently as I once did. I’m also pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Human Services; I want to specialize in homeless outreach and advocacy so that I can help my friends out here.

Homelessness has become an integral part of who I am. Until now, most of my writing has been on topics that I find to be meaningless and frivolous — like windshield replacements, combating mosquitoes, insurance, beauty tips, and, once, a 1000 words about outdoor lighting. I want the pieces that I write to open eyes and hearts and make an impact. 

I hope that any homeless people who read this will be inspired to follow their dreams in life, and team up with others in the same situation so that all of you can work together to lift each other up.

I also hope that any readers who aren’t homeless will realize that homelessness can happen to anyone, given the fact that I come from money. I also hope that they will be inspired by the affluent investor to start to take the time to meet the homeless before judging us. Even if you can’t afford to fund a ministry, volunteer at a soup kitchen on a Saturday, sit down at a table, and talk to the patrons.

From my experience, I have found that the first step to addressing homelessness is to eliminate the stigma. We are human beings with hopes, dreams, and feelings just like everyone else. The only difference is that we don’t have a house.

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