I was a Pan-Am flight attendant based
in London. I’ve been around the world. And, I’ve been homeless.
I worked for the US post office for 10 years and owned a three-bedroom rambler in Monroe. And, I’ve been homeless.
Life’s been hard but it’s getting better.
I’m also a recovering alcoholic – sober for 15 years. But that’s not what made me homeless. Like lots of other people, I used to hold the stereotype that all homeless people are druggies or alcoholics.
So, what did make me, Donna Steensland, homeless?
Well, let’s go back a little bit… to July 23, 2004. That’s the day I was hit in my postal vehicle by someone going 50 mph. What a terrible accident. It changed my life.
I suffered three herniated discs and my leg kept going numb. Sometimes the only way I could walk was by picking my leg up – with my hand. And, I kept falling: I fell at home and broke four ribs. I broke my ankle.
I thought I must have a pinched nerve, but nobody believed me because it didn’t show up on the MRI.
In June 2006, a neurosurgeon at Overlake diagnosed me with foot drop, a condition where your foot drags on the ground as you walk. He got me in for emergency surgery to treat the damaged nerve. But he said, “Donna, you may never use this leg again.”
The surgery took twice as long as it was supposed to, but when I woke up I wiggled my foot and it worked. It’s never been the same, but it works.
In the middle of this, my husband took money out of his 401k and didn’t tell me. The next year the IRS sent us a bill for $14,000 in back taxes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I opened that letter.
I’d been receiving disability pay from the post office. But they terminated my benefits when they misunderstood a doctor’s letter. I stood right next to that doctor while he called and demanded my disability be reinstated. But the money stopped coming in August 2006.
Since then, I’ve been living on $339 a month from DSHS.
In 2007, my house got foreclosed, I got divorced and had my car stolen. But, I didn’t lose my dignity, perseverance or faith.
My son let me move in with him for three months. But I needed to find my own way. So, I moved into the Salvation Army. It was Christmas time. I was scared and I thought, “Oh my god, this is going to be my life.”
During the day, I had to be out of my room between 10 and 6. I didn’t know where to go. It was a hardship because I’m chronically anemic deficient which makes me weak, tired and very cold. I’d ride the bus, trying to stay warm. I’d wear six or seven coats. I went to day centers downtown, but they weren’t for me.
At night, I cried myself to sleep.
Then I heard about the YWCA Angeline’s Eastside Women’s Center here in Bellevue. I tell you, from the instant I walked in I felt like a human being again. It was a little piece of home.
I started coming everyday and staying until it closed. I could rest, have a great meal at lunch, use the computer to check email, write letters to my attorneys, check on other resources and talk with the women. They’d even let me lay down on a cot and sleep. I had hardly any clothes so they gave me pants and sweaters. I felt renewed and hopeful.
I felt compassion here. Every day, I talked with Jean Caporaso. She knew how sick I was and was a huge source of support. She helped me get an apartment in transitional housing at Jubilee. What a blessing it was to move in there: I had my own room and didn’t have to leave during the day.
I became homeless because I got injured and let down by the system. But I have an inner drive that goes when I don’t know how. And after two years battling the post office, my retirement disability benefits finally came through in August!
I’m 54 years old and starting my life over again. Some days are hard, but I try not to reflect on the painful memories. I’m grateful that now I have everything I need: my one-bedroom apartment in Belltown, my cat and my one big treat, cable TV.
With everything I’ve been through, I know what’s truly important now: it’s not a new couch or a new set of dishes or a new pair of pumps. I could buy those things. And, believe me, sometimes I want to!
But I’ll save my money and fly down to see my son in Las Vegas this Christmas. I’ll see a show while I’m there, if I want. Those things will give me good memories. I won’t remember a couch.
When I was homeless, the YWCA Angeline’s Eastside Women’s Center was my saving grace. Thank you for helping keep places like this going! And, thank you for listening to my story.
Sadly Donna passed away in early 2010. She will always be remembered by the YWCA staff and the community who came to adore her.