You don’t care, you’re trying to survive.

The battles that plagued Maryann’s life are now the reasons she advocates for others

By Marianna Moles

Each evening, Maryann slides a golden twin bed sized piece of foam from her kitchen to her main room. She makes up her bed, layers on the clothing, and snuggles up for a good night’s rest in her neatly decorated studio. “I don’t use the heater because I’m used to being outside. I just bundle up,” said Maryann.

After 10 years of living outside, Maryann became permanently housed two and a half years ago, thanks to a Permanent Supportive Housing county subsidy she received through The Health Trust, along with other supportive services like case management. Maryann says her case manager Vanessa is “an Earth Angel. She’s so gung-ho about her job.” Maryann is one of 2,015 households that The Health Trust currently serves.

There is a small kitchen, and the only main room is the size of a small bedroom. The amount of space doesn’t matter as much to her as other aspects. It’s safe. It’s peaceful. It’s clean. It’s probably more of a home than she’s had her entire life.

Throughout her 66 years it seems like it’s just been one battle after another. There have been the fun and memorable struggles, like when she organized alongside her peers at San Jose’s Branham High School in 1969 to give women the right to wear pants. “The next year they made it possible [but I had graduated], and it made me mad because I wanted to wear pants,” she laughed. In the grand scheme, not only was this fight one of the few she outright won, it’s probably also the smallest she’s faced.

There are her ongoing mental health battles, like her obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders. The battles that still need closure, like the unresolved mystery as to who murdered her boyfriend over 12 years ago, and why every single man she has ever loved was physically and emotionally abusive towards her.

Then there is the battle she has chosen to embrace. This one comes with 10 years of experience living on the streets of San Jose, which in some ways has helped her rise above the other misfortunes that have plagued her life. It has brought her to a more positive and uplifting place, and even though living on the streets is a war in itself, she’s turned it into an opportunity to help others, just like she did as a young woman. It’s all about surviving, and Maryann is the epitome of what it means to survive.

Living outdoors with two disorders added more complications to an already challenging and overwhelming situation, however Maryann says she’s better. Somehow living outdoors and not being able to clean like she wanted softened her OCD symptoms, which she believes were passed down from her mother who washed all her clothes twice.

“I’d have to wash with water and chemicals, so in my mind my hands were clean,” said Maryann, miming washing her hands. “Everything had to be immaculate. I’d wash walls [of my home] once a week. Being homeless helped – can you imagine me outdoors? I don’t wash walls anymore.” She laughs a little at the idea of washing walls, but there’s also a sense of relief in her voice. She’s finally feeling like she’s found her place, both literally and spiritually.

Nowadays she volunteers with churches as an advocate on behalf of all homeless people living in the County of Santa Clara. As part of her advocacy work she played a role in forming the Winter Faith Collaborative in 2015, made up of over 100 faith communities. The aim of the collaborative is to serve and shelter people who are living outdoors, a cause Maryann is understandably passionate about. 

She also enjoys sharing her story with church-goers. “We got into circles and I would tell the people of the congregation what it’s like to be homeless. How can they go look for work when they don’t have clothes, or can’t get food regularly, don’t have access to transportation?” she said. “I lost my teeth because I had no healthcare, and I didn’t brush my teeth. You don’t care, you’re trying to survive.”

She adds that this is why when she smiles she makes sure not to show her teeth. This conscious move goes unnoticed because her eyes do the smiling instead, as she sits in her chair, in her apartment, with her plants. It’s all hers. She’s no longer trying to survive.

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