Lori Giannuzzi

On Being Homeless … Our Story

COTS Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast, Oct. 24, 2014

The first time Becky asked me to speak about my experience with COTS it was for group of International students at Saint Michaels College. I admit I told her yes, although I’ll admit I was both nervous and apprehensive. Then I thought, “Wow! What a great way to possibly change the way people perceive homelessness, and at the same time, help to heal.” I am glad I accepted. The students asked good questions; they were courteous and respectful. Talking with some of the students afterwards, I felt like they had a better understanding of who the homeless are. Maybe after hearing my story, they would be inspired to volunteer to help people who homeless or be more determined to pursue a career where they could make a difference.

Each time I speak, I hope that it will change someone’s view about homelessness. I have found it also helps in healing. I say that because it has taken a long time to heal from that episode in our lives. I had so many things going on when we became homeless I didn’t have the time to take care of how I was feeling. I was worried about my husband and my two young children. I’m Mom; I’ll worry about me later!

Ten years ago September, that’s when the bottom fell out of our world. School had just started. A chain of events brought us to that dreadful day. We went from our American dream of having a nice house — four bedrooms, a two-car garage, a fireplace. Really a nice place! We left that house in South Burlington to go to a hotel, then to our temporary home with COTS. Ironically, where our house once stood is now a vacant lot. The house’s owner after us was bought out by the airport. I found this symbolic: Like the house was erased, just like that troubled time in our life … but, not really though. It is still there, and every time I hear a statistic or see a commercial about homelessness, I feel that ache again. I feel for those people going through it – and I can relate.

People become homeless for many different reasons. In our case, it was because of an illness. My husband, Bruce, worked for Xerox for close to 18 years when his boss told him he had to move to Connecticut or resign. Our father-in-law lived with us, and he was on dialysis. We hadn’t been in our house that long so we decided to stay. I worked at Chamberlin Elementary School at the time as an instructional assistant for children with special needs. Bruce found a job first at Best Buy, and then at Home Depot. While he was working at Home Depot, he called me to pick him up from work. He could hardly move, and he had immense pain in his back.

And, that was it! From that day forward, there were tests, doctors, and many different painkillers – most with awful side effects. We had already started to get behind in the bills, but when Bruce stopped working, it became worse.

Bruce was diagnosed with arachnoiditis, which sounds like Spider-Man’s disease but is actually a debilitating condition with severe stinging, burning pain, and neurologic problems. There is no cure for it, and treatments are similar to those for other chronic pain conditions. What did all of this mean for Bruce? He was in near constant pain, and he was unable to return to work.

Bruce had been on short-term disability. With his diagnosis, we took the next step of applying for Social Security Disability. We filed paperwork – and more paperwork.

We could have sold the house, but we thought we had time. We thought the bank would work with us, as we awaited the Social Security to begin. We kept hoping it would work out. We didn’t want to give up trying. You can’t go back and change things, just learn from it.

We had worked so long to get a house that we were trying to hang on to it, hoping it would all come together in time. Unfortunately, we didn’t get our reprieve. It was too late. The bank foreclosed on our house.

Three things then happened:

  • One car already had blown transmission; the other – our van – we now lost, gone to the bank.
  • The second – and the hardest for me – was finding out my dad had Stage 3 stomach cancer. My dad lived in New Jersey, and I could not get there. This was very stressful.
  • And, finally, we were put out of our house.

I have a hard time remembering all the details, but I remember the way I felt that day. I called school and told them what was happening. Right away, one of the school counselors, Diane – to whom I’ll always be grateful – knew just what to do. We sent the kids to school, Bruce tried to pack some things, and my father-in-law went to live with relatives in New Hampshire. Diane came and got me, and she took me to COTS. COTS would be able to help us; unfortunately, the shelters were full, so we had to go to a hotel until there was an opening.

In the meantime, we had a menagerie of pets to find places for. Our cats went with a good friend, Judy, who also was a great support for us throughout this time. Diane and her husband, Dave, fostered our Beagle. We had to part with our yellow Lab, Brandy. Brandy’s foster family fell in love with her, and she was adopted by them. That was very difficult and affected our kids; my daughter would tell you today that this was what bothered her most.

If you can, imagine how hectic it was packing whatever we could, in the short amount of time before we left our house rather abruptly. A lot of our things went to storage. Some, actually many, were left behind. I had to pick out only a few things to go with us to COTS.

Many things were going through my mind – the future was very uncertain; it was sad, stressful and seemingly hopeless, but I didn’t have time to dwell. As a mom, I’m the caretaker. The defining moment came when I was sitting on a box, feeling all of these emotions. I thought: “How am I going to get through this?” I believe in God, but at this time, my faith was a little shaky. In the midst of everything going on, I suddenly felt a calmness and peace, like a subtle pat on the shoulder. This was the nudge, the push I needed, to let me know it was going to be OK, and I was strong enough to get myself – and my family – through this.

After luckily only having to spend two nights in the hotel, another counselor from school, Dean, came to help us. Dean was able to be supportive of our two children – Anna, who was 9, and Matt, who was 11 and autistic. This was very traumatic for them with so much happening for them to deal with.

We didn’t have a lot of family support when we were going through this, and we didn’t have any other place to stay. The only person in a position to possibly help us was my father – and he was fighting for his life against cancer. To me, that wasn’t an option. He had enough on his plate.

For the support we received from COTS, my co-workers, and my friends – I am very grateful. I don’t want to take away from the fact there are many homeless people today who don’t have the support we did. I hope they find the courage to reach out and get help. It’s there.

COTS gave us a roof over our head and guidance to get back on track so that we could get a new place to live. It wasn’t easy. When you go from your own home to living in a communal situation – that is a big adjustment. There are rules to follow, which is for the safety and peacefulness of the residents; chores to do, and many different personalities to deal with. There’s sharing a kitchen, living room/dining room and bathrooms with nine other families.

And, talk about being close and family togetherness – the four of us were all in one room. My husband took one bottom bunk. Above him, we stored some of our belongings; the rest, we put in a closet and under the bunks. My daughter and I shared another bottom bunk. And, my son slept above us.

It’s a different kind of experience, 10 families living like that. We were all there for shelter. We had that in common. How we got to that place didn’t really matter.

There were all kinds of families there – single moms with small children, two-parent families like ours. We managed to make a few friends while were at the Main Street Family Shelter. There is one very good friend who we are still in touch with and remains dear to us.

The COTS staff was very helpful – they bear the brunt of many unhappy people, I’m sure. People aren’t their best in stressful situations. But, the staff was always there to listen, if that’s what you needed. We received budgeting help, and we worked with our COTS case manager. I would love for no one to ever have to go through this experience.

I also remember the supports for the children in shelter. I wish I remembered her name, but there was a young lady, who was in college, and she spent a lot of time with the kids. She did arts and crafts and played games with them. She helped with child care. There were even a couple of field trips, including one to ECHO. I bring this up mainly because through all of this, the hardest thing about losing our home, going to the hotel, then staying at COTS for four months was how difficult it was on the children.

As a parent, you can go through just about anything. When it involves the happiness and welfare of your children, well, that changes everything. They shouldn’t have to go through anything like this. So when COTS had things for the children to do in shelter, it gave them a chance to be kids, to do normal things, and escape from the chaos of having experienced all that loss.

I haven’t spoken much about how my children dealt with being at COTS and losing their home. That has always been the hardest for me to deal with. That’s probably because part of me feels like I failed as a parent. That I, that we, weren’t able to protect them from all this. I have realized there are some things you can’t control, and we make mistakes.

We all dealt with the experience of homelessness differently. My children each had their own way. My daughter, Anna, went from being very angry to being withdrawn. She would just shut down and not talk to me. Being away from her pets, giving her one dog away permanently, worrying about how her classmates would treat her finding out she was homeless. She loved art. Drawing became her escape.

My son, Matt, and he had his own challenges through this. Matt is autistic. That came with many challenges, the biggest ones, changes in surroundings and routines. He was suddenly faced with many changes. He didn’t have his own space anymore. He was able to cope, though, because even at 11, he had a good sense of humor.

Bruce, I can’t speak for him, but I know this was just as difficult for him. With the amount of pain he was in, he was limited in what he was able to do. When I was at work and the kids were in school, he met with the COTS case workers and did what was needed to get us ready to leave and find a place to live. And, he and I shared the hurt that our kids had to have this experience.

That year, we were at COTS through the holidays. For this, I’m glad we had the support of my co-workers at a time when we felt alienated from our families. While we hadn’t expected financial help, there wasn’t any emotional support either. Either our relatives didn’t understand or they thought it was contagious! That took me a while to get past. The lack of support from the family was hard. We felt abandoned. All through this, my dad was getting worse. His cancer had spread. I was determined to get through the holidays as best we could.

We spent Thanksgiving, with my co-worker Diane and her husband; she was the kindergarten teacher at Chamberlin and a dear friend. We had a wonderful dinner and visited with our beagle Rex, but it was hard to leave.

As we got closer to Christmas, my daughter asked: “Mommy, how is Santa going to find us here?”

To which I replied: “He can find you wherever you are. We just have to get ready for him.”

Under the circumstances, I wanted to make Christmas as magical as I could! There was a tree in the COTS living room, and it was decorated very nicely. The kids, however, wanted to decorate our room so it felt more like home.

Anna and I walked to the store and purchased a little fiber optic tree. We got a few ornaments, some garland and brought it back and set it up. (We still have it!) Fortunately, Mother Nature cooperated, and we had snow. After the kids went to bed, I opened the window a little bit. Christmas morning, there was snow on the window sill and presents by the tree! It was nice to be able to give that bit of joy to our kids that morning. They were so excited that Santa had found them. We had a nice Christmas dinner with some of the residents.

Although it didn’t come in time to save our house, Bruce finally received his Social Security Disability. With his additional income, we could afford our own home again. Now we needed to find a place.

A side note on finding a place to live, Bruce had been asked to be interviewed by The Burlington Free Press about our experience with COTS. The story was to let people know there are people in need, and Christmas is a good time to open your heart and to give. For us, though, it would also be a way to let potential landlords know we were in need of a place. So, we agreed to the story. The Free Press reporter called and asked us questions, evening getting my shy daughter to make a comment. And, the photographer came and took our family picture at COTS.

On Christmas morning, I thought we’d be inside the Living section, but we made the front page! While the story was a very well written account of our experience, not everyone at school knew what I was going through, what we all were going through. Only some friends and the kids’ teachers knew. When we went back to school after the holiday break, I was worried. I didn’t want people to treat me differently. But, it wasn’t like that at all. I was met with compassion – and lots of it.

I kept that article. I keep it in a journal to remind me of what we went through – that we stayed close as a family, that we leaned on each other, and that we made it through. It also made me humble, and I learned what was important and not to judge people. I don’t take things for granted, and I learned to appreciate what you have.

We relocated to Essex Junction where we have been since 2005. I was able to make it back to New Jersey to see my dad before he died in March of that year. Then my father-in-law passed away in June. Both Matt and Anna finished their school year at Chamberlin School. After that, they transferred to Essex Junction schools and did well. We were able to get two of our pets back, so we retrieved a very happy beagle Rex back and our cat, Star. Our other cat, Stonewall, was adopted by our good friend, Judy.

In the years since, Matt graduated from Essex High School with honors – magna cum laude – and from CTE, he took computer animation/web design. He now participates in a program with The Howard Center and volunteers regularly at our church’s food pantry.

Anna is now a sophomore at the New England Institute of Art in Massachusetts. She is majoring in computer animation. She is a Resident Advisor in her dorm, and she has been on the Dean’s list every semester thus far. Needless to say, we are very proud of the adults they have become in light of what they had to overcome.

Bruce has his good days and bad days with his pain, but he started going back to church with me. He had some added health concerns a few months back, but he is feeling better – and he is my rock, always has been.

We found a great church in Essex Junction. We joined First Congregational Church in 2009, and they have become our extended family. I have been on the Missions Committee for almost five years; I even graduated to the chairperson. This is very important to me since it has given me the opportunity to give back. I was blessed to have had support when we needed it, and now being a part of a group that helps others is very meaningful. When our Missions Committee was discussing what organizations to help, someone asked about COTS, and I shared my experience. Well, now I’m the Committee’s liaison to COTS. I would venture to say I’ve come full circle.

If telling my story can bring awareness to the homeless I will continue to share it. My hope is that people will understand that there isn’t a certain type of person who is homeless; it can be anyone, single, or a family, your neighbor, a relative. We were fortunate to have help from COTS. There are people who are on the street now – maybe they just fell on hard times or became ill. Maybe it’s a veteran who fought for our country. Right now, there are a great number of children without a home. Homelessness can affect anyone, regardless of race, religion, sex, and the only prejudice when being homeless is that which is shown towards them.

There are great programs now to help people facing homelessness, but sometimes it’s hard to reach out and accept that help. People still have their pride, and to accept help, sometimes feels like you have failed on your own. In our case, we had the kids to think about so we pushed aside those feelings, but it wasn’t easy. My wish is that COTS continues to receive the support it needs so it can help people who are homeless. If people can reach out to help those in need, even the smallest acts of kindness can make a difference. There is hope, and you can come back from being homeless.

I just want to end by saying: Thank you again to the COTS staff for the great job that you do and to all the volunteers who give their time selflessly. It is deeply appreciated!

The Homeless Have Many Faces

A poem by Lori Giannuzzi

The Homeless have many faces

They come from different places

It’s not for us to judge their ways

We can’t imagine how they live their days

They’ve lost their job, maybe they are ill

Feeling helpless, they’ve lost their will

Walking the streets, their possessions in a cart

Struggling to keep their dignity

Despite a broken heart

We need to show compassion,

Lend a helping hand

We need to fix this problem

We have to take a stand.

The Homeless have many faces

They come from different places

Black or white, gay or straight, young and old

Always hungry, and often cold

Theirs is a story that needs to be told

The Homeless have many faces

They come from different places

Our veterans who bravely fought to keep

Our freedoms and our futures bright

Are without a home, what about that is right?

The Homeless have many faces

They come from different places

Men and women trying to survive

Doing their best to keep hope alive

Of all the stories that you’ll hear

Those of the children will be most clear

For they are now the faces of the homeless

With their innocence lost.

It’s more than their parents can bear

We need to reach out with kindness, not judgment

By simply showing them that we care

The Homeless have many faces