(This interview first appeared in The Brattleboro Commons in 2019)
RONDA-JANE, 51, has lived in Brattleboro “a little over 20 years,” on and off. She is an artist and poet who has experienced homelessness and abuse throughout her life.
Matthew Whalan: How long have you been homeless?
Ronda-Jane: The past two or three years. Off and on. (Pause.) Due to no fault of my own, by the way.
M.V.W.: How did you become homeless?
R.J.: First, I was accused of a crime I did not commit. I lost my car, therefore I lost my job, and then my home. I had a perfect driving record.
I was given a DUI for sitting in a parking lot in the rain, trying to make sure to see who’s walking who home. [She submits that she was arrested on a technicality, where she was considered to be driving the parked car because the key was in the ignition.]
First offense, perfect driving record, and they take my license, suspend my vehicle.
I lose my job, then I lose my home, and I lose everything, and that’s what put me on the street.
M.V.W.: How much time passed between when you were arrested and when you lost everything?
R.J.: About two months. Before it were all just gone. Did everything I could to hold onto it, but without a vehicle in West Townshend … there’s no surviving.
I had a job volunteering. That was the best I could get unless something opened at the Country Store, but there’s no jobs out there.
Twenty-six miles from town. So…
M.V.W.: You’d said abuse was a part of your experience?
R.J.: Isn’t [abuse] everybody’s story?
M.V.W.: I don’t know, is it?
R.J.: Yeah. Lifelong. We don’t wanna get into a long, sad story. Well, I left Vermont for a year. I’m recently back. Before I left I — yeah, I was kinda floating, because I could, and the weather were beautiful. It was June.
Everything was fine. I went down to Florida to be with someone I love. We had a motorcycle accident. And he didn’t make it. I broke nine bones, including my neck.
In the state of Florida, they just put you on the street. M-hmm. Hospital to street. Because Vermont Medicaid would not cover the hospital bills. And they put me — traumatized, with nothing, in massive pain — to handle myself on the street, where it’s a crime to be homeless.
Like, here in Vermont it’s easier for you — people are more understanding. In Florida, it’s a crime. And to be that broken in a place with no friends, no family — it was very scary. It was.
And then, so, a very good friend of my man who passed away in the accident — I’m renting a room from him. Infatuation, one thing leads to another and we end up together. And yes, he was a very abusive factor in my life.
He took my identification, my phone, all my — everything — so I had no recourse.
I had family that figured out a “will call” ticket through Greyhound. My cousin sent the money for the ticket, took care of the whole thing. [But before it was possible to escape, my boyfriend] cracked my head open [when] I was sleeping.
M.V.W.: What happened?
R.J.: If he would get violent and put his hands on me, I would leave. And he found where I left to: an old woman’s house down the road. And he broke in, pushed right in, and he almost killed me.
The boards that were holding the door closed — pushed the door open so hard one fell on my head and cracked my head open.
Then he proceeded to pummel me after that. He accused me of doing things that I never did. His madness — nothing to do with me.
So the police and the ambulance got me out but the very next day the hospital put me on the street again, and he hadn’t been caught for what he had done to me. But they were gonna put me on the street anyway, because there was no place for them to put me, and it was the only place for me to go without identification. You’re a non-entity without I.D. In fact, it’s actually a crime [to not have I.D.]. Kind of messed up.
And it weren’t my fault. I were just trying to get safe. But there weren’t no place to go. They put you on the street.
M.V.W.: How long did you spend on the street before you came back to Brattleboro?
R.J.: Just a few days. Just waitin’ on a bus, trying to — well, I was hidin’ in the gas station. Ironically enough, a girl in the gas station had a boyfriend that had been abusive to her. She showed me all the damage that had been done to her.
She said, “The terrible thing is, if he were to walk by me today, I’d leave with him.”
’Cause your heart can’t help but love who you love and abuse is very confusing. It’s very hard to leave. But either way, you have to go. What else’re you gonna do?
So I did, and I’m back home here in Brattleboro. I landed in the battered women’s shelter, but apparently they felt that I was too — independent.
They said, “You never broke a rule, Ronda. Never did anything wrong. We just think that you’re not here as often as we would like you to be.”
I’m like, “Do you understand that all those times you were passing mail under my door, I was in there sleeping?” I’m a little depressed, and that’s what you do when you’re a little depressed. I tried to explain to them that I wasn’t out here running the streets and — and they’re like, “No, no, no, you did nothing wrong, Ronda, just ….” [Trails off.]
I filled out all the applications, I jumped through all the hoops, I did everything I was supposed to, and they said to me point blank, “You broke no rules but we have to ask you to go,” so I lost all my food, I been starving for two weeks, and living out here on the streets of Brattleboro — once again — for not breaking the rules and not doing a thing.
And it gets a little tiring after a while. I have lots of friends. Many people love me, ’cause I‘ve taken care of many people in this town.
I had an apartment right back thataway for 12 years. Took in many kids in this town. Never asked anybody for a dime. I always have a chair or a blanket or a pillow — somethin’, right? ’Cause there’s so many in need.
And it’s a hundred percent worse today than it was 10 years ago when I was doing that.
M.V.W.: Why do you think that is?
R.J.: Cost of livin’. Housing is impossible. And they want to compartmentalize people’s abilities. Like, I just went through a motorcycle accident: massive damage in my neck, nerve damage all down my arms. You can’t tell by looking at me, but it’s there. This whole leg — numb. From the accident. It’s the leg I landed on.
There’s no help for me.
M.V.W.: Where does it hurt the most?
R.J.: My neck, and it shoots down to everywhere. [Short pause.] I broke my neck.
M.V.W.: Did you have a cast or a brace or anything?
R.J.: Yeah, I had a neck brace, but I couldn’t wear it when I was homeless on the streets ’cause I couldn’t lay down on a flat surface with a neck brace on my head. It hurt worse.
So I had to figure out what I were gonna roll under my head at night to go to sleep, hold myself up by the rails on the fences on the docks, and pray the alligators don’t eat me. For real.
M.V.W.: When we started, you said something like, “isn’t abuse everybody’s story?” What did you mean by that?
R.J.: Everybody out here that’s homeless has a trauma story that’s unrecognized, swept through the cracks, and the women — mostly it’s because they lost a child [or] ’cause they fell in love with the wrong person. Eventually, there’s addictions to feed and mouths to pay, things get hairy and children get lost in the shuffle. And now the woman can’t live with herself, ’cause she’s lost her child [to Child Protective Services].
And they fight like hell to clean up and get their children back, to not make the same mistakes, but it doesn’t happen. By then it’s kind of too late. Like the hole is so big.
This isn’t my story. This is a story I see everywhere I go — with the women, anyway.
[The state] makes the hoops so tight and close together they can’t jump through em. They make it nearly impossible because nobody can meet all of their requirements n standards, especially considering the trauma of being separated from your child. It makes a mother absolutely not OK.
M.V.W.: Would you say that homeless women are abused more than women who are not homeless?
R.J.: No. Some just know when to leave. I wouldn’t stick around for it, but it’s not easy to get out. Takes decisive, calculated planning, hypervigilance, great kindness, and the ability to take hits for things you did not do. And [you need to] bide your time until you get out.
That’s how I came to Vermont years ago: my son in my belly and a backpack on my back.
I left my home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts — very wealthy [home]. Nobody could see me [for who I was]. I have the bad habit of smoking cigarettes, and nobody in my family smokes cigarettes. So now I’m the black sheep of the whole family. Because, oh, I’m a rebel that smokes cigarettes.
But I was told that cigarettes might’ve saved my life. I could’ve done way worse things than smoke cigarettes, considering the abuse I went through in my life — that my family wants a sweep under the rug.
M.V.W.: All of the homeless women I’ve interviewed for my book have been abused at some point during or preceding their homelessness.
R.J.: It’s a paradigm of the world we live in. We live in a patriarchal society, period. And that’s what it’s about, being out here. You’d think we should be all grown up by 2019, but, you know ….
M.V.W.: What are some of your general interests — hobbies?
R.J.: I’m an artist and a poet. Surrealism. Any medium. Makes me very happy. Makes me very happy just thinkin’ about it. [Smiles.] Would you like to hear a small piece of poetry?
M.V.W.: Yes, very much.
R.J.: It has helped many people on the street.
* * *
§“When All Shall Be No More.”
§The sun is setting once again,
§today shall be no more.
§So go to rest, take the best,
§tomorrow’s at your door.
§A little death is sadly mourned,
§today it is no more.
§Send its ashes on to rushing waves
§as the seas whisper lore.
§Its stories linger in my mind,
§The beasts of yesterday,
§I forgot the best to dwell on the rest,
§I’ve invited them all to stay!
§Like demon nymphs dancing upon the sea
§as the night becomes the day,
§They haunt and taunt —
§no sleep for me —
§why won’t they go away!
§in a darkened hour,
§this all shall be no more,
§And death shall come to end us all,
§my demons and my lore.
§I heard of a hope in a dreamer’s land,
§that wings could be fastened at a price that’s fair.
§You have only to seek knowledge with truth.
§Fly in your dreams,
§and believe in your youth.