Someone once said about Rosa: “Her possessions have a place to live, but she doesn’t.”
Although Rosa is homeless, she is in a place that I think we would all like to be. Let me explain.
As a volunteer at Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, I was asked to help Rosa relocate items in her storage unit. She is an 82-year-old widow of a World War I veteran, one of only about 1,000 surviving WWI widows in the country. Because she doesn’t want her family to know that she sleeps some nights in her car, she asked that we use a fictitious name.
Rosa has an embracing personality. Once I assured her I was not charging her, she gave me a hug to express her gratitude.
When her husband passed away at the Los Angeles Veterans Hospital in 2007, Rosa became homeless and began working as a caregiver. When she couldn’t find overnight care-giving jobs in people’s homes, she would sleep at friends’ houses—or in her car.
Rosa had a lot of possessions and wanted to go through them all—giving some to Goodwill and others to her children.
I’ve come across elders similar to Rosa in my previous work as a junk hauler and mover, so I am well aware of the fine line between perceiving someone as a hoarder versus someone simply having accumulated a lot of personally significant things over the years.
I tried to persuade Rosa to let me throw out some of the items. But she refused. I understood why some of the things, like old books and paintings and antiques, were important. But I struggled to understand why she would want to keep countless bags of clothes, towels, sheets, curtains, fabrics, knick-knacks and such.
I’m convinced that most of us have some hoarder DNA deep inside us. What is your personal “hoard de jour”?
Strangely, I’m on the other end of the spectrum in that I am a minimalist and don’t like to keep anything but the essentials. I suppose this is in part because when I joined the Army at the age of 34 I got rid of everything I possessed. But even before that I never liked accumulating material objects. Maybe I was a wandering monk in India in my previous life?
My friend will deny to his death that he is a hoarder—then in the same breath tells me he has recorded two unviewed copies of every episode of the “Hoarders” reality TV show!
What happens when Rosa is done organizing the last of her possessions? She said she intends to go to New Orleans to live with her son. She wants to give free massages to people who are in pain.
As I got to know Rosa better, I told her I worried about her sleeping in her car, especially when it is cold at night.
Rosa replied with enthusiasm: “Well, I turn the heater on for a little while and warm the car up. And I have a jacket that has fur inside. And I have another blanket to cover my feet. I put the seat all the way back and I pull the sun shield down so the lights from the shopping center won’t hit me in the face. And I just go all the way down and I fall asleep.”
Rosa’s sister tells her, “I could never do what you are doing.”
Rosa tells her sister, “Well, if you or anyone had to, you’d learn to survive. I’ve been a survivor all my life.”
So, what is Rosa’s secret to being a survivor?
“Well, I pray a lot. I’ve studied different religions, like Buddhism, and I was raised as a Catholic,” Rosa told me. “So, I have my rosary on one side and my Buddhist beads on the other. I lie down in my car and if I get hungry I have peanut butter. I have corn chips. A kind man gave me two bagels. I’m not going to starve. I appreciate life.”
And if things go from bad to worse?
Rosa prays that negative circumstances will go away fast. She advises not to linger with darkness but to just keep on living and moving forward.
I went to Rosa’s storage unit thinking I was going to help a homeless senior and WWI widow in need. But it turned out I was given a valuable reminder: to appreciate the little things I do have and be grateful for the light that gets us through the dark times.
I realized that although Rosa is sleeping in her car some nights and still working at the age of 82, she is where we all would like to be—in a place of appreciation and gratitude.
Stoneman, a former homeless veteran, volunteers for the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation nonprofit. For more information, call (805) 482-6550 or visit gcvf.org.