“Being homeless for so long … you often get a bad attitude. It’s due to being possessionless, being still in one place and not being active.”
Patricia Jefferson uttered those words in our recent interview. Yet, in spite of her personal experience with homelessness, she seems to be an exception to her own rule. She exudes a positive attitude, a quiet determination and is anything but still.
Her early adult life did not foreshadow homelessness. She moved out of home in her early 20s and got an apartment in Maryland. She held successful administrative and paralegal jobs.
Then she lost her job in the mid ’90s due to budget cuts. And, just like that, life changed.
“After losing my job I found myself back at my mom’s house, unemployed and struggling to find full-time employment,” she recalled quietly. The surprise of losing her job catapulted her into a desperate search for alternative employment. “It was a very long, exhausting process; it became so frustrating. There is a point where you give up. A year into searching I was still unemployed.”
Fed up with the lack of job prospects, Jefferson signed up with a temporary job agency. The jobs were helpful, but they never enabled her to get back on her feet properly. Things took another nasty turn when Jefferson’s mother moved out of the area. It left Jefferson withnothing but her minivan and some belongings. The temp jobs paid for her fuel and her food. She lived out of and slept in the van.
She had a difficult time accepting being jobless and homeless. Her pride was severely wounded.
“I never expected it to happen to me,” she said. “Of course you don’t expect that. But what can you do when it happens? I had no choice but to accept it. You can’t let it beat you down. You just have to fend for yourself day to day.”
And fend she did. After two years of subsisting out of her vehicle and working temporary jobs, she found a shelter where she could claim a bed. The shelter was her home for almost a decade.
“It was a place where I could leave my belongings, had my bed, a locker. … Those things can mean a lot when you haven’t had a place to do that for so long.”
Through her stay there Jefferson came to learn about Street Sense. She joined the paper in 2006 as a vendor, a position she called her “first real long-term job” since becoming homeless.
“I wasn’t thrilled with it because I wasn’t really keen on selling papers on commission,” she said with a subtle smirk. “I was looking for a salary job but that search hadn’t been working out.”
Since joining the paper, Jefferson has been a standout vendor, selling up a storm and frequently writing articles.
“Once you get into selling Street Sense you get used to it and you begin to really like it.”
She credits Street Sense with helping her finally get back some of the important things people often lose when they become homeless: a place in the community, a voice and an income.
“I owe it a lot, really,” she said. “It not only provided a job where money came in, but it also allowed me to make relationships again. You know, through interaction with your customers, they get to know you. They see you.“
Jefferson’s prospects continued to improve last year. Her caseworker told her she could finally leave the shelter and move into an apartment. She moved in more than 18 months ago and does not plan to leave any time soon.
“I was so happy to move in, to have my own kitchen where I could cook barbecued chicken and corn on the cob,” she said. Jefferson loves cooking. She has written a few articles recounting her adventures “back in the kitchen.”
“I missed that — cooking for myself,” she said. “You miss that independence sometimes when you’re homeless. Now I’m cooking and reviewing restaurants and places for the newspaper, which I love.”
It’s clear Jefferson is proud of how far she’s come. The last few years have certainly been positive and a reason to be confident that things are looking up. “I’m not sure how I made it. But I did.”
Looking forward, Jefferson is optimistic. She deserves to be.
“I may go back to school, maybe in the health field. I think I’ll make that happen.”
I have met with Jefferson just once. Yet something about her quiet poise and her positive outlook tells me she is likely to do just that.