“If you don’t stay positive out here, let me tell you, the streets can get you.”
So says Peggy. She’s a short, slight package of seemingly boundless energy, punctuating her sentences with laughter, her eyes darting. She considers herself an optimist.
Peggy hasn’t had a home of her own for nearly two years. Let me emend that: She hasn’t had a home for nearly two years — period. As in a place where she sleeps at night, where she keeps milk in the refrigerator, where she folds her laundry and places it in her dresser drawers.
Peggy lives on the streets of Bloomington. Sometimes she sleeps in a shelter. She used to sleep, on and off, in People’s Park on Kirkwood, but then the police increased its presence, to curb illegal activity, which essentially cleared out the place. Tonight? Who knows.
She told me her story the day after the Fourth of July. That was a bad weekend for her. “It was probably my worst,” she says. “I don’t know, with all the people downtown for the Fourth, for some reason I felt all alone. In a little bubble.”
It can be that way when the streets are your home. The homelessness question has been a hot topic around these parts for months now. There seems to have been a flood of people on the Bloomington streets of late. Still, a person without a home may have a difficult time making personal connections here. I ask Peggy if she’s got friends.
“Yeah,” she says, tentatively. Then she adds, “I can’t really say friends. I love everybody that I’ve met out here but I don’t trust no one. You can’t. People come out here, brand new people, and they start trusting people. ‘Oh, you’re going to the convenience store? Here’s some money, get me a soda.’ You can’t do that because they ain’t coming back.”
Peggy says she lost her home — her last home, a real home — around the holidays in 2015. “Me and my ex, the gentleman that I was with, had a $40,000 property. He didn’t pay the taxes on it. He was doing drugs and he thought the drugs was more important. And he wouldn’t let me pay the $1,100 so we got kicked out. He went to a friend’s house and I had to stay on the street.”
When Peggy first hit the streets, she told other homeless people her name was Rae. She was embarrassed; she didn’t want anybody to know who she really was. Then, when she was called by name at shelters or other homeless service agencies around town, people learned her real name.
“The way people looked at me, when I first got on the street, it bothered me,” she says. “People go by, and they’re like, ‘Get a job!’ ‘Why aren’t you working?’ ‘Why are we paying for you?’”
Ironically, some of those same thoughts crossed Peggy’s mind after she’d lost her home. “I got my eyes opened when I come out on the street. I would see people, young people, and I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t they have a job?’ They can do some kind of job. I mean, come on! Who can’t have a job?
“Then I got to know these people and started to hear everybody’s story. Some of them’s mentally … I mean, they’re not going to go off on you, but they got mental problems. They can’t have a regular job. There’s people out here that’s been beat. There’s people out here that’s got a physical condition that can’t work and that’s why they’re out here. Or they have, like me, a small disability check — it doesn’t pay the rent or the electric.”
Even the homeless sometimes can look down their noses at other people who are homeless. But Peggy learned. The lesson too often is lost on others who haven’t heard people’s stories. Or who don’t want to listen.
“I’ve had Gatorade bottles thrown at me. Eggs. At night. On the street. College kids. They think it’s funny,” she says.
People experiencing homelessness and partying college students bumped into each other all too often when People’s Park was the site of a growing homeless community.
“I slept there a couple of times,” Peggy says. “‘Course, you can’t get to sleep ’til four or five in the morning because of Kilroy’s and the college kids. A lot of them, they’re spoiled brats. They laugh at you. They’ll get right behind you when you’re asleep and honk at you. I slept on the bench. I was by myself so I wanted to be around other people that were sleeping. I wanted to be out in the open where, if the cops came by, they could see me. If I’m sleeping behind a building or under a tree, somebody could get at me.
“I hid most of my stuff in a bush. Anything important was underneath my head. My ID, a couple of changes of clothes, some moisturizer, shampoo. Everything in one bag. That’s it. If it don’t fit in a backpack, I don’t need it right then.”
Peggy’s story is one of bad luck and unfortunate choices. She was born in Indianapolis and raised by her grandparents. She attended South Putnam High School. “I didn’t go to college, but I’ve had three businesses of my own,” she says. “Candlemaking, restoring cars, and restoring houses. And then, you know, you get in with these real sweet-talking men and you work two jobs and they don’t work at all. I’ve met these really nice guys but, in the end, they’re stuck on drugs. One, in Florida, was stuck on crack cocaine. I lost my business and my house down there. This last one is stuck on meth. I lost my apartment and all my stuff here.”
I ask if she’d ever dreamed — or, more accurately, had the nightmare — she’d be homeless. “Oh, no!” she says. “I’ve always worked at least two jobs. Always. My businesses. Waitress jobs. I could run a whole entire floor. They didn’t have to tell me to clean my tables or clean my chairs, like everybody else. I’ve done everything.”
Then she began suffering too many seizures to hold down a regular job. “When I got on disability, I cried for a year because I couldn’t work. I wasn’t around any people. I couldn’t handle it. I’m used to being around people,” she says. “It was just one thing after another.”
The last 18 months have been a roller coaster. She’d find herself knocked flat — sometimes literally — and would stand up again. Her most recent boyfriend, she says, slugged her and shattered her dentures.
Peggy found the Shalom Community Center, the resource on South Walnut for people in poverty or without homes. Counselors helped her find a subsidized apartment about a year ago, but she wasn’t able to keep it long.
Peggy had found a new boyfriend, the one, she says, who used methamphetamine and who broke her dentures. They were evicted after that incident; she lived in the place for only a few weeks.
There will be, she promises, no more boyfriends. “My trust is gone. I can’t do it no more. It takes a second for everything to switch, to turn. I’m only depending on me now. No more guys.”
She volunteers at Shalom now.
“I get back on my feet,” she says. “Little by little. Getting a little bit farther up. Saving money.”
And tomorrow? “Oh, I’m going forward,” she says. “Here I am, starting all over again.”
[Editor’s note: Michael G. Glab recently sat down to chat with Peggy for Big Talk! on WFHB. You can listen to his interview here.]