The small one-bedroom apartment in northeast San Bernardino is certainly no Taj Mahal, but for MaryAnn Padilla, who has spent roughly a third of her life homeless on the streets of San Bernardino, it sure feels like it.
Through the assistance of Inland Empire United Way’s 211 program, the nonprofit Step Up, and the county Housing Authority, Padilla was placed in the apartment, near Burton Thrall School, in June. Padilla said she fit the criteria of a high-risk homeless person because of the length of time she had been living on the streets and her long history of mental illness. She said she suffers from schizophrenia and manic depression and has been addicted to methamphetamine since her senior year in high school.
“I struggle with myself every day,” said Padilla, 42, sitting on her couch, draped by a blue blanket, in her dimly lit living room on Thursday. She held in her lap her faithful companion of the last three years, Dicky, a scruffy Maltese/terrier/poodle mix with dyed green and red hair. Atop a nightstand next to her couch was an easel frame holding a plaque with the word “FAMILY” emblazoned across the front, a fitting word as it is the root of Padilla’s trauma, for which she still pines.
Last year, Padilla was among San Bernardino County’s fastest growing homeless demographic — women without partners or children — who have been coined “unaccompanied homeless women.” They comprised 27 percent of the county’s population in 2017, and at the national level, one in four homeless adults are unaccompanied women, said Philip Mangano, the county’s advisor on homelessness and CEO of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness.
Padilla is the archetype of most unaccompanied homeless women, 90 percent of which have suffered some kind of abuse in childhood — physical, psychological, sexual or a combination of all three. The abuse becomes cyclical as they mature and engage in other relationships, and as a result, they tend to isolate themselves from family, friends and other homeless people, Mangano said.
“She’s a classic representation of a great number of unaccompanied homeless women,” Mangano said of Padilla.
San Bernardino County is the only county in the nation that has prioritized assisting unaccompanied homeless women, providing housing and supportive services to those at highest risk, Mangano said. It was the focus of this year’s annual Point-In-Time homeless count on Thursday.
“I am seeing more and more women out there. They are alone. They don’t have someone they can depend on,” said Padilla, who advocates for the homeless and does outreach of her own. “I admire them because they have the strength to not cling to somebody, but it’s also a very scary thing, very dangerous, because they can be the target of somebody who’s just looking for somebody to control.”
Like most homeless women, Padilla’s childhood was marred by family dysfunction and abuse. She was raised by a single mother and has eight brothers and sisters. It pains her to discuss her family history. Her mother is a particularly sensitive subject. Padilla has three children of her own: a 20-year-old son, a 17-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter.
While she is attempting to rebuild her relationships with her children and her mother, Padilla knows she must work on herself first and learn to live a functional, productive life, one without illegal drugs. She’s also working with her therapist to find the right balance of psychotropic medications to control her drastic mood swings.
Kicking her meth habit is the biggest challenge right now. During Thursday’s interview, Padilla said she last used the drug the day prior, but prior to that, she had been clean more than two weeks. She has a staunch advocate in Frank Gutierrez, a substance abuse counselor with Step Up, the nonprofit that provides housing and support services to the homeless.
Gutierrez said it is not about kicking the habit cold turkey, especially for people like Padilla who have been addicted for so long, but steadily weaning them off the drug.
“We believe in reducing usage. The ultimate goal is abstinence,” said Gutierrez. For the most part, he said Padilla has been showing remarkable progress, but he said he would be having a heart-to-heart with her about her relapse to get to the bottom of what triggered her to use. He said he visits with Padilla five days a week.
“She needs it the most — all the trauma she has been through,” he said. “She’s really had a rough life.”
Prior to moving into her apartment, Padilla had become about as resourceful as a homeless person could be — a survivalist. Her encampments consisted of elaborate dugouts with framing crafted from discarded pieces of plywood and PVC pipe. Burrowing into the ground provided shelter against extreme heat and cold.
But Padilla’s drug habit was all-consuming, and she did whatever she could to feed her habit. She recycled, bartered and traded, and even prostituted herself — anything to get her fix.
Now, Padilla just wants to get her life in order, now that she has some stability and a roof over her head. She credits Gutierrez and others who helped get her off the streets, including Lily Palacios, a housing outreach coordinator for Inland Empire 211, who took the first step in getting Padilla the housing referral after a run-in at Seccombe Lake Park in San Bernardino on Easter Sunday last year.
“I feel very hopeful for her. She’s a strong woman. She’s a survivor,” Palacios said in a telephone interview Friday.
Padilla recalls a Bible verse her mother taught her as a child, Isaiah 41:10. It reads: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Padilla never forgot the verse and said it has carried her through her darkest times.
“It kind of held me together,” she said.