May 9, 2009

Homelessness spurred mother to action

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Michelle Christie, shown standing in the shelter dormitory at Hope House last week, found herself homeless with two children three years ago. With help from various agencies, she got her life together and now is the volunteer coordinator at Hope House, with a small stipend from Americorps. J
(Full-size photo)

Michelle Christie used to look at homeless people and think, “What would possess someone to live like that?”

It took a catastrophic illness that left her hospitalized for 9 1/2 weeks for her to find out.

The single mother of two turns 40 today, an event her doctor never thought would occur when he sent her home from Sacred Heart Medical Center three years ago “to decide what I was going to do with my children.”

Diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pancreatitis, an infection resulting from surgery, obesity and depression left Christie with little choice but to go home and wait for a premature end.

But when she arrived at her rental home in Spokane, she found the locks had been changed. She was one of the homeless.

“I used to be one of those people driving down the street and seeing them and saying, ‘Why don’t they get a job and get off the streets?’” Christie said. “When you become one of them, you have to learn how to survive in this world.”

This week, Christie, now an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for Hope House women’s shelter, will speak at the Northwest National Service Symposium at Portland State University about her return from the brink.

“I think I became homeless for a reason, and that was to open my eyes,” Christie said.

In overcoming her family’s most profound crisis, Christie saved her own life and found new direction, said Rusty Barnett, director of Hope House.

“It took that terrible situation for her to say, ‘How am I going to help myself, because I have two kids that need me?’” Barnett said. “And she did it.”

Once she was locked out of her home, Christie began to fight back.

She gathered her children, then ages 7 and 10, who had been staying with family and friends, and moved into a tent on a friend’s lawn in Deer Park.

Two weeks later, she found shelter through Interfaith Hospitality, a nonprofit coalition of Spokane churches that helps homeless families.

She took her landlord to court and won her lawsuit in time to stop him from removing most of her household goods.

She moved into transitional housing through SNAP, a Spokane nonprofit that helps low-income and homeless families.

She underwent life-changing gastric bypass surgery.

And she found permanent housing with the help of federal housing assistance.

Today she works as the volunteer coordinator at Hope House, a job that gives her a vehicle for her new passion in life: helping the homeless. For now, she supports her family on Social Security disability payments and the small stipend she receives from AmeriCorps, but she hopes to find employment in social service.

“Not only was I successful in overcoming homelessness, but I was blessed with the desire to become active in the homeless community and lend a hand up to those in need,” Christie said in an essay she wrote for this week’s symposium.

She built a lasting connection with others who had walked in her shoes by joining the Voiceless Choir, which features homeless and formerly homeless people. Christie built a food bank and hygiene supply closet at her church.

Barnett said Christie did what she needed to do to protect her children, and in doing so she built a support network for her family that will remain a part of her life.

In her essay, Christie shares the advice she offers to Hope House volunteers on how they can guide homeless clients to look inside themselves to find new meaning.

“They have to look at themselves and know what it is they want in life and be willing to make the necessary changes to achieve it,” she wrote.

“Never did I think I would be that person that was homeless, but through some unknown power, it took becoming that person to make me a better, stronger person with a passion to help those in need.”

Contact Kevin Graman at kevingr@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5433.

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