Friendship forged through difficult times

Female guests come together to guide each other through homelessness

Within the walls of St. John’s Ministries, you will find people with various backgrounds and unique life stories. The paths leading to homelessness are as diverse as the people experiencing it. Every now and then, there are themes and patterns that intertwine individuals, as is the case with Tonya and Mary.

To observers, their relationship seems more like sisterhood rather than strangers who met just six months prior. They possess many similarities, both in personality and in story. With gentle hearts, witty humor, and stubbornness – Tonya and Mary have endured an ongoing state of homelessness. They are forging their path forward, together.

The path to emergency shelter

St. John's Ministries has been providing shelter services and resources to Mary and Tonya. Their unique stories of homelessness are one of a growing number for those above 55-years of age.

Tonya, 71, was born in Michigan, spent time in Louisiana, and after a divorce in 2020 moved to Green Bay to stay with family. After several failed attempts to find permanent housing while navigating significant family conflict, Tonya experienced the first-time shock of homelessness in January.

She felt rejected, lonely, isolated and scared as she approached the doors of St. John’s Ministries Women’s Shelter. Those feelings of apprehension soon faded as she was greeted by a friendly staff who cared for and respected her dignity. Slowly but surely, Tonya overcame many of her fears as she settled into the new reality of being homeless with limited financial resources. She also faced a community with few affordable rental options. Homeless at retirement age isn’t exactly what she envisioned at this stage in life.

Despite her fears that fateful January night, Tonya was grateful to have a place to go. “Without them (St. John’s Ministries), I am not sure what I would have done. I was so scared. I had nowhere to go.”

Mary, 76, originally from Green Bay, also spent time recently in Louisiana. She moved back to Green Bay in October 2022 to help a friend recuperate from surgery. Once recovered, the friend’s landlord demanded she move out. Mary then found herself living with her granddaughter. Although that arrangement worked for a short while, the reality of her granddaughter raising five children while living with a friend allowed no room for Mary.

Mary’s brother, the only other family member in the area, is in a medically fragile situation having suffered three heart attacks. She doesn’t want to burden him so that he can focus on his health. “I fear losing him,” Mary confided.

Like her brother, Mary is in poor health. Respiratory issues require her to use a nebulizer and to sleep with the aid of a CPAP machine. In the shelter, Mary sleeps on a recliner chair which aids her breathing. Tonya can relate to Mary’s health struggles. She also suffers from poor respiratory health. Both need a walker to be mobile. Mary is prescribed 20 medications and Tonya 11.

The beginning of a friendship

Mary’s first night of homelessness was scary, but not as bad as Tonya’s first night. The reason, Mary said, was Tonya. “I walked in and wandered for a bit,” she said. “Tonya saw me and invited me over to her table and introduced me to people. We struck up a conversation immediately.”

“I knew what she was going through because I felt all those emotions a few weeks before. She looked nervous. I’m glad I made her feel better,” Tonya recalled. The two have been nearly inseparable since that cold January evening. “We understand each other. We finish each other’s sentences. I love her like a sister,” Tonya said.

In the shelter and at Wellspring, likely due to their age and especially their motherly instincts, Tonya and Mary are referred to as ‘Mom’ and Mary sometimes as ‘Grandmom’ by younger guests. They sort of serve as elders in the shelter, and often uplift the moods of other guests by using words of encouragement and kind gestures.

St. John's Ministries shelters senior citizens, including Mary and Tonya, who are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their 70s.

It is at Wellspring they met Kathy, 66, who visits nearly every day after being transported from her group home. Kathy said her family disowned her and that made her very heartbroken. “I don’t have anybody but ‘Mom’ and ‘Grandmom’,” she said.

Although with limited personal possessions herself, Tonya picks out clothing from her church’s closet to bring to Kathy. With the little money Mary has, she purchases soda and other treats for Kathy to lift her spirits. “All of their gifts are straight from the heart,” Kathy said.

Lightening tension isn’t anything new to ‘Mom’ or ‘Grandmom.’ When Tonya is down and depressed, Mary lifts her spirits with a smile. When Mary is discouraged and desolate, Tonya centers her with a sarcastic joke or witty observation. And just like sisters, they often give each other a hard time injecting biting humor into mundane situations. They do this so often and so convincingly that casual observers and newer guests sometimes believe they are legitimately angry at each other.

But, in fact, they love each other and gently tease as a method to cope with being homeless and uncertain about their futures. Everything they do is rooted in love.

Homeless while being senior citizens

St. John's Ministries shelters senior citizens, including Mary and Tonya, who are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their 70s.

Although Tonya and Mary met six months ago, they now consider themselves friends for life. Their stories amazingly mirror one another in their health struggles, shrinking families, hidden fears, and most strikingly the struggles of experiencing homelessness for the first time in their 70s. The latter has been especially hard for these two proud women who never thought this would be part of their life stories.    

Their experiences, and those of other elders in shelters, are a growing trend nationally and locally. Simply put, there are rising numbers of elderly with too few places to live. Affordable housing options are diminishing, assisted living facilities are closing or the costs of such make them beyond reach. At St. John’s Ministries, senior citizens (55+) accounted for 17.1 percent of guests during the 2017-18 shelter season. That number rose to 21.2 percent this shelter season.

Within those growing numbers and daunting statistics are individuals with souls. They are people with stories, who have led lives with moments of joy, but also fraught with struggle. When asked about their stories, and what people should know about their plight with homelessness, Tonya and Mary were quick to deflect attention from themselves.

“People see the homeless on the street like they are nothing. They get bad looks and it breaks my heart. There are so many elderly people with nowhere to go,” Mary said.

“I wish people could get past what they see and connect with homeless people on a personal level. Like they do here,” Tonya added.

The present situation

St. John's Ministries shelters senior citizens, including Mary and Tonya, who are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their 70s.

At night Tonya and Mary utilize St. John’s Ministries’ Summer Safe Sleep program to power their breathing devices. But they know this is not a long-term solution. During the day they participate in programming at Wellspring and engage with case managers to reach their goals of being housed and self-sufficient. They attend church events at Green Bay First and Living Hope Church. They also participate in weekly bible studies led by another guest – Romelle – who transitioned to permanent housing just a few months ago.

Tonya and Mary hope to live together in a permanent residence, but reality has created daunting barriers to housing. Tony and Mary each have monthly income through Social Security. They have several pending applications at apartments, many with waitlists up to a few years. Both need a walker to get around, which has made a first-floor apartment or an upper unit with ADA accessibility an absolute necessity.

In other words, their poor health limits their options. They claim rent for a prospective two-bedroom apartment is $1,699. At that price rent alone would absorb about 90 percent of their combined income, with little left for the necessities of life.

Although living separately is something they dread, it is a viable option at this point. However, their barriers to obtaining one-bedroom apartments are the same as those in acquiring two-bedroom apartments: Waitlists, limited ADA accessibility and cost. Mary has an approved housing voucher of $1,150 per month, but there are no ADA-accessible units available. She is on a long waitlist for a one-bedroom apartment at $1,399.

This worries Tonya. “I don’t want to live without her, but I will if it means she can get an apartment. I will be happy for her.”

The future

The uncertainty of the future scares Tonya and Mary, but they consider themselves fortunate to have each other. Days move on, some slower than others, while their relationship strengthens. They refuse to let the bonds of their friendship be broken, regardless of their trauma, anxiety or their fears.

Perhaps the most enduring quality they possess aside from their grit is gratitude. They are thankful to St. John’s Ministries, staff and volunteers. They also thank God for each other. Despite their struggles, they know true friendship is rare, and a bond to be treasured. It has made their difficult lives as homeless women in their 70s much more tolerable.

Tonya and Mary say that once they are housed, they will visit Wellspring regularly and eventually volunteer. They want to give back to the ministry that has given them so many opportunities and has led them to friendship. “We love this place (Wellspring) so much. It has been a lifesaver,” Mary said.

The journey to this point has been unique for both, however, the road forward appears to be difficult. Tonya and Mary will reach their destination soon enough, and potentially together giving each other a hard time and sharing a few jokes along the way.

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