“Desiree? Is that you?”
The words stopped Desiree Salazar in her tracks. She glanced around the crowded waiting room of the Maryhouse shelter before her eyes settled on a homeless woman, her belongings in a garbage bag at her feet. The woman had struggled to get out of a chair but was now lumbering Salazar’s way.
“You look so good,” the woman crowed, her voice jumping an octave with each syllable.
“Really?” Salazar asked, a shy smile spreading across her tattooed face. “Yeah, I guess.”
There was a time when Salazar had freshly picked scabs all over her face, when her sentences were so disjointed that it was almost impossible to decipher what she was saying.
No more. It’s truly incredible.
Except for the tattoos – names and numbers on her face for her five sons, the “CPS Killer” on her jaw and “F--- CPS” on her neck – Salazar is nothing like the woman I met a year-and-a-half ago. At that time, she chose a Starbucks as the place to explain how she became homeless and why she was so furious over the tragic death of her baby boy. She told me all of this in a meth-induced haze while sucking back a Frappuccino.
At only 5 months old, Sivam Lekh was deemed by homeless advocates to be the youngest person to die without permanent housing in Sacramento County in 2015.
Little Sivam didn’t die under some highway bridge, though. He succumbed to SIDS in foster care. Child protective services had taken custody of him after Salazar, who has a history of run-ins with the law, violated probation by testing positive for meth. His death sent her already fragile mental health into a tailspin.
But that seems like forever ago.
These days, Salazar is clean and sober and living in a cottage at Martin Luther King Jr. Village, a supportive housing complex in south Sacramento. Photos of Sivam hang on the walls in makeshift frames.
She is stable enough to baby-sit a friend’s daughter. She is rebuilding relationships with her father and her oldest son. One of her dogs is pregnant, and she’s thinking about taking up yoga. Most recently, she started volunteering at Maryhouse, the same shelter where she used to go every morning, a cooing Sivam strapped to her body.
In the eyes of the homeless women at Maryhouse, Salazar has made it. She’s a success story.
“The people come up to me and they say, ‘You look so good,’ ” she smirked, “even though I got fat.”
But what does being a “success story” really mean for someone who was homeless in California? This is a state that continues to lead the nation in poverty when the cost of housing is factored in.
And what does knowing that you’ve “made it” out of homelessness mean in Sacramento County, where landlords can afford to be super-picky about tenants? The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment has spiked to an unaffordable $1,400 a month and the a vacancy rate is near 2 percent.
I can tell you what it doesn’t mean – being fully self-sufficient. People get off the streets, but then they get stuck.
“What happens is nobody moves out of supportive housing,” said Lisa Culp, executive director of Women’s Empowerment, which helps women get off the streets for good. “Before it was harder to get a job,” she added. “Now it’s harder to get housing.”
In California, it has become incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for someone who has been chronically homeless to leave the social safety net behind, no matter how hard they’ve worked to get healthy, sober and back on their feet. That’s a damning prognosis for a state where most of the nation’s homeless people live, and where plans to build more affordable housing are years off at best and a pipe dream at worst.
When people who realize they’ve hit that ceiling, it can be “incredibly demoralizing,” Culp said.
Just ask Salazar.
When she and I spoke in September, not long after she moved into MLK Village, Salazar was dreaming big about the future. Getting her tattoos removed. Getting a job. Getting an apartment of her own and moving out of the MLK Village complex, which has security and is gated but is in a decidedly rough part of Sacramento.
“This program is indefinite for some people,” she told me at the time, referring to her cottage subsidy through Mercy Housing, “but I don’t plan to stay longer than two years.”
Now, it’s May and Salazar’s dreams remain the same, although tempered a bit by reality.
She found a way to pay to get them removed, but she discovered how painful it will be. “They tried to explain to me that it’s like burning my skin off, so I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to go through it.”
“I told myself, ‘Self: Within a year, I’m going to get a job,’ ” Salazar told me this month. “Somehow, some way, I’m going to try to put myself out there to see if someone would at least take a chance on me. I’m willing to work.”
I told myself, ‘Self: Within a year, I’m going to get a job.’ Somehow, some way, I’m going to try to put myself out there to see if someone would at least take a chance on me. I’m willing to work.
She says she has applied at Walmart and a few other places to stock boxes or clean offices, preferably at night to cut down on the interactions with other people. But those tattoos, they’re getting in the way.
“They see my face, and they’re like, no,” Salazar said, shaking her head. “It’s hard to get them to see past that. They see the numbers and they immediately think it’s from prison.”
And that apartment?
It’s simple math. “I can’t get into a better neighborhood without getting a job to get money to get into a better neighborhood,” Salazar said.
She gets about $900 a month in Social Security benefits, and her rent right now is miniscule. To move out, she would have to find a landlord willing to rent an apartment for about $500 a month – something that she admits is “impossible.”
Meanwhile, she can stay in MLK Village indefinitely. It’s a tempting offer, which is why transferring to another Mercy Housing property in another neighborhood has suddenly become her most viable option.
Ever the optimist, though, Salazar still dreams about having a job. One day, she hopes to turn her volunteer gig at Maryhouse into a paid position. There, no one cares about her tattoos, but they care about her.
“I always knew that once I stopped being homeless, I wanted to give back to homeless people, too,” Salazar said. “I know how they feel.”