Woman living in car shares story of homelessness

Susan Mackey lives in her car and shared her story with ABC10 News, of experiencing homelessness and navigating the world.

Woman living in car shares story of homelessness (November 16, 2017)

Homelessness and a severe shortage of affordable housing are two of the biggest challenges facing the Northern California area right now.

The 10 Words team went into the community, where you told us these issues top your priority list, too.

But homelessness comes in many forms.

Susan Mackey is an advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

She is also in between homes, herself.

"You get a bad rap if you are dirty, if you are scraggly-looking, you're unshaved or your hair is a mess, if you're talking to yourself," Mackey said. "Those people need help. They had a journey up to that point. They weren't always like that, so let's have a little compassion for those people."

When we spoke with Mackey earlier this month at an event called Hands Across I Street, in Cesar Chavez Plaza.

"It's about ending homelessness as we know it," Mackey explained. "It's very important that we all have a home to go home to, especially this time of year."

At the Sacramento Housing Alliance's Regional Affordable Housing Summit last month, Mackey blended right in with the social workers and other non-profit staffers.

"I'm here to offer my help, and I'm here to get housed," Mackey said.

At the housing summit is where we learned Mackey has been experiencing homelessness off and on for 20 years.

"Now I'm in my car," she said.

She agreed to show us a day in her life.

"I call it 'in between homes,' not homeless," she added. "It's not a pretty place to be."

RELATED: Sacramento's affordable housing, homelessness issues tackled at summit

Mackey showed us the back of her vehicle — a recent upgrade due to the generosity of a high school friend — filled with folded clothes and other supplies.

"Everything is right here," Mackey said, pulling out items. "I've got shoes, toiletries and things, books and everything I need, all up in there."

We started at Sacramento City College, where Mackey is studying graphic design.

"I wish to design my own children's books," Mackey said.

When most people get up to go to class, they have their own bathroom — or at least a dedicated shared bathroom — to get ready. Mackey said she has a low-cost monthly gym membership where she uses the shower. Otherwise, she has to find a business and use its bathroom.

"Total chaos. No organization," Mackey said, describing her mornings. "If I don't have things around me in order, I don't function well."

Getting out the door in the morning can be a hectic process for anyone. Imagine doing it while living in a vehicle.

Walking to class with Mackey, ABC10 asked her whether her teacher and fellow classmates know that she's experiencing homelessness.

"No, they don't. Not this class," Mackey said. "You know, it's not something that you spread around, but I am late often."

She said she's been on waiting lists for affordable housing in the Sacramento area for more than six years.

"I am having problems getting into a place that I can afford," Mackey said. "I don't look really good on paper."

Her sole income right now is a Supplemental Security Income check [SSI] from the federal government.

"I need to get my degree so I can get a decent salary, because any time I work, have a job, the SSI just kind of subtracts that at a certain time, you know, and it's just — you're still in that rut," she said. "You're still in that place where you're in that fixed income, and you're stuck."

That rut lead Mackey to the Sacramento non-profit Women's Empowerment in the spring of 2016. That's where she met Renae Garcia, a social worker at the non-profit.

"We are a nine-week job readiness program, and our goal is to break the cycle of poverty through employment and empowerment," Garcia explained. "We help those at risk of homelessness as well, so these are individuals that are maybe couch surfing. These are individuals that are maybe staying in a garage. These are individuals that are maybe staying in their car."

Some of the women in the program are also sleeping outside.

"We've had people that are, you know, camping down by the river, and they make it to class every single day," Garcia said. "Our goal is to help these women before they get further and further down the rabbit hole, because then it’s a lot of times more difficult to get out of that."

Mackey completed the course, joining more than 1,450 other women who have graduated from Women's Empowerment since its inception in 2001.

"I feel comfortable here," Mackey said. "I'm safe and I have stability here, and I have resources here and I have friends here."

As a graduate, Mackey has lifelong access to the resources at the non-profit, like computers and staff.

"She doesn't even need to have an appointment," Garcia said. "She can just walk in here. It’s a safe space, a safe haven for her, whether she uses our restrooms or she uses the computer lab...Whether she needs clothes in our clothing closet...a bus pass. That’s what we’re here for."

Mackey is now looking for a good, solid job, so she can afford a permanent place to live.

"The only time I have been productive or made a step in the right direction in my life is when I've had a home. You just can't do this in your vehicle, you can't do it out in wherever you are staying. You can't function. There's no foundation to your life," Mackey said. "When that's not existent, everything else starts to unravel. It falls apart. And you can only keep it going for a little while, and after 20 years, I'm tired. I'm really tired, but I will never stop. I'll keep going until I reach my goal."

Mackey is a survivor of domestic abuse, homelessness, and other traumas.

"I think any time you hire someone, you're kind of taking a risk," Garcia said, "but I definitely think that these women are some of the most resilient and strongest women I've ever worked with...They blow my mind every day."

"I'm still standing and I'm advocating," Mackey said. "If there's anyone out there that needs me for that, I would love to join your team."

ABC10 asked Garcia why someone should hire Mackey.

"She is very creative. She is very motivated, and I think she's so passionate," Garcia said. "She’s definitely become a Women's Empowerment ambassador."

She's an ambassador with a thankful heart.

"I have a storage (unit)," Mackey said. "A lot of people don't have a storage or a vehicle."

So while Mackey may not fit your previous picture of homelessness, she asks that you broaden that definition.

"I am not the typical face of 'homeless,'" Mackey said.

While some people who are experiencing homelessness want to remain where they are, she said, there's also people who are too ashamed and too embarrassed to come out. 

"Look at me, I'm outing myself to a lot of people right now, and it's not about me anymore," Mackey said. "Look where being silent got me: I'm still in it, so it's time for me to speak out and say that there are women and there's kids. There's elderly."

Mackey also mentioned veterans and families who are experiencing homelessness.

"They deserve respect and dignity, regardless of their current situation," Garcia said.

For now, Mackey's vehicle remains her home. She explained how she chooses a safe location to spend the night.

"Well, you assume it will be safe," Mackey said. "Anywhere on this planet can be — anything can happen. I go where it's 24 hours. There's a lot of lights."

Shes living a life where rest, studying and success are necessarily secondary to safety and survival.

"I may be down, but I am not out," Mackey said. "I'm grateful for everything that I have."

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