Teresa Hemingway lived at IFC’s HomeStart for about 10 months and has now started to rebuild her life. She was neither an addict nor unemployed but simply could not make ends meet, a problem faced by many hard working people today. She has overcome many obstacles and challenges in her life and is determined to succeed. This is her story.
Teresa was born in August, 1968 in Greensboro, NC and went directly from the hospital to her grandparent’s house. Her mother was only 14 years old and still lived with her parents. Teresa’s mother was not able to be a good mother to her or to Teresa’s younger brother. For a while, her step-father also lived in the same house, and life was difficult for the children. The step-father was an alcoholic who beat his wife and young son and forced the boy to sit without moving for hours on end. Teresa’s mother beat her and locked her in closets. This abuse went on until Teresa’s grandmother stopped it. Teresa remembers going to court when she was 6 or 7 years old, at which time the grandparents got custody of the young siblings. Aunts and uncles also helped raise the children.
Teresa’s mother and stepfather then left and moved to New Jersey. As an adult, Teresa has tried to reconcile with her mother and biological father, but they have not responded to her overtures. Teresa believes that people need their parents, even as adults. As a child, she hoped they would come back to get her, but they never did. Teresa says they will never be there for her and will never love her the way she wants. “Just because you bring a child into the world doesn’t make you a parent.”
Teresa credits her grandmother for making her the woman she is today. In Teresa’s words, her grandmother is “awesome,” “inspiring,” “uplifting” and “wonderful.” “My grandmother is love and joy.” A religious woman, she is 85 years old now, and Teresa recently attended her birthday party.
Her grandfather was a patient man from South Carolina. He spent a lot of time with Teresa and her brother, teaching them how to fish, plant a garden, mow grass and ride a tractor. He was a simple man who raised tobacco and didn’t ask for much. When he got angry, everyone knew, because he wouldn’t talk. He and his wife had 12 children, and 10 are still living.
Teresa describes herself as a child who was shy and emotional; she cried easily. She was a loner who had no friends and felt that nobody liked her. She was a tomboy who preferred playing football, basketball and riding bikes with boys to the “wishy-washy” games of girls her age. Teresa liked school but says: “I wasn’t smart. I was slow. . . . When I looked in the mirror, I was ashamed.” She learned to cook at the age of 7 and still loves to cook. She remembers fondly her brother cooking dinner for her.
She wasn’t allowed to have a job when she was in high school. She was still a shy girl. Nevertheless, she joined the photography and drama clubs. In the drama club, she did speeches and plays in class. The photography club taught her how to take photos, develop and print them. Her grandmother gave her $35 to buy a used camera from a fellow student. An important and formative event for Teresa was when she won first prize in a photography contest, for which she received $10 and a certificate. The prize inspired her to pursue a career in photography. Teresa recalls:
I had never won anything in my life and was so overwhelmed. Then, I knew I had a gift for taking pictures. . . . When I take pictures, I am in my own world. I can just take pictures, because the pictures don’t talk back. Realizing I am a photographer made me so happy, because I knew that being a photographer, I could be anybody I wanted to be and go anywhere I wanted to go. I love taking pictures.
For Black History month, she did a research project on Gordon Parks, the first black photographer to work for Life magazine. Parks had a deep commitment to social justice; his body of work on American culture from the 1940s until his death in 2006 focused on race relations, civil rights, poverty and urban life. Gordon Parks has inspired Teresa since she was 15 years old, and she recognizes him as a brilliant man. He was a photographer, musician, writer and film director. Teresa wrote to him once and had hoped she could meet him.
Not all her experiences in high school were so positive. Her best friend was murdered by her boyfriend. Also, Teresa graduated from high school in 1987, a year later than the rest of her class because she was “slow.” Her guidance counselor told her she would never be able to attend college, because she was too slow and not like other kids. Unwittingly, that counselor spurred Teresa to pursue a college degree at any cost.
After graduation, Teresa went to New Jersey to be closer to her mother; she lived with her mother from 1987 to 1988. During that time she worked as a library assistant in Hackensack for about a year and then attended Bergen Community College in Peramus. The attempt to reconcile with her mother didn’t work out well, and Teresa returned to North Carolina and lived with her grandmother after her first daughter, Paris, was born. She had tried to live with Paris’s father, but he was “no good,” and she ended that arrangement.
In 1993, she married a man who seemed like a good person; he was employed and was also a licensed barber. However, the marriage ended in divorce in 2000, because her husband abused her both physically and psychologically. In the years since high school, Teresa has given birth to 3 daughters: Paris (b. 1989), Jasmine (b.1994) and Allissa (b. 1998). She lost a fourth baby to illness. Now, the two older girls work and live separately. Her former husband never paid child support and also burned down their new mobile home. So, Teresa has had sole custody of the girls and supported them herself.
Her daughters are the best part of Teresa’s life. She raised them with lots of love and talked to them about everything. She taught them to respect other people and to treat them the way they would like to be treated. She is very proud of her daughters and says she has a close and loving relationship with them.
Since high school, there is hardly a time when Teresa has not held a job and sometimes two. She worked at Burlington Industries in Reidsville until the mill closed; at the same time she took some courses at Piedmont Community College. Then, she got a job at Food Lion in Bellington, and worked in the bakery more than 10 years until a manager accused her of theft. She was found not guilty when the manager did not answer a subpoena to testify against her. Nevertheless, she lost her job. Thereafter, she has worked at Honda inspecting parts; in housekeeping at the UNC hospitals; in a temp service at UNC; at Louis B’s – a restaurant at Macy’s where she cleaned; and as a waitress at the Iron Skillet.
Now, she works full-time as a custodian at the McDougal Elementary School and part-time in a deli. Her job at McDougal makes her a state employee, which gives her medical insurance and retirement benefits. While working 60 hours a week, she is also taking courses toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. As if that schedule were not demanding enough, Teresa is also an usher in her church, sings in the choir and volunteers an hour a month helping her pastor’s aide. It is not surprising that she feels tired all the time.
Teresa’s Homeless Experience
From November 2012 until September 2013, Teresa and her youngest daughter, Allissa, were residents at HomeStart, the IFC’s transitional housing for women and children and emergency shelter for single women. They had been evicted from their apartment, because Teresa could no longer pay the rent. According to her, there were several problems which the landlord did not fix and which caused her electric and water bills to be unusually high. Teresa took photos of the problems, but nobody paid attention to her complaints. According to Teresa:
When I was evicted, I really didn’t know where I was going to go. A lot of the stuff I worked so hard for , I ended up putting on the street and giving it away, because I didn’t know where to put it. I put out nice furniture, kitchen tables, clothes, cabinets. A lot of stuff I had bought at a thrift shop in Carrboro. I had gotten my apartment to where I wanted it to be, so it hurt to give them away. . . . “I was at my lowest point. . . . I really didn’t know where I was going to go.”
Her extended family was of no help to her; her grandmother was very old by now and wanted to live alone. She felt her family was disappointed in her and thought her aunts and uncles were just selfish. After a while trying to live with friends, Teresa found those arrangements did not work. Friends or friends’ relatives treated them badly, even when Teresa was paying them.
A real friend lifts you up when you’re down. . . . I didn’t trust anyone and didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. For the first time in my life, I was homeless and knew what a homeless person feels like – hurt, deceived, not worthy.
She and Allissa lived in a hotel for a short while, and Teresa even spent two nights sleeping in her car after finding a friend to house Allissa, her youngest daughter. Eventually, she went to the Orange County Social Services, and a social worker referred her and Allissa to HomeStart’s transitional housing for mothers and children. At the same time, her oldest daughter lived in the emergency shelter for a short time before finding other accommodations.
According to Teresa, the shelter helped by giving her hope and resources that prepared her for life. The hardest aspects of shelter life were the 8 pm curfew and rules about doing chores. She was an adult and felt the constraints of these rules, especially because she was also working full-time and studying for her degree in criminal justice. She describes the experience as “. . . a bit like being in boot camp.”
Teresa remembers that the Director, Judy Klimcheck, was very “harsh” with her, but in the end won Teresa’s respect, because Judy pushed her. She helped Teresa understand the importance of budgeting and arranged for her to take some finance and budgeting classes. Teresa started saving $60 a week and still does.
While she was living at HomeStart, Teresa attended AA meetings even though she is not an alcoholic. She had suffered from depression and found that at AA, she could tell her story and felt it was acceptable to be upset and to cry. She feels that everyone she meets brings something and can teach a lesson.
Here are some of Teresa’s reflections on her time as a homeless person in her own words.
Being homeless was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can handle just about anything. I can still hold up my head and smile. . . . I always live every day as if it is my last day. Joy has to come from inside, from the heart, and it’s nice to share these things.
If I had not been homeless, I would never have known what God can do in my life. He gave me peace and joy. He gave me a heart of gold. He gave me something so precious that no man can give – he gave me myself. . . . I was put in the shelter to help someone else.
Staying on a budget. Being able to afford food for me and Allissa. Even though I am better, I am always trying to figure out how to make my life easier. . . . I don’t ever want to be homeless again. I don’t want people to pity me and say ‘I never knew.’ To know is to be thankful it’s not you, because it could be. Being homeless is not something you chose. It’s just something that happens.
Death doesn’t startle me. What startles me is living people who don’t do right and make other people’s lives miserable. They don’t understand how it feels to be homeless and not have anything. I’ve been there. I’ve been hungry. Your pride gets in the way. You don’t ask people for anything, because they do not understand what it is like to feel hungry. I’ve been in situations where I could not feed my kids. Sometimes, I fed my kids but wouldn’t eat. . . . There have also been days when we had plenty and shared it with others who didn’t have. It is so important to share something with someone.
I am so thankful for every day God gives me to share a smile with someone. . . . Now, if someone is suffering, I can understand. I was hoping someone would understand my pain. God showed me how to take things one step at a time and how to understand people. He won’t give me more than I can bear. Some people don’t have shoes. Some women are beaten by their husbands. Children wake up at night crying from hunger. I have so much to be thankful for.
Now, Teresa and Allissa live in Hillsboro in a subsidized apartment. Teresa continues to work full time at McDougal and part-time at a deli, while also trying to complete her degree in criminal justice. She still has debts to be paid and has trouble making ends meet. She does not get food stamps but uses the IFC’s food pantry services.
She has been told she can never work in law enforcement, because she has been in trouble with the law more than once. In addition to some traffic violations, and the earlier accusation of theft, she was found guilty of collecting unemployment payments when she was not eligible. She had been eligible when working as a temp, but neglected to notify the agency when she got a full-time job. She has now paid back all the money she owed and is still determined to earn her degree in criminal justice. However, Teresa suffered a setback recently, when ITT in Cary expelled her despite her GPA of about 3.0. ITT has not clearly explained her expulsion to Teresa’s satisfaction.
She is applying for admission to North Carolina Central University, which will accept all her earned credits; an advisor there has been encouraging to her. She hopes to graduate after two more semesters of course work. Teresa aspires to earning a master’s degree as well as completing a photography course at Randolph Community College, where she had started a certificate course in 2000. Her ultimate plan is to be a forensic photographer. Before she reaches that goal, she hopes to get a job with 911 in order to earn a higher wage.
In whatever spare time Teresa has, she loves to read. She especially likes the works of Smith Wigglesworth, a prolific author of books on faith and devotion. She greatly admires Nelson Mandela and has read his book Long Walk to Freedom. She still loves Curious George, the little monkey who was her imaginary friend in her childhood. Teresa also reads about forensics and enjoys watching the TV show Bones, which is about the work of a forensic anthropologist.
Teresa carries her camera everywhere and takes photos, mostly of natural beauty. She is planning a trip to Charleston in the Spring to take more photos. She has relatives there and can stay with them. Of special interest are sites associated with the history of slavery, because her ancestors were slaves.
Teresa has faced many daunting challenges and obstacles throughout her life but is determined to succeed. In her own words:
I feel I can overcome anything, because I work so hard. . . and am not going to waste my dreams because of what someone told me. If you trust in God, God will open doors that no man can close.
by Karen Merrey