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Real Life: Des Moines Author Shares Life After Homelessness

Ernestine Williams, Author
Ernestine Williams, Author
Shenica Graham

Des Moines - WIth many disaster relief efforts for Haiti in recent news, it seems more people are asking how they can make a difference in the poverty equation. Examiner caught up with Des Moines author, Ernestine Williams today to talk about how being homeless has effected life in Iowa's largest city, and how we may have homeless persons in our midst without noticing their plight.

Examiner: Can you share some of your experiences with being homeless and how it has effected you?

Ernestine: Sure.

Examiner: When did you come to Des Moines, Iowa?

Ernestine: March 1, 2004.

Examiner: What was your living situation after arriving in Des Moines?

I went to the Churches United shelter. I was there about two weeks. They put me out after a fight ocurred. It was about 4:00 pm in the evening, so I had nowhere to sleep for the night. I set up a tent about 150 feet from the shelter. I made a one-room house of palettes from shipping companies who have things delivered - they throw the old ones away.

Examiner: Had you ever been homeless before coming to Des Moines?

Ernestine: Yes, in 1989. I was in New Mexico. There were not as many resources that I could find in the desert. But I looked and found things to give me shade from the hot sun. It was warm at night. I found buckets and carried water in to the shelter I built from things I collected. I was able to make an outdoor shower, so people could not see me when I took a shower. I set up two buckets with one up higher than the other. I had a water hose. I put holes in the bottom of one bucket and siphoned the water through the hose. I made water come through one bucket like a shower head.

Examiner: How did you make the transition from being homeless to your current residence?

I've come across some good breaks. I've gotton more help from Caucasian people.  Well, first in New Mexico someone came out there in the desert, maybe hunting rabbits and they saw me out there where I was living. He actually took me to an apartment and set me up in an apartment. I ended up working for the apartment complex. After 3 years, I was the Assistant Manager.

In Des Moines, I was intoduced to a Primary Health Care worker by a friend, Francis. So I was camping outside of the shelter when they came with a truck to the location I was camping out at. They loaded me up and hauled me off of the grounds.

Examiner: If you had an opportunity to talk to people about homelessness, what would you want to tell them?

Ernestine: Being homeless does not mean you are hopeless. I was not worried whan I was homeless. I was never hungry. I saved cans to recycle for some money. Most every city has a recycling center. I could use the money for soap, laundry, or an occasional hot meal. A lot of people did not know I was homeless. I changed my clothes everyday. I showered. That's the way with a lot of homeless people. Most of them try to get back out of sight if they can - so you would not always know that a person was homeless in your city. Even in Jordan Creek, ther could be some [homeless people]. You may not see them unless you are on a bike trail at night.

Examiner: How did you spend your time each day?

Ernestine: I got to know the local animals. I fished everyday at Gray's lake. I fed the fish to the raccoons. Five or six deer came nightly to eat also. That's how I knew when to get up in the morning. The animals came at dawn every morning. They were my alarm clock. I walked about 3 miles to eat at the Y.W.C.A., Monday thru Saturday. Sundays, I went hungry.

Examiner: What have you learned from being homeless:

Ernestine: I learned things that they don't even teach Boy Scouts... how to take something that is thrown away and take it and make something you can use. Once I took a refridgerator grate and put wood down in the ground, put the screen over the top so I didn't have the embers flying away. When the wildlife officers saw something like that, they did not call it an open flame. So you could get warmth that way.

Other than snakes, no matter how dangerous people think they are, if you start feeding those animals - they protect you because you are feeding them. They appreciate everything that you are doing. I have seen TV shows about animals protecting people who have been good to them. Animals start getting to where they are not afraid if you are taking care of them and you are not afraid. Eventually, you will see that you can feed them from your hand- where others can not get close to them.

I saw a movie once about two boys helping to feed an elephant. They crossed Kenya. They went to a tribe with many goats. They were caught milking the goats. Someone caught them. They gave them milk to feed the baby elephant. Later on, a lion tried to attack the boys. The elephant got between the boys and the lion. The lion turned away after seeing the elephant was willing to protect them...

One lady put food out for the squirrels everyday. They sat and watched for her. They used to wait for her to leave. Eventually, they just met her there when she put the food down.

Homeless people can get help from the animals when they are out there - as long as they are not out there trying to eat them. I did think about putting one on the barbi [Q] once, but since I started to feed them, I couldn't bear to eat them.

I learned even the coons would scale and wash the fish before eating. Animals think like we do. Sometimes, they think better than we do. They know how to appreciate what is done for them.

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Ernestine's book, The Ultimate sacrifice (2009) is dedicated to the mother who died shortly after childbirth.

Excerpt from The Ultimate Sacrifice

Our story begins in the tainted south, where America is not the land of the free that we sing of. In 1934, injustice is alive; and it is not well with the sons of slavery. What does one woman do to save her child from the cotton fields? What would you do? By the time Versa Lee is delivered from the soul-bending cycle of auction and plantation, she has only one goal: The ULTIMATE Sacrifice.

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