Doreen Dimig goes abed in despair and awakes in dread. Life has chased the 64-year-old, disabled woman into a corner where chains could not trap her more cruelly.
Doreen’s refuge is where she’s lived for 15 years. It’s a small room in a squeezed one-bedroom, 600-foot bungalow in Normal Heights. It has not seen a hammer or a paintbrush in a very long time. It’s drab. It’s where poor people end up.
Even so, it helps Doreen avoid living on the street. Necessity has modest survival standards.
But now, the street looms. Doreen has been served with an eviction notice that gives her until Nov. 7 to move out of her home.
The notice has the right boxes checked and details written in tight language that tells her to get out. It’s all as flinty and cold as some lawyer in an upholstered chair can craft it against a stranger of an old woman.
The lawyer is an inadvertent pilot dropping napalm from a great height: Nothing personal, whoever you are.
The “living room” of the bungalow is maybe 10 by 15 feet in a dismal beige. It’s filled by a computer, a TV and a bed. Stacked along the wall are boxes of clothes, medical equipment and art supplies, ready to go — but where?
On the wall are art works of obvious quality, even to my amateur eye. The paintings are the only things in this room that are of Doreen, because they were born of her talent.
The bedroom is her artist’s storeroom. The bath and kitchen are early functional.
The home hasn’t been cleaned for a month, and that grieves Doreen because she can’t manage it in a wheelchair. Both of her hands are encased in braces for the carpal tunnel injuries she has sustained from pushing its wheels.
Doreen is broke. Flat broke. Not dead broke, yet. However, her life could well depend on public funds that can be a cushion of rocks.
Her income from the Supplemental Security Income program is $909 per month. Out of that must come her portion of the government-subsidized rent. Then there is SDG&E, basic cable, Internet service and a flip-top cellphone, all of which provide her only contact to vital services and access to the outside world.
(I could pad this story with statistics about the extent of the homeless problem, which I think you already know is large. I could talk to various experts and … blah, blah, blah. No. This is a personal story, intensely personal. The only statistic we need is the No. 1 — Doreen Dimig.)
Doreen’s unit on Wilson Avenue is the middle of a row of three standalone, small bungalows. The other two are vacant. The owner obviously has plans that do not include Doreen. And that makes sense financially.
Doreen’s rent is $1,050 per month, which she says is the maximum allowed for a one-bedroom by Section 8, the government low-income housing program. Of that, she pays $232.
If her unit were fixed up, she agrees that its rent might command double that amount on the open market. Thus, her continued occupancy would be asking the owner to sacrifice $12,000 in annual income.
Why should he? That’s a fair question.
Doreen says the owner, John Barry Jacobs, has badgered her by telephone to move out, but inflicted no harassment or threats. We could not find him by various name-search services, so I contacted the property manager, AMG Props of San Diego.
A pleasant woman answered the phone, but when she learned of my interest in Doreen, her tone grew icy and she wouldn’t give her name. I asked to talk with the property’s owner. I was told, “Someone will get back to you.” I’m still waiting, but not sitting by the phone.
The local Section 8 office publishes a list of available housing that Doreen scrutinizes line by line. The units available are too costly or not accessible to the disabled.
A studio might work for less rent, but it would only reduce the amount that Section 8 contributes.
Doreen might have to eventually move out of Normal Heights, which would take her farther from her doctors and increase transportation costs.
Doreen’s life exposes a popular stereotype as a lie. Some would have us believe that people in her circumstance are losers, probably uneducated, lazy and likely mentally ill or addicted to something.
Even to curmudgeons who resent every tax penny spent on anything other than themselves, Doreen has led a useful life. She is a college graduate who taught in Catholic elementary schools for years. She bypassed the career security of public schools because she believed in the mission.
She eventually changed careers to pursue a more personal mission: She became a freelance graphic artist and painter. That’s a good way to feed the soul. But the stomach, not so much. And future security, not at all.
Economic struggles (remember, struggles are the result of trying) and poor health have put Doreen in the place she now finds herself.
I read a recent letter from her neurologist that said Doreen is “… seriously disabled by multiple conditions. She has advanced spinal stenosis and in several regions, her spinal cord is being crushed.”
The physician also refers to carpal tunnel syndrome, a past diagnosis of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis as well as other respiratory problems. Though her lung cancer is in remission, Doreen says a nodule has recently been found on her lung that is worrisome.
Doreen expands on the doctor’s words: “It’s a problem where the bones surrounding the spinal cord overgrow and crush the spinal cord, and the nerves become paralyzed. I’ve had an operation on my neck where cadaver bones were inserted, so the old bones were removed and now those cadaver bones are also crushing the nerves.
“I've also had uterine cancer ...”
Doreen lost her home-health aide last month when the helper moved to Texas. She’s looked for a replacement, but hasn’t found one willing to work the hours requested.
Consequently, Doreen lives in a house she physically can’t clean. “I can't do any cleaning, no. The tub is filthy, the toilet bowl. Everything hasn't been cleaned.”
For how long?
“Since September 8th.”
Worse, she has to bathe herself without assistance. She can walk a few steps, but badly. A few days ago, she fell in the bathtub and suffered bruises, eye damage and a black eye that a schoolboy might call “a beaut of a shiner.”
Doreen has a 35-year-old daughter in Kentucky, who is not in a position to help her. The father left the scene years ago when Doreen became pregnant.
Attorney Christian Curry of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego says of Doreen’s rights: If the eviction demand has been properly done, she will have two options — One, do nothing in response to the landlord’s follow-up lawsuit, and in about 15 days, the sheriff will evict her. Two, if she fights the action in court and loses, she might have an additional four weeks.
Curry says in an eviction, the sheriff’s staff would remove Doreen from the property and lock her out.
Astonished, I ask: In her wheelchair?
Doreen is depressed and scared. “It is just so overwhelming. I'm afraid of becoming homeless. I called Father Joe's Villages about a month ago and they could not help me because I was still under a roof. When I get to the point of no place to go, that’s when I have to call them, but that means I could be homeless for weeks, and I can't survive that.”
Scattered among her fears are threads of hope. “I would like to be among people, not isolated like I am now. I would like to be in a community where other handicap people exist and function, and I would like to be among them and continue my painting and start showing again. I would like to do that very much.
“I would literally die out on the street because I am that sick physically. I could not keep up with what I would need to do. I haven't slept. My eating is off. I'm having dreams; I can’t tell you how horrible they are. I’m desperate.”
What will happen to Doreen? Hard to say. Right now, she has no place to go. Some person or agency may come forward to help, or maybe not.
It gives one pause. Will the 23rd century judge us as cruel as we judge the 19th century?
I remark about a painting Doreen has hung high on the wall. She twists in her wheelchair to look up at it. Several other paintings have been boxed in her back room, but this one is obviously her favorite. The title is “Golden Baby.” It draws you in, demanding that you ponder it.
The painting is of a pregnant young woman with intriguing contentment on her face, and maybe the wisp of a smile. She’s proud that a child’s heart is beating within her, and joyful about the adventures their lives will share.
Doreen doesn’t say it, but the sweet-sadness on her face tells me who is in the painting.
The woman in the painting is she. Doreen of another day. Doreen of a better life.
It’s what she has left.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]