Laura Sanchez feels guilty thinking about it, but she knows it’s true: Being a mother is a threat to her dreams.
She loves her daughter, Mia. In fact, for her child she would willingly sacrifice her education, her reasonable chances of getting a good job and her possibility of finding a mate who won’t shy away from inheriting another man’s child.
Laura hopes she won’t have to do any of those things, but she also knows the climb to success will be labored and steep because of the choice she made.
She thought about all these things as she walked the streets of downtown San Diego, homeless. She had plenty of time — hours and hours of it — while pushing a stroller restraining a fussy little girl who wanted to run and play and watch cartoons in her own home, the same as other 3-year-olds.
And Laura also knows now that just because a guy says so doesn’t mean he loves you. And just because a guy says he will doesn’t mean he’ll stick around.
At 21, she also knows now the truism that young guys say to each other: an ardent man has no conscience.
Laura’s words are soft and spare. Being chatty takes energy. Having been emotionally wounded causes gun-shyness as well as pain. She invests all her love in her daughter, because no one else has asked for it.
And she thanks God for homeless shelters, but they are not home.
We meet in the Hodad’s hamburger superstore at 10th and Broadway, the neighborhood that’s sort of an axis for the homeless. Laura picks at her mini-burger, at first reticent and wary at being closely questioned by a stranger. Down here, no good usually comes of that. Smiles are not her default. At the end, she gets a carryout bag for the remaining French fries and onion rings. They’ll be for Mia.
The restaurant gives out tiny candy bars at the cash register. She takes one and I give her mine. Both eventually end up in her daughter’s grasp.
The last four months of 2013 were a misery for Laura. She came back to San Diego from Los Angeles after a double disappointment. She had moved there to be near a dad who, she says, brought misery with him almost every time he came through the family door.
Wanting to be near her dad made no sense, but children wanting love can allow hope to cloud judgment. Then a few months ago, her father abruptly left L.A. and returned to Mexico without even saying goodbye. At the same time, Laura lost her job in an ice-cream parlor.
She returned to San Diego and sought assistance from her siblings and her mother. Her mother couldn’t help, and the siblings wouldn’t. Laura had no choice but to join that cold statistic we call the homeless. The wolf wasn’t at her door, because she had no door, but it trotted beside her on the streets.
She applied to St. Vincent de Paul Village for room in its shelter and was put on a waiting list. Instead, she was taken in by a downtown shelter that offered only a cot and one meal per day.
Laura was grateful to be in the shelter, but that didn’t mean it was fun. She had to be out the front door at 6 a.m. and couldn’t return until 9 p.m. That meant spending 15 hours mostly on the streets, and during the day there was no place to go for a young mother with an infant in a stroller and no money.
“My daughter was the only kid in there at times; it was older people. Women used to come in drunk and really stank, and then we had to sleep on cots, and you had to open up the cot, and it was really cold in there. The blankets they gave us smelled really bad, like, really bad.
“But I was so grateful to have it. As much as it sucked, I looked forward to going in there every night so I wouldn’t have to be on the street with my daughter.”
She would start their day with breakfast at a Burger King, where she would pull precious wrinkled-up dollar bills out of her pocket, if she had any, and buy two of the cheapest burgers.
For lunch, she could use her food stamps at 7-Eleven, where she would buy a bag of chips and a yogurt for Mia. “I know it was bad,” she says, “but (the food) would last.”
Could you look for a job during the day?
“It was very hard because I was barely getting any sleep, and I didn’t have good clothes. I had nobody to watch my daughter. It’s really hard when you have a kid.”
She admits to “hopping” the trolley to go longer distances, and has collected two tickets because of it — which she cannot pay. Other times, trolley cops declined to ticket her. “I’m not proud of that, but I was desperate,” she says.
Talking about her daughter causes tears to make rivulets down Laura’s cheeks. She brushes them off and speaks quietly of a particularly bad day.
“There was one day I didn’t have anything, like no money at all, nothing, and Mia was still asleep, but she was going to wake up and probably would be hungry. I really had no idea what I was going to do. I just sat on some stairs and I started crying. A car pulled over and the guy handed me $20. With that $20, I made it work to feed my daughter for the whole week.”
How much money do you have right now in your wallet?
During those four months, her refuge was the storefront operated by StandUp For Kids on Park Boulevard. There, for a few hours each evening, she could relax. She would be given clothes, meals, understanding and companionship. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Though StandUp For Kids was an island of succor in the evenings, the sense of failure toward Mia was a heavy stone that she dragged with her through the daytime streets.
“I felt so bad for having her out here. I blame it on me, on myself, and I just think to myself, ‘I hope she never remembers this because I don’t want her to.’ I wish I could make it all better for her so she wouldn’t have to go through this, but there’s not much I can do.
“I just don’t know how I let myself get here and how I put my daughter through this, and it makes me feel really bad. It makes me feel like a terrible person.”
Laura says she has never used drugs and has stayed out of trouble with authorities, and that should say to us that this is a person with some strength of character. And when we consider how she grew up, we might want to change “some” to “considerable.”
She says her father would come home drunk and regularly give horrific beatings to her mother, which Laura witnessed and for which he was jailed. Because of those episodes, she got an early exposure to homeless shelters, having spent some weeks in one as a child.
When she was small, her father took the family to live in Mexico, a time she calls the worst of her life. “My dad was an alcoholic. He used to spend his money on beer and other stuff, so there were days without eating.”
Laura is one of many young Mexican-Americans on the cultural cusp. Mexico to her is a foreign country. She thinks in English and primarily speaks it. Her mother tells Laura her second language sounds like “TJ-ghetto Spanish.”
The lack of unity in her family today is no surprise. When childhood is pain-filled, the tendency is often for the children to run as far away as possible.
She grew up “all over San Diego” and graduated from Sweetwater High School in National City. At some point she started dating a guy, a gang member, who became the father of Mia. Laura says, “He walked out when she was about 6 months old. He just stopped calling.”
She made an attempt to locate him for child support but had no success. “They say he’s in jail.” She does not want to renew the relationship. “I can’t have my daughter around that.” She also has no interest in having any relationship, not right now.
Neither Laura’s father nor her child’s father could be reached for comment.
In her marathon walks around downtown, Laura found it especially painful to be in the area of San Diego City College and see all the happy women her age going to and from classes.
That’s what she wanted — and will keep on wanting. She says had she not gotten pregnant, she would “probably be in college and have a job.”
Earlier this month, that goal went from a pipe dream to one with a glimmer attached to it. Laura was finally admitted to St. Vincent de Paul Village, where she now has her own room, three meals a day and — this is a blessed “and” — day care.
Day care means she’ll be free to look for work as a clerk in a kiosk or restaurant, knowing her daughter will be fed, safe and in good hands. Her fond hope is to work for Macy’s.
“When I get a job, hopefully very soon, I want to have enough to pay for a one-bedroom or a studio. Mia’s going to start going to school soon. Then, hopefully, I’ll be able to still work and go to school myself. Do both, I hope. I just want to go to college.”
It won’t be easy. Laura knows the limitations of a minimum-wage job. However, life is nothing without hope, and hope is nothing without goals.
When Laura eventually goes to that hoped-for interview and some HR-type asks how she handles challenges and responsibility, Laura could allow herself a smile, because by then she might find it easier.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org