A long journey to housing with love and perseverance

by Feb 14, 2024

In the shadow of Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge, Bettyjo and Dave embarked on a journey of survival and transformation. Armed with the modest earnings from selling Street Roots newspapers and handmade beadwork, they faced the monumental task of securing a home. Fortified by mutual support and shared dreams, their partnership became their greatest asset in this challenge. Four years ago, under the very bridge that had been their shelter, a grant from Mercy Corps sparked the first glimmer of hope. This was more than a quest for stability — it was an assertion of dignity and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.

Now in their early sixties, Dave and Bettyjo forged a loving relationship built on the foundation of a nine-year friendship.

Over a grueling six months, Bettyjo and Dave managed to save $600 — a challenge that meant forgoing basic comforts like renting a hotel room for a brief respite from the cold rain and hard ground. Their perseverance paid off when they were selected for a one-time pilot project through Mercy Corps, which matched their savings fivefold via the Oregon Individual Development Account, boosting their nest egg to $3600. Among the 5–10 hopeful participants, they stood out as the program’s sole graduates.

“The only reason it worked for us is we had each other to lean on. None of the other people had any support like that, not from their family,” Bettyjo said.

They also attended RentWell classes to learn about housing. These classes inform potential tenants about Fair Housing Laws, rental screening, credit building and the eviction process.

Saving money was a slow and challenging process. Dave found moments of joy in selling his beaded jewelry at the Portland Blues Festival and beyond, often gifting his creations, embedding each piece with chants and prayer as tokens of love and hope.

Bettyjo sold Street Roots newspapers for several years and was recognized for her work in 2016 when she was named the first female vendor of the year. Her regular spot outside St. David of Wales church was more than a sales post — it was a community touchstone.

“Those people were amazing,” Bettyjo said. “They let me sit in the back when I first got there. They were so kind, they just let me sit there, just let me listen. They didn’t try to force anything on me, and before I knew it, I was bringing David with me.”

Among the many people she met while selling papers outside the Multnomah County Courthouse were two women who hired her for house cleaning, significantly boosting their savings.

“That opportunity saved us,” Bettyjo says, gratitude evident in her voice. “I’ll always be grateful for all the people that helped us.”

Securing their apartment was a four-year odyssey, involving at least 35 interactions with various people and organizations. Their three-year tenure under the bridge marked the end of a longer journey of instability Bettyjo had faced off and on since she was sixteen years old. Dave navigated a decade of housing instability, finding temporary reprieve with occasional stays on a friend’s couch.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Bettyjo said. “There were days I didn’t think I was going to make it. There were days I wanted to hang it up and not do it because it was hard.”

The day Bettyjo and Dave crossed the threshold of their Saint Francis studio apartment was unforgettable. Yet, the joy they expected to feel was tempered by a complex mix of emotions.

“We had the keys, we came inside,” Bettyjo said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re not that excited. Why aren’t we excited?’ We should be excited and happy.”

Years of homelessness had ingrained a skepticism that made their new reality hard to accept. Moreover, they were burdened with survivor’s guilt, deeply aware of those who were still searching for their way off the streets. It was hard for them to believe it was real and both were sad for all the people who didn’t make it, still living on the streets.

“We spent the first three years waiting for the ball to drop but maybe it’s not going to,” Dave said.

Four years later they still live in the apartment and feel grateful daily.

Now, their lives are sustained by Social Security disability income, which covers rent and other bills and is supplemented by food stamps for groceries. Health looms large, with Dave undergoing surgery and Bettyjo managing diverticulitis and osteoarthritis — a stark reminder of the toll taken by years without consistent health care.

“Our bodies are falling apart,” Bettyjo said.” It’s because of hard times. It takes a toll on your body.”

Bettyjo’s resilience is rooted in her history as a single mother who raised three children and worked as a dedicated certified nursing assistant for 35 years, a career cut short by health issues that eventually led to homelessness.

A financially and emotionally devastating divorce altered Dave’s path. Fatefully, he met Bettyjo while staying at Dignity Village, a self-governed homeless village. Together, they committed to a new beginning fueled by time, determination, and mutual care.

“If it wasn’t for her I would go off on a desert island by myself and do art,” Dave said. “She brings me back to a sense of obligation.”

In the stability of their new home, Dave has reignited his passion for painting and continues to make jewelry. Post-surgery, he aspires to pursue a Master’s degree in art at Portland State University.

“Right now Jo and I are doing the best ever in life,” Dave said. “We’re very happy. I don’t want to get my master’s degree just to hang it on the wall. I want to do art therapy. I want to teach people that have been where I’ve been, there is a way out.”

Bettyjo echoes Dave’s feelings about life these days and said this is the happiest she’s ever been.

“What I like best about the apartment is I can lock my door and I’m warm,” Bettyjo said. “I can go to the bathroom. I can take a shower whenever I want. I can cook a meal whenever I want.”

Our 2019 interview with Bettyjo, Dave, and others who have experienced homelessness.

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