Nellie Jane Downing welcomes her guest into a neat, light filled apartment in South Arlington. Behind her on the wall is a photograph of New York City’s George Washington Bridge. “That bridge,” she said, “is my story. Walking from one side to the other, making that journey. And those lights on the bridge are the people who inspired me to get across.”
Downing doesn’t want her story to be anonymous, because she is proud of who she is. She wasn’t always proud. But now she is a recovering alcoholic and ex-drug user; she bought the furniture in the apartment by saving money; she gives back to her community with volunteer work; she spends time with her children, grandchildren, and siblings. How did a woman like this end up living on a bench near the Ballston library?
“I was molested at the age of 7; I had my first child when I was 17; my mom died when I was 18; I didn’t know my father. When I lost my mother I lost my sense of direction, my best friend, the person who gave me hope and strength,” she said. “I had two more sons and then I was a single mother of three, making ends meet. I worked hard, I was a supervisor at the Radisson Hotel. But it was so hard, having three young boys, long hours, short on money, no support. I started drinking, at first just on weekends, then every day. It got so bad I was carrying a water bottle around with me at work, but there was alcohol in that bottle, not water. Finally, the hotel noticed something was wrong. I lost my job.”
Downing says she was 32 when she became homeless. Alcohol abuse led to drug abuse: marijuana, crack cocaine, whatever she could get. She left home because she was so ashamed, so guilty, and so unable to function that she didn’t want her brother and sisters, her children, her friends, to see her like that. She didn’t want to be the family burden. She couldn’t pay the bills, she couldn’t raise the kids. She fled to the street.
“What you go through now, it has a purpose later,” Downing said. “I couldn’t have gotten well without going to the bottom like I did.” She eventually found her way to Ballston, where she would sleep in construction sites or places around the mall where the homeless can hide. The Starbucks restroom was her shower and toilet, until they kicked her out. She approached restaurants at closing time to get food they would otherwise throw away. She panhandled for money to buy alcohol and she was honest about it: “I need money to buy a drink because I have the shakes so bad …”
Most of the time she stood outside stores like K-mart, asking for money for things like toothpaste and food. She didn’t mind if people gave her the toothpaste instead of the money: she needed anything she got. People were kind to her, for the most part. One 7-11 where she spent time had a manager who gave her free Slurpees without being asked.
“One day, a lady in a new Mercedes came past me and told me: ‘Get a job … people like you asking for money is why I don’t want to shop here anymore.’” Downing said: “You know, I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t feel good about being there or asking for things. But she made me feel so low.”
Then the manager came out. He said the woman had asked him to call the police but he had told her Downing had a right to be there. That said, he told Downing in broken English, “You my friend. You stay here but no more ask for money here, OK?” He handed her a big Slurpee. Downing did move on, though. She never went back.
The last four years or so of her homelessness, Downing slept on a bench outside the Ballston library. She lined the bench with cardboard to make it more insulated from the cold. She kept her belongings wrapped in plastic and hid them behind the bushes. There were entire seasons when she never felt warm. She used to put her shoes around the bench so she would hear anyone coming. One morning, she found a $20 bill in her shoe. She couldn’t understand it. Then it happened the next morning. It turned out to be a woman sleeping near her on another bench. The homeless woman approached Downing one morning: do you want to get coffee? Downing refused. The woman tried again: do you want to get something to eat? Downing told her she didn’t want to talk. As the woman turned away, something clicked for Downing: go ahead, don’t turn her away. So she and the woman began to go to the IHOP and opened up to each other, talking about each other’s stories. Her story, Downing said, was so much worse than her own: the woman had seen her mentally ill husband shoot her two daughters and turn on her. She ran out the door, and he shot himself. She had vowed never to live within four walls again. She left her job as a school teacher and her home, and never went back. But by befriending Downing, she gave her a gift. Communication. A friend. The idea that Downing wasn’t as bad off as she thought. And not being able to talk to people, she says, or to have a friend, was the hardest thing about being homeless.
Then one night, Downing was raped. She was asleep on her bench when she felt a knife at her back. She was overpowered by a man she never saw; the fear and pain were so intense she reached her breaking point.
One day, she was sitting outside a construction site and a passing woman stopped to talk to her, saying: “You should go to A-Span. You can get a shower there — and a free breakfast. It’s right down the street.”
Downing approached the storefront and sat outside until it opened. She found herself crying, unable to stop. When she went in, she was treated with respect. Once she was clean and fed, she was asked if she wanted help. “If you want help, we can get you help,” the young man said. Downing laughs as she remembers: “I didn’t know if I was going to run, or stay.” But she was ready. He said, “I’m not going to take you to detox: I am going to give you the directions and a bus token. If you want this, you will find your way there.” She got to the bus stop. She arrived at detox, but was turned away; there wasn’t enough alcohol in her system. Downing went to the nearest bar, walked up to one of the men standing there, and told him she needed him to buy her a beer. “Why?” he asked. “Well, sir,” she said, “you are not going to believe this but I have to blow a number when I go into detox today or they won’t let me in, and this beer will be my last.” He bought her the beer.
Downing got into detox and after a quick physical was immediately hospitalized for acute pancreatitis. She had been drinking a fifth of whiskey a day, and her system was shot. Her case worker, Ayana Bellamy, of A-Span, took her to the hospital and then stayed with her through detox. Downing said Bellamy told her: “We are behind you 100 percent.” Thirty days later, Bellamy was there when she was released. On the last day, they asked her: Did you come here for a tune up or do you want to change your life? If you want to change your life, you can come upstairs and begin the early recovery program.
Downing completed the five-month program, finding out she had bipolar disorder and getting medication to help her function. She saw a therapist who helped her heal the mind as well as the body. A-Span’s program forced her to look at her past and deal with it. She was taught to look at herself a new way: “Don’t fear what’s been done to you: use it as a stepping stone.”
Bellamy was there all the way. Bellamy taught her how to pay bills, make appointments, use public transportation, get her license back, get a vehicle, and do community service. Downing went to school, took a course on nonprofit organizations and started her own: “Here to Serve,” a group of people in the community performing service, such as doing packets to give to the homeless and sending balloons to the hospital for children who are sick. Downing is on the board of the James Lee Community Center too. “Giving back is important to me.”
While in recovery, Downing ran into a cashier who coincidentally knew her son, Antonio. She gave her phone number to the cashier and asked her to pass it to Antonio if he wanted to call her, and then she sat by the phone, fully aware he might not call. He did. But he had a lot to say about her that she might not have had the strength to hear if she hadn’t been in a safe place, with support around her. Her three sons had been in trouble, but eventually went into foster care. They’d gotten lucky. All three had graduated with honors from high school. All three had good jobs. And all three wanted to see her. She has renewed contact with her siblings. She has grandchildren. It wasn’t easy: the children took a while to regain trust in her. She felt old friends would judge her. But the day she was going back to see her old neighborhood, her son told her: “Put a smile on your face when you walk through down the street, Mom, because no one thought you could make it, and you did.”
Downing credits A-Span and Bellamy: “They are like my family. It’s not a job to them. They tell you: if you take the first step, I will take 10 with you.” Bellamy walked Downing through getting her disability payments, then her Section 8 Housing Grant, her medical insurance, and took her to her first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. After six years, she is still there any time Downing needs her, but that happens less and less.
What’s the greatest thing about having a home? “I can invite my family. I can cook for them. I can provide for my grandchildren if they ever need anything or a place to stay, and it won’t have to be a park bench. I have a legacy now, that my kids can be proud of. I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.”