Life can be like a game of chutes and ladders.
One wrong move and it’s straight to the bottom of the board.
Terri Hayes learned that the hard way.
But now, she’s making the climb back to the top—
one rung at a time, one day at a time.
Terri Hayes was alone in an alley when she saw a group of people walking toward her. Then in the blink of an eye they were gone. She looked around. There was a mattress strewn to one side piled high with dirty clothes. The pile began to shift. Slowly, a heavy-set woman crawled out from under the clothes and told Hayes, “I am the mother of this alley. You need to go home.”
Hayes had fallen through the cracks.
She had made a mistake: she didn’t show up for work one weekend. Instead, she took a trip up to San Francisco. She remembers it well, it was the first time she drove in the snow. When she returned, she had lost her job as a certified nursing assistant. That was May of 2010.
She applied for jobs, but nothing came. The country was still in a recession. Then her car was repossessed while at the shop. Months went by, and still no job. In October, a Sheriff’s deputy knocked on her apartment door. Leave or I’ll make you leave, he said.
She was homeless. Before she knew it, she was living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles at the age of 52. It had all happened so quickly.
“I don’t know how I ended up where I was because that sure isn’t where I started from,” said Hayes.
She listened to other people to find shelter, listened to other people to find her next meal, listened to other people to find clothes. She sat around in restaurants, in parks, in churches, in libraries. She cleaned herself in gas station bathrooms using a sock for a washrag. She washed the sock in a laundromat, using the soap people left spilled on top of the machines.
But she was always scared. Scared a man might force himself onto her. Scared someone might kill her in her sleep. People stumbled by, strung out, hollering down the street. She’d witnessed people standing right next to her getting stabbed. One minute she was talking to them, the next minute someone had come out of nowhere and cut them.
She was always scared.
This was a world she had only heard people talk about, but now she was actually part of it. She saw bony, drug-addicted girls selling themselves. She saw elementary-school- aged children going hungry.
“When you looked in their eyes you saw the brightness, you saw the innocence, because they’re children, but also the sadness,” said Hayes.
Sometimes she felt like she was in a Feed the Children commercial. She couldn’t believe this was going on in her own country.
She could have left anytime. Hayes has four brothers and a sister. She has four children, one who’s a biochemist and another who’s a Marine medic. But she was so ashamed, had too much pride—the same pride that kept her from ever asking for alms on the streets.
Gradually she spiraled into a deep depression. She felt worthless. She missed her kids tremendously.
“I cried all the time. Even when I was walking, I had to keep moving the water out of the way because I had to see where I was going.”
Three years went by like this. That was around the time she encountered the woman in the alley. “You need to go home,” the woman had said. “Child, you need to get your life together and do something with your kids.”
Shortly after, she moved in with her mother and began receiving assistance transitioning back into the working world from the Mental Health America Village in Long Beach. She started working out and stopped drinking. She saw her kids. She welcomed a new grandbaby into the family and now she wants to try roller-skating.
“Every day is different. I’m happy about a lot of whole bunch things, especially about being alive and well and safe,” Hayes said.
She got a part-time job as a custodian at the California State University, Long Beach. She’s been at it for eight months. Lately, she’s worried because they’ve been cutting her hours. Still, she hopes that by the end of the year she can afford to move out on her own.
Hayes said, “You know how you say, ‘I can’t wait to see how that person turns out?’ Well, I can’t wait to see how things turn out for me.”