Janet Robinson has no feeling in her fingers. And, when she holds out her hands, her thick, weathered fingers fall into a limp, gnarled curl.
It's one of the many indelible marks scarring the woman after she lived two years homeless on the streets of Nashville. It happened when, while shuffling along Murfreesboro Road, Robinson was pushed viciously by muggers and fell to her hands. The force when she struck the ground was too much for fingers weakened by seasons of cold temperatures and little protection, and she never regained sensation.
“They got my purse, but wasn’t nothing in it,” Robinson said.
Though her bag was empty, the 50-year-old Texas native says she had once considered her life full. Robinson served three years in the Army as a combat medic and hearing technician. She worked many years as a home health care nurse. She raised two boys, Jesse, now 20, and Josh, now 24.
“I wouldn’t ever have dreamed I’d become homeless. Heck, I used to make good money,” Robinson said.
But in her mid 40s, Robinson’s health began to fail and that was when her life began to unravel, she said.
Emphysema and chronic obstruction pulmonary disease (COPD) forced her to quit her job. Then, when she and her boyfriend, who she was living with, broke up, Robinson moved into a cheap women’s boarding house — all she could afford with no income and little cash to support herself. A few months later the boarding house was sold and all the women were told to leave.
She was too proud and embarrassed to ask her sons for help, and the women’s mission was always too crowded to offer her any real assistance, Robinson said.
So, Robinson took up companionship with a new boyfriend and together the couple wandered the streets looking for shelter and food where they could find it.
“I wasn’t working so I couldn’t afford any place to live. I had no choice. I hate to admit it but we slept behind dumpsters and in cars. We ate what we could. I remember one time all we had to eat was a box of lemons [her boyfriend] found,” Robinson said. “Most women don’t want to be on the streets but once you are on the streets you are on them. It’s not like you can swing by a dumpster and yell out, ‘Hey, you want to hire me?’”
Robinson endured fiercely cold and wet weather, little nourishment, declining health and physical blows from other homeless people and muggers, but even those weren’t the most difficult aspect of being a street dweller, she said.
Instead, it was the emotional abuse delivered by people she once considered her peers.
“The hardest part was how people treated you. When I was new to being homeless, I walked into a restaurant and I had my duffel bag with me. I asked a man who worked there how much a cup of coffee was, and he said, ‘If you take it with you, it’s free.’ He knew I was homeless because of the bag and they didn’t want me in there. I wasn't used to that,” Robinson said. “I see how people who are on the streets lose the ability or the will to get off the streets.
“It seems men can get temporary work in construction, but being a woman, you have to get dolled up, dressed up, to go look for a job. You need money. It’s an unending cycle.”
Robinson’s military training equipped her for the harshness of the transient lifestyle, but she said she lost hope until she received a hand of help from Birdie Anderson four months ago.
Anderson is the force behind Next Stage Inc., a nonprofit she started in 2004 to assist homeless veterans, especially women. Through her relationships with doctors and administrators at the Veterans Hospital, she learned that Robinson was recovering from a many-week stay there to treat complications with her emphysema and COPD, but that when Robinson was discharged, the woman had no place to go.
“I just wanted her to heal, so I found her an apartment and paid the deposit. I went out and found her some furniture, and some other women veterans joined in and purchased cookware and some sets of sheets, so I completely furnished the apartment for her. The manager at Safe Haven [a shelter for homeless families] said he had some extra food, so I went and got a few items from him so we stocked the refrigerator,” Anderson said. “Oh yes, I move fast.”
It’s her calling, she says.
Anderson is an Army veteran herself. She served for 12 years as a supply sergeant, starting at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and ending at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, managing weapons and inventory. She spent nine months in Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm, an experience that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I heard gun fire probably four out of seven days. The scariest part was not knowing where the fire was coming from or when it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Now, I can’t be around balloons or I’ll have a seizure, I can’t attend football games because they do fireworks after a touchdown.”
The PTSD, coupled with an enlarged tumor in her small intestines that put her in a wheelchair for several years, Anderson decided to move to Nashville to be near her brothers and sisters.
The realization that without her family to help her with personal needs, she too could easily be homeless prompted her to join several boards of nonprofits, such as Operation Stand Down, an annual three-day event designed to help provide homeless people with outreach, information and social services.
Four years ago, in the middle of the night, an idea came to her about how she could help more.
“I used to worry at night about when I’d talk to [a shelter] and they’d say they were booked full of people. It was hurting my heart. We just have too many homeless veterans in this community. So, God woke me up. I sat straight up in bed and I said, ‘I know what I need to be doing.’” Anderson said. “Most programs offer substance abuse recovery type assistance, but if you are just homeless you aren’t eligible for those services. So I wrote a grant proposal that would cover women with PTSD, domestic violence, mental illness — all of them — and then at the end I [wrote], ‘And simply if they are just homeless — if you leave your spouse or you are burned out.’ I included everyone and everybody so I wouldn’t have to turn anyone away from my housing.”
Since 2004, Anderson has been transforming grant money, donations and her own cash into housing, furniture, food, clothes, transportation, therapy and education for homeless veterans.
Most recently, she purchased a house off Trinity Lane, which she outfitted with beds, dressers and couches that will soon house four women. A grant is paying for $80,000 of the house note, but Anderson took out a personal mortgage to pay the remaining $44,000 owed. So far, she's made three $600 payments.
“I was determined to get this house. The women need it. I am trying to give them another option — a home — a place to lay their heads and get some services and job training and take their stress off them and allow them to clear their heads. There are so many things fighting against them,” Anderson said. “Each lady will have their own bedroom. I think that’s important. We, as adults, need space to recover especially after what we've been through.”
Anderson pays her bills by working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. three or four days a week as a desk auditor at a local Best Western hotel for an income to pay the bills. She chose the night hours so that she could spend her days doing whatever Next Stage Inc. calls for, whether it’s fundraising, hunting for cheap housing or being an ear to a woman who needs a friend or advice.
To Robinson, though, Anderson has become a sister.
“People think all homeless people want to be on the streets, but not everyone does. That's why Birdie touched me so deeply. She was the first person in a long time who made me feel like a human being again. She never judged me or looked down on me or said, ‘Oh, your clothes are dirty or take a bath.’ She treated me like family,” Robinson said. “That was a turning point for me. It brought back my self-esteem — you forget about that when you are homeless. Her attitude reminded me that there were people out there who cared.”
Next Stage Inc.
PO Box 293204
Nashville, TN 37229