A dog named Mouse provides company and comfort for a woman currently living out of an RV. Community Voices contributor John Dunne shares her difficult story. (John Dunne photo © 2022)

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Jo Ann shows the effects of a difficult life. At 64 years old she has a deeply lined face and gray hair. She walks with difficulty, requiring a cane or a friendly arm. Her black-and-white Chihuahua-terrier named Mouse is her primary companion, although she easily relates to people she meets.

Her life history is tortuous.

Jo Ann got off to a difficult start. She was born to a 17-year-old girl in Bellingham. Although the mother and her boyfriend married, her mother rejected Jo Ann at birth and blamed her for her own unhappiness. 

Jo Ann’s mother “disciplined” Jo Ann with heavy switches. Several times she took Jo Ann to juvenile detention. When things became too tense at home, Jo Ann would go to her grandparents’ house. The harsh parenting led to a tendency to rebel.

She started smoking pot in her early teens which led to her being thrown out of the house at 13. Three young women took her in and a biker group “adopted” her. She attended the Street School in the basement of the YMCA but did not complete her GED. She was arrested several times as a juvenile for smoking pot. 

As a young adult, Jo Ann attended Bellingham Vocational College (now Bellingham Technical College) to earn her GED but again dropped out and supported herself with a variety of odd jobs. Methamphetamine, cocaine and alcohol were added to her use of marijuana, complicating an already difficult situation.

On her own — with children

For eight years, Jo Ann, on her own, raised three children, twin daughters and a son. Neither father had any involvement with the children. She struggled with bouts of depression. After an episode of domestic violence by a boyfriend, she overdosed on drugs in an attempt to ease her emotional and physical pain. That led to an involuntary psychiatric admission. Child Protective Services removed her children and eventually removed her parental rights. Bereft, she moved to Texas a few years later where she supported herself as an exotic dancer.

She was arrested in Texas for delivering an “eight ball” (around 3.5 grams) of cocaine and sentenced to 13 years in prison. During her time in prison, she took college courses in office administration, which enabled her after her release to get a job as an administrative assistant at a computer company. The time in prison also allowed her to achieve sobriety.

While in prison, she had begun having serious back problems and chronic pain. Over the course of several years, she had seven back surgeries. She took OxyContin, Percodan and fentanyl under medical supervision, as well as marijuana, to help control the pain. The back problems eventually forced her onto disability in 2005. 

Back to Bellingham

Jo Ann returned to Bellingham in 2006 to help care for her ailing mother. Two years later, her homeless son and a woman, who was also homeless, had a baby boy. Since neither were in a position to care for the child, Jo Ann agreed to raise him. In 2009, just after her grandson turned a year old, the child and his mother were beaten to death by the mother’s boyfriend. 

This was a turning point in her life. She fell into a profound depression and stopped caring about anything. After more than 20 years of sobriety, she resumed smoking methamphetamine, although she says that she no longer lets the meth control her.

At the time of the murders, she was living at Washington Square, a low-income apartment building in Bellingham. For a while she didn’t get out of bed or leave her apartment. Nor did she receive any counseling or other mental health treatment. Although it was against building rules, she burned incense and did cleansing rituals by burning sage in an attempt at self-healing. After repeated warnings, she was evicted in 2013. She has been houseless since then.

Initially Jo Ann lived in her van but later bought a used RV. Since she lives in an RV, she does not consider herself homeless. To avoid the risk that others will try to take her things or vandalize her RV, she parks in areas where there are few houseless or other people living in RVs. And to protect herself, she carries bear spray, pepper spray and a knife. Social Security disability payments sustain her, along with occasionally selling wind chimes, jewelry and sketches to people she meets. She still struggles with depression but is doing better. Having Mouse as a companion has been comforting.

Although she is on a short list for housing through the Opportunity Council, her real reason for hope is that a cousin, Tina, has connected with her and has started helping her in various ways. Most importantly, Tina helped locate Jo Ann’s children, which has given her hopes of connecting with them again.

— Contributed by John Dunne

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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