Homeless In the Dead of Winter by Valerie J. Nixon
Each deep breath I took was painful, burning my lungs with the bitter cold. I would breath shallow, panting like an animal just to exhale into my blanket, trying to warm the air before I sucked it back up into my lungs. Many days I just wanted to quit trying, to give up. I would dream of how my body would be found, blue, stiff, covered in snow, another nameless woman found dead in the spring thaw just off a high country logging road, in the vast Stanislaus forest.
The nearly 3 years I spent homeless had been both the worst years of my life, and the best. A statement like that requires a detailed explanation, as instantly one would think that I was a drug addict, alcoholic and/or mentally ill to end up homeless by my mid 40‘s. Actually, none of those could describe my fall from working middle class to one of the Shadow People, homeless and destitute, living in my beat-up car. Nothing could be farther from the truth, nothing could have prepared me for where I would end up and the betrayal of those who were responsible.
In 1998 I bought a lovely 4 bedroom home in Discovery Bay, a wonderful family community in the heart of the Delta region, found between SF Bay Area to the west and the San Joaquin central valley to the east. It always seemed to be sunny and warm in Discovery Bay, where clear blue skies and sea gulls fly freely overhead. The only sound that travels on the average weekday is the laughter of children playing in the school yard a few blocks from my home. 3 of my 4 children lived there with me after I filed for divorce from my husband of 11 years. We all attended school, my children went to the local elementary and jr high schools and I traveled to Pittsburg to attend Los Medanos Community college. I had hoped to get an AA degree, or at least to sharpen my trade skills in order to support my children after my almost 15 year career in the Construction field ended with a job related accident in 1995.
Something so idyllic can’t last for long when you are dealing with domestic violence. I found myself on the losing end of the divorce, all that had not been fought over was the custody of the children until he discovered that the children were the only things I cared about. By 2001, my home was in foreclosure due to the financial strain of trying to work, attend school and protect myself and my children. One thing that is not understood by most people is that domestic violence doesn’t end with the filing of divorce, but actually is known to increase in intensity for some of the worst cases. I knew that losing my home would not be enough for my ex husband as he then filed for sole custody of our children in the Marin family court.
It was terrifying to know that lying and perjury would never be prosecuted in this courthouse and whomever won their case was the one person who was willing to do the most damage to the children. I was told that I had failed to protect my children from our abuser, their father, and I faced losing custody to the state if I didn’t take immediate action. I entered a DV shelter and filed the appropriate legal paperwork. The children and I were subsequently moved into another, more secure shelter when my ex-husband hired someone to locate the shelter we were in and threatened my life. I notified the DA’s office that we had to be moved and why. I called the family court services dept, Judge John Sutro Jr and our assigned mediator Mamie Walters, leaving messages asking what my legal position was if I could not protect myself and attend my scheduled custody hearing. I asked for help and protection as well as a continuance of the hearing. I waited for a response and registered the kids in school and attended all the required meetings in order to legally receive DV services through the shelter.
I was arrested after my ex-husband Patrick Karinen, his attorney Jan Eric Bolt and Judge John A Sutro, Jr met behind closed doors in an illegal exparte hearing to change custody over to Mr. Karinen. To give the appearance of this exparte hearing being legal, it was noted on the court forms that I attended the hearing in a phone conference. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that didn’t prevent Marin DA agent Patricia Stafford from filing a court order for my arrest based on this fraudulent custody order.
Kidnapping. Bail standard for a charge of kidnapping by a stranger would be $50,000. For a parent who is being charged with custodial interference, standards run from $10,000 to 50,000 depending on whether there is a history of criminal activity by the defendant. Bail for a protective mother who entered a domestic violence shelter on the advice of the DA’s office was set at $500,000.00. To change a set bail amount, the judge would need to have a representative attorney for the accused at the hearing… except apparently in Marin County where state and federal rules don’t necessarily apply.
I spent the following 6 years living on the edge of homelessness, often off the mercy and kindness of friends, sleeping in my car, begging for work and crying over not being allowed to parent my children. I motioned the court for discovery and attorney fees to help my case and was denied each time. I suffer from chronic hepatitis, presumably contracted from the less than sanitary conditions found in the Marin County jail where I was held for 4 months before pleading guilty to a crime I didn’t commit. I suffer from severe physical and emotional issues and am now under both medical and psychiatric care for PTSD and the brain chemical changes that happen when faced with years and years of unrelenting trauma. I fear homelessness again, as Marin County has threatened to issue a warrant for my arrest for failing to pay child support for the children I wasn’t allowed to see, based on the fraudulently obtained order and the never legal custody order. It is shameful and embarrassing to admit that homelessness again may be my only option so that I can use the housing money for another attorney to fight yet another losing case in front of the same unethical judges.
It is now January 2007, again one of the coldest winters on record. Today, as I passed by the homeless men sitting outside Wal-Mart, struggling to look them in the eye, I faced them and said hello, how are you today? I passed out some fleece scarves I made. Most don’t ask for money or food, they merely express surprise at the unexpected attention and respond with a reluctant “fine, I’m fine, thank you for asking”. It is hard to imagine these were family men, members of loving families, fathers, brothers and sons. I wonder what led them to this spot in life and if there are circumstances beyond their control which keep them here.
I promised that I would clarify why this time in my life could also be the best, and I must say that I am comforted in knowing that I was not one of the judges or lawyers that proved to be unethical and immoral. At least I can sleep at night knowing that much, for whatever it’s worth, that is important to me.
Stop Family Violence is a project of The Tides Center,
a nonprofit public charity exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Stop Family Violence, 331 West 57th Street #518, New York, NY 10019