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Monday, May 23, 2005 | Andrea McDonald’s keys lie on the desk in her office at the homeless veterans’ facility and treatment center where she has worked for nearly two years. The keys, held together by a black-and-gold Narcotics Anonymous key chain, do not simply unlock doors and cabinets; each is a tangible symbol of how far she’s come. Fewer than five years ago, Andrea and her four children had no keys at all. They were homeless.
In April of 2000, Andrea, now a recovering drug addict, was living with her kids in a motor home. When it broke down, left with no place to live, Andrea broke into a rental house that was being renovated between tenants. “I just parked in the driveway like I lived there,” she says. “I lied to my kids; I told them it was OK for us to be there.” Her daughters were 6-, 8-, and 11-years-old at the time; her son was 4.
But that situation didn’t last, and Andrea found her way to Escondido’s Interfaith Community Services, where she entered its treatment program and eventually acquired housing. “If it wasn’t for Interfaith,” she says, “I never would have made it.” She has been clean and sober since June 4, 2000.
Interfaith’s Career Center helped her discover that her ideal job would be to help the homeless, and she began classes at Palomar College. She graduated in May 2003 and by June was working at her current job, as a health care case manager for homeless veterans. “Interfaith put gas in the car when I needed it,” she remembers. “When the kids needed shoes, we went back. We went back for groceries. Interfaith was able to meet those needs.” Andrea and her kids now live in Pacific Beach, in a small house she calls “a dollhouse,” three blocks from the ocean. In December, she rolled off welfare, and she now pays for her own medical insurance.
Though she and her family have left Escondido, Andrea still returns to Interfaith to give speeches to donors. “It’s an honor to be asked,” she says. “My story can help with contributions to other families. I never thought my homelessness would be an asset.”
Her past is especially an asset at work, when dealing with her clients who are homeless or struggling with addiction. “It’s easier because I’ve been there,” she says. “I understand all the needs.”
She worries most about the chronically homeless, the ones she still remembers clearly from her own days on the streets. “People would accept me and tell me where to go for a meal, where to go to get shoes for my kids. Seeing people who were so good at being homeless scared me. I didn’t want to stay homeless. This pushed me to recovery.”
Andrea’s struggle with drugs began when she was a teenager. She was the oldest girl in a family of six children, and she took care of the little ones. “I think I got tired of being the good girl,” she says. “I hung out with kids who smoked pot. I wanted to be cool. Then I took my dad’s bottle of vodka, and that made me popular.”
When she was 18, she married a man who she’d known for six weeks. The marriage lasted a few years, and Andrea graduated from marijuana and alcohol to street drugs. “I never saw the harm in it,” she says. “I just thought it was like having a drink. I never saw the harm I was doing to my kids. All my kids have different dads. That is something I never would have wanted. I was living in a fog.”
When she first got a key to an apartment, it was an important symbol: she had a home again. And the keys she eventually added to her key ring symbolized even more: the responsibilities of her new job, the trust of her employers, the faith of the treatment program in her recovery.
One of her keys, for example, unlocks the medication cupboard at the veteran’s facility; part of her job is to dispense prescription drugs to the veterans. “That I have the trust of my employer to do that, as an addict – it blows my mind,” she says. “This is a major part of my job, and I’m privileged to do it.” She opens the cupboard twice a day, five days a week, to administer drugs to patients. She has other keys that unlock rooms filled with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and her employers’ trust in her is complete. “I’m proud to be an addict in recovery,” she says, “and it’s a blessing to have a job where I don’t have to hide that.”
Two more keys open the building and storage room where she meets with her 12-step group. She has a car key, her house key, and a key to her son’s tool box, which she sees as poignant as well; she has done a lot of mending with her children as well as the rest of her family. “My family has welcomed me back,” she says. “It’s nice to be part of a family.”
Andrea’s three daughters smile out at her from a photograph on her desktop as she picks up her keys. It’s almost time for med call. She walks across the street to the room where the drugs are kept.
She sets up a wooden board to create a makeshift countertop by the window. She readies a pitcher of water and small paper cups. A big binder – Medication Weekly Log Book – records who comes by to take which meds. She smiles as she inserts her key into the cupboard’s lock. Each client has a Ziploc bag containing his or her medication.
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Midge Raymond grew up in North County and recently returned to the San Diego area after nearly 18 years on the east coast, where most recently she taught journalism at Boston University and wrote for Bostonia magazine.