Being homeless during the COVID-19 crisis

Editor's note: This column is part of a series by Lakeshore residents about their experiences living through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s difficult to follow a stay-at-home order when you are homeless. 

Before this crazy virus turned everybody’s life upside down, my life was basically already hanging by a thread. For the past few months, I had been bouncing between friends’ couches and the place I shared with a long-term boyfriend, which came to an end after he cheated on me. Complicating everything is I have almost no money and I’m a trans woman.

A few weeks ago, my plan to move in with a friend the second week of April seemed to be coming together. Then came Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. It made finding a place for me and my dogs, Hershey and Fenrir, to stay until mid-April nearly impossible. I call the dogs my babies because they feel like my only family. When I get really depressed, my dogs are what keep me going.

Felt like an outsider

Growing up in Zeeland, I have always felt like an outsider and nobody got me. Even now, no one in my family has been willing to help me because I don’t fit their Christian values. I have a handful of friends, but most struggle like me to get by. Still, they are often generous with what they have. 

In recent weeks, I was sleeping on a friend’s couch but I had to leave more than a week earlier than planned because her dad needed to move in after he was evicted. Her dad was also letting my dogs stay with him, which meant now I had to find a place for them until we could move to another friend’s place. 

I called everyone I could think of and put out a plea on Facebook, but no one was willing to take care of my dogs for a few weeks because of concerns about the pandemic. At my wit’s end, I found a local kennel that gave me the best deal I could find, and they are letting me pay in payments. 

A place to stay

A friend who just bought a house said she would let me rent her basement from mid-April until the end of the summer — and, most importantly, I could bring my dogs. Even having a place to stay for six months could give me enough time to save up for something more permanent and get me back on my feet again. Waiting to move in with my friend has been like waiting to go to the Promised Land. 
Emiliah Odinsdottir with her dog, Hershey. For this plan to come together, I need to save up money to pay the kennel fee and my first month’s rent, on top of living expenses and basic needs. I was just fired from a serving job I loved after a customer complained about my service, but I probably would have been laid off a week later like the rest of the staff because of this health crisis. 

I was able to get a job at a grocery store, and I’m trying to get as many hours as I can. While I’m scared of being exposed to this sometimes deadly disease, the store has given employees gloves to wear, and most of the shoppers are wearing masks or gloves or both. 

Not giving up

I don’t have a car, which makes traveling both time-consuming and costly, whether it’s paying a friend gas money or paying to ride the bus, which is no longer an option since social distancing measures have been put in place. Getting help during this time is difficult. I’ve struggled to get a hold of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services after my food stamps and Medicaid, which covers my hormone medication, were abruptly stopped. 

While my life feels overwhelming at times, I haven’t given up on finding happiness. 

My long-term plan is to be a hairstylist because this is a world where I have found acceptance. I was finishing up my cosmetology training when my school closed temporarily in March because of the crisis. At school, I’m accepted as a woman and share the women’s restroom with the other female students. We all live in harmony, and I socialize normally with the other girls there.

Finding shelter

The women’s shelter refused to take me because my state identification card indicates I was born male. I haven't had sex reassignment surgery yet, but I have been on hormone replacement therapy for more than four years, and I look, act and even sound female. 

The idea of going to a men’s shelter, where I would sleep in a room of male strangers and use the common showers terrified me. I was scared someone would attack me.

Turns out, my fears were unfounded. The Holland Rescue Mission provided me with separate accommodations but still let me take my meals with the others staying there. They have all been kind and respectful to me. 

In the end, what we have in common is that we had no place to call home when everyone was ordered to stay home. 

Emiliah Odinsdottir is a Holland-area resident. 

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.