Corinne Higgins is rebuilding her life the way she decorated her new apartment for the holidays.
One piece at a time, one day at a time.
“I started in early November, and every time I got paid, I bought a couple ornaments,” she said. “And by the time we put (the Christmas tree) up, we had a lot.”
The ornaments on the tree, the stockings on the wall, the small signs that read “Thankful. Grateful. Blessed” and “Together we make a family,” are all testaments to how far Corinne and her three children have come to have a warm, safe home heading into 2018.
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“It’s empowering to think that six months ago I could not have fathomed being able to buy my kids a Christmas gift,” said Corinne.
Corinne’s life came apart in the spring after a painful separation and divorce, and a traumatic custody and court fight. In the process, she lost her home, car and job. When a school social worker told her about CATCH, she got advice and assistance from the nonprofit that gets families facing homelessness a place to live and other help. Corrine and the kids moved into their new Boise apartment in August.
The year’s ups and downs were underscored at Thanksgiving, when the small family took stock of its blessings. With the help of a CATCH food box, they had a traditional dinner with all the trimmings. The girls wore their best dresses, 10-year-old Daniel his suit. And they expressed gratitude for having 15-year-old Angela with them, after she tried to take her own life in September. As Angela recounts the family’s Thanksgiving, it brings Corinne and the children to tears, and sobs from baby sister Elizabeth, 6.
“We just had Thanksgiving dinner and everybody told me how sad they would have been,” said Angela, barely above a whisper. “There wouldn’t have been a dinner, because they wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
“I’ve been a mom since I was 15,” said Corinne. “Angela is absolutely my saving grace. She’s the only consistency I’ve ever had. And to think about being without her — there’s no way.”
She and Angela both say they want to talk about what they’ve been through, to help others who may find themselves feeling desperate, hopeless or without choices.
“My hope is that when you put this story out there, people who are in my shoes, (where) I was six or eight months ago, say, ‘There is a way for me to get out, to do it without feeling like I’m going to be homeless forever,’ ” Corinne said.
Corinne’s courage has won her admirers at CATCH. “One of the impressive things about Corinne is that she owns her story and feels compelled to share it,” said Wyatt Schroeder, the executive director.
“I really wish people would understand that homelessness is not a choice in life,” said Corinne. “Sometimes you just need that extra support, because I did not feel like I was capable of doing it. I felt that life had completely brought me to my knees.”
‘WHERE DO YOU EVEN START?’
When her marriage ended and life tumbled into pieces, Corinne and the kids stayed with roommates, then family and friends. Then there were nights when Corinne found places for the kids, but she slept in a borrowed car. When she heard about CATCH, Corinne called and made an appointment.
CATCH — Charitable Assistance To Community’s Homeless — serves as the intake point for a multiagency, Valleywide partnership called Our Path Home, which meets with clients and figures out what help they need. In some cases, they send people to the Salvation Army or Terry Reilly Health Services. Sometimes, as with Corinne, families end up working with CATCH and one of its case workers.
“It starts with us saying our first priority is to get you into a safe and stable house. ... We’re here, walking alongside you,” said Schroeder.
The philosophy is simple: housing first, he said. “If we want to have the success in health or financial independence, or education for the kids, we have to first focus as aggressively as possible on getting someone into stable housing. That’s the case manager working along with the family, doing the good old-fashioned housing hustle.”
That’s help with house-hunting, application fees, deposits and rents, with moving in and stocking that new home. Together they establish a financial independence plan, and assistance can include financial literacy, budgeting, how to access to health care, counseling and more. The average assistance lasts five months.
Case workers connect clients with resources, yes, but they also learn the language of trauma and homelessness, how to talk with people who have experienced any number of crises. People may not be able to plan for their future if they can’t contemplate a future they want to live in.
“Once they are in housing again, the kids can be kids again,” said Schroeder. “The adults can lessen their toxic stress, and the frontal cortex of the brain starts having its executive functioning again, and they can think about employment and think about future savings.”
For Corinne, CATCH’s Jesse Fessenden helped her “dissect” her needs. Corinne had a job, so she got help finding and furnishing her apartment, including new beds and used furniture.
“Internally you kind of know that you can make it, but it’s like, where do you even start?” said Corinne. “It feels like the entire world is caving in on you, and to figure out which is the first piece to put back together seems impossible. And if it had not been for Jesse and the CATCH program, I would not have known where to even start.”
The help continues: food at Thanksgiving, gifts at Christmas through a sponsor family, CATCH family night at Pojos Family Fun Center. Corinne plans to volunteer with CATCH in the future, to pay forward the help she received.
“My kids just love seeing Jesse, she makes their whole day,” said Corrine. “I just feel God opened doors for me without me even turning the knob.”
‘MOM GOT IT HANDLED’
Corinne sits on her couch, the children nestled in close, listening to her tell her story, chiming in occasionally.
Life’s a work in progress, with an emphasis on the progress. Angela feels at home at Frank Church High School, the alternative school where other teens with their own struggles are understanding and supportive. The staff at Hillcrest Elementary where Daniel and Elizabeth go are heroes in Corinne’s book, helpful with Daniel’s diabetes and always willing to listen. Corinne is thankful for a job and co-workers she likes, in accounting at Central Garden and Pet.
The message she shares is that it’s OK to ask for help. “My kids didn’t know that my first electric bill was paid by a different program,” she said. “They just knew that Mom got it handled. … They feel safe and they feel stable.”
As the conversation winds down, the kids finally wander off to other activities, and Corinne reflects.
“I’m not going to lie, some days it is still a struggle and some days I still stress about it,” she said.
“At first I felt like I was failing my kids by not being able to do it on my own. But ultimately it comes down to: I took the resources offered and I did what I had to do to get myself to a point where I can provide for them on my own.”
An appliance is beeping and Daniel shouts questions about the brownies he’s mixing in the kitchen, and Elizabeth invents an elaborate game for the family to play. The house rings with noisy, happy chaos. “Yeah, it’s our lives. It’s getting there. Slowly,” Corrine said.