Michelle H. is a strong and endearing woman who has a lot to smile about these days.
But a year ago, she was in a very different place, both physically and mentally.
She was living in a North Portland residence that was a former nursing home. Residents were disruptive and could come and go all hours of the night. The place felt chaotic and overwhelming to Michelle.
“It took a lot of guts to go through what I did for five years in that place and not have a nervous breakdown,” she said. “I was at my lowest point when I was living at that house. I picked myself up and I told myself, ‘We’re going to make things better for you.’”
Michelle found her strength through memories of a loving mentor from childhood.
“When I was going through a bad trauma as an adult, I would just think of the times I had with my great aunt and how serene her congregation was,” Michelle said. “It would just help me get through whatever I needed to.”
Michelle was born in Denver and was adopted by a Portland family. She described her adoptive family as abusive, with the saving exceptions of her Great Aunt Lillian and Uncle Orville.
“I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness,” Michelle said. “When I was a little girl, Newberry’s, a five-and-dime store, was in town, and my great aunt would take me out for lunch there. Afterwards we used to have such a good time preaching on street corners. I always remember that’s where I was the happiest.
“My uncle on my mom’s side was a missionary. He would come visit us about three times a year, and I would be nothing but his shadow,” she said. “Everything about my uncle would make a person laugh, and he would inspire me with the Bible. He would just make me feel like I was the most special person in the world to him.”
After a difficult childhood and a struggle with alcoholism, Michelle has been sober for 10 years.
“I just snapped out of it,” she said, “because I thought, ‘Well, those people really loved me.’”
Now Michelle is moving toward a better life with a positive attitude, perseverance and a supportive community.
“I took it upon myself to get my own apartment,” Michelle said.
She began to get back on track with Central City Concern and then with LifeWorks NW, a nonprofit mental health and addiction organization. Through LifeWorks NW, Michelle applied for different housing and put herself on several waiting lists a year ago.
Michelle began seeing a counselor at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare and resumed taking her medications and following up on her housing. She moved into a new apartment in June.
“I was hoping, but I didn’t expect to have the royal treatment,” Michelle said, delighted. “I didn’t expect to be in a beautiful, beautiful place that has a courtyard that’s magnificent. It’s quiet and it’s peaceful, and there’s lots of garden area.”
Upon moving in, “I felt like I achieved something,” she said. “I felt very, very proud of myself.
“I have one of the best counselors that I have ever had. He makes me feel like I’m not a lost cause, you know? That there’s a lot of hope for me.”
Michelle sells the newspaper between 6 and 10 a.m. at Zupan’s Markets and Starbucks on West Burnside Street.
“Street Roots helps me get my mind off my own problems,” Michelle said. “I am working, and it’s hard work to be that disciplined and stand there for hours. And so it’s dignifying.”
Michelle has become part of the community at her selling spot. Customers and employees have brought her coffee and donuts, and recently one gave her something special: “My birthday was a week and a half ago, and somebody got me a huge bouquet of flowers.”
“It’s just coming my way,” Michelle said with a big smile. “I worked really hard for it. I think it paid off in the long run. I’m one of the fortunate ones.”