“I always have a hustle,” Chrysanne O’Dell tells me. We are in a Starbucks, talking about her journey out of homelessness, and she is frank about her obstacles. “My credit sucked, bad financial history, criminal record.”
But her eye for opportunity eventually helped her get out of homelessness.
She comes to our meetings directly from her daily appointment at an Old Town mental illness and addiction treatment clinic. She seems both frail and steely.
She is 61 now, barely 5 feet, slight and rail thin; her long, auburn hair held strictly in check with bands or barrettes. Her clothes are carefully matched, her jewelry prominent.
Born in Athens, Greece, she was adopted by a Greek-American family in Boston who picked her out from photographs. “Growing up, I was a nonconformist, always a square peg in a round hole.”
When Chrysanne was 19, she left her home and family in Boston and moved to California. It was 1973. “I wanted to be a hippie on the corner of Hollywood and Vine,” she says.
In San Diego, she rented a room and registered at ITT Tech for a medical assistantship course. Before she could make it to Hollywood and Vine, she married a man who drank. Sometimes he hit her. They lived in a trailer with no electricity and no water, 3 miles from the Mexican border. This didn’t matter until she gave birth to a daughter at 21. “Then I was homebound. After three months I said, ‘Screw this.’”
They moved to a ranch where her husband trimmed trees in exchange for rent. There followed some good years. They built a tree-trimming business.
“I’d walk up and down streets with handbills. We did ornamental trimming and grafting. Then we got a half-page ad in the phonebook. We had three crews, a mulcher and a stumpgrinder.
“We bought a condo in La Mesa. We had a Broyhill dining room set. One day he came home with the chainsaw, drunk. Goodbye dining room set.”
After he threw her down the stairs, she started squirreling away some of the grocery money. She got away.
Back at her mother’s in Boston, she enrolled at Northeastern University to study abnormal psychology and got a work-study job at a halfway house for men who had done serious time. That led to 10 years as a corrections officer in a women’s state prison at Framingham.
She started doing cocaine with her co-workers.
“I don’t know if I was crazy,” she says. “I’ve always had eating disorders. My brain is strange. Most people will say they do drugs because they want not to feel. I did drugs, in the beginning, to be able to feel.”
A boss sent her to a treatment program. She was clean for a spell, and then one day, after a prison macramé class, one of the inmates threw her newly knotted creation over the fence; instant escape ladder.
“I went up after her and dropped down on top of her,” she says. “She broke her back. I fractured a vertebra in mine.”
Chrysanne was prescribed Demerol for the pain. “After two years the doctor decided it was way addictive and took me off.” She started buying Vicodin and then heroin.
After 21 days in detox, she moved back to California, “still in wicked pain.” On a mission to score some heroin, she crashed a borrowed car and was arrested for speeding and leaving the scene of an accident. “The first time I got in legal trouble.”
This time, 30 days in rehab was followed by intensive maintenance. A sponsor “drug my sick ass to three (AA and NA) meetings a day.”
She was clean from 1989 to 1994, when her mother’s sudden death and a bad breakup sent her veering off course: more drugs, a couple of bad boyfriends. She met her second husband, and they had a son in 1997. But their involvement with a check fraud and identity theft scheme landed them both in prison.
“The picker-of-men I have installed in me is broken. If they’re good, they’re boring.”
She moved to Oregon after leaving prison and in 2000 got a job with the Better Business Bureau.
For years, she made good money, she says, and paid rent on her own apartment. Then she lost the job and, soon after it, the apartment.
She and her son moved in with her daughter’s boyfriend’s father, Bob. The relationship, she is at pains to point out, was platonic. Bob paid the rent, was kind and took care of her.
On July 2, 2015, he died of cancer. “I was completely lost. He was my everything.”
Chrysanne didn’t have enough money to cover the rent. She and her son had to leave by Aug. 16. They stayed. On Aug. 19, while she was out and her son was at work, there was a fire in the apartment.
On Aug. 21, she collapsed on the street and was taken to Legacy Emanuel for six weeks. She gained 30 pounds while being treated for osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone. From there she moved to a nursing home and then into temporary lodging with a friend, a heroin addict who let her stay in exchange for paying the electricity bill. On Feb. 1, 2016, the friend’s son threw them all out.
“I had nowhere to go.” She ended up at Safety Off the Streets, a 70-bed women’s shelter in Northwest Portland.
“The first three nights I slept on a mat on the floor. They throw you out at 7:30 a.m.,” she says. “I couldn’t walk fast enough to beat the cold.”
After a few days in the shelter she scored a bunk bed. “Less traffic, more space. We ran our corner.”
She says she never exchanged her purse for a backpack. “That would mean I was homeless.”
She got a copy of the Rose City Resource booklet from Street Roots. “I called everyone, every day. I went to appointments that I had no business going to. I’m OCD. My belt has to match my shoes has to match my underwear. Mornings are difficult. But I can fill out endless forms.”
But property management companies wanted nothing to do with her or her bad credit or her criminal record, she says.
At Northwest Pilot Project, or NWPP, where low-income seniors are helped with housing and transportation needs, she saw a housing specialist who offered assistance. However, it looked to be a long process and Chrysanne was impatient.
She heard about a friend of a friend of a friend who would be moving out of a room in a house. Crucially, there was no property management company. The rent was $450 per month, utilities included. She called the homeowner and told him she was clean and could carry her own weight.
She went back to NWPP. “I told Marilee, the housing specialist, about the room, about losing Bob, losing my stuff, losing my physical capabilities. Marilee asked how soon we could put together a rental agreement. I got the agreement to her the next day.”
There was no furniture other than the bed, but NWPP gave her bedding, a quilt and a crocheted blanket, and put her in touch with the Community Warehouse to get furniture. NWPP helped her get started with the rent.
For a moment, she can’t speak. She remembers when she first moved in.
“I cried the first three days from relief, and cried again the next three days from loneliness.”
After our third meeting at Starbucks, I drive Chrysanne home. She shows me the garden she is tending – her plants on the coffee table in the living room. In her bedroom she has a pretty trunk. She carried it with her when she first left Boston. Her albums are in it now — Cream, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin.
She has Bob’s “Star Wars” figures and his dragon music box, her share of his ashes stored inside it.
All her journals are in her room, too. She is working on a book, titled “Both Sides of the Wall,” about her time in prison and as a correctional officer.
She pats a red Dustbuster that Marilee at Northwest Pilot Project provided. It helps her keep her belongings free of Buddy’s fur. He’s the house golden retriever.
“He sheds like a mother,” she says, rubbing his ears,“ but I adore him.”
Finding Home is a series of stories about people who have experienced homelessness, and found their way home.