Part-time YWCA administrative assistant overcomes homelessness, addiction to reunite with son
Who is Francine Whitman?
Race / ethnicity (self identify): Caucasian
Resident: South Side, Syracuse, New York / “South edge of downtown”
Occupation: Administrative assistant at the YWCA
Hourly wage: $9 an hour, with benefits
Education level: Vocational degree and some college
Number of children: 2
Number of residents living in household: 2
A sit down with Francine Whitman
Q: Where were you a year ago?
A: A year-and-a-half ago, I was panhandling and living behind an abandoned building on James Street. I celebrated a year of being sober on January 10 this year (2015) … I’ve overcome a lot — domestic violence, addiction, homelessness, dealing with Child Protective Services.Q: Can you share more about your children?
A: Prior to coming into the Y, my children were in foster care. I have two children — well actually I have five children but that’s another story. I gave three up for adoption by choice. My two children were in foster care. Ethan is 9, Matthew is 18. Ethan lived with his paternal aunt through the foster care system from April 2014 until we were reunified through the Child Protection Service in April 2015. My 18-year-old lives on his own and comes by to visit often. (The YWCA provides women and their children with a residence program that contains 55 units of affordable housing.)Q: Can you describe a brief work history and any special skills?
A: I was on disability for 10 years and prior to that just cashier, groundskeeper jobs for apartment buildings, things like that. I would say I’m a very resourceful person ... I’m able to get whatever information I need.
Q: What do you like most about the job you have?
A: I think I have a lot of good mentors, strong women that I work with. I think it’s a good place to network. And I think they’re very patient here with my lack of work history. And also they’re very understanding in regards to my childcare.
Q: How do you get around Syracuse? What do you use for transportation?
A: I just recently acquired a car.
Q: Right now, what is your biggest challenge you face daily?
A: I would say my hearing is probably one for me. And the other one I have is just multitasking my son’s needs and my needs … it gets real crazy sometimes. Like yesterday he made a school project that I needed to bring to school before work and be on time to work and have him be on time to school and everybody not get in a car accident and everybody lives and shows up on time. You know just multitasking everybody’s needs.
Q: Does your son go to one of the city schools?
A: No, he falls under the McKinney-Vento Act and he’s able to be schooled in East Syracuse. The McKinney-Vento Act is for homeless and displaced children. Since we live in the Y, we are considered temporary — it’s not permanent housing. Even though we’ve been there for a significant amount of time, we still fall under that. And the school district has to pay for the transportation. That’s their responsibility, not the city’s. They send this big bus down for him; I call it his own limo.
Q: What are your options for job searching in Syracuse?
A: I haven’t really explored many options other than to look at what qualifications my desired future employers desire. I’ve only been here three months. I signed up for computer classes over at CNY Works. So I start a computer class next week. I’m going to start with the basics. Even though I know how to Google, I’ve never had a formal education with the computer if you will. So I’m starting with basic computer literacy and then Microsoft Word I and then II. So my idea is to get as many of those desirable skills that these future employers want underneath me now while I can do that. I’ve got a car, so now I need to do some real work. I’m not really exploring options. I think just being here after not working for 10 years. Even when I did work 10 years ago I didn’t maintain my employment. This is probably almost the longest job I’ve had. I would stay long enough to get paid and whatnot.
Q: In what ways has your current job helped you?
A: Just the routine of coming in and being on time and being dressed appropriately and being in tact is really where I’m focusing. And I know that might sound silly, but now I’m going to take on that computer class. You’ve got to remember I’ve really not been a responsible mother until April (2015). I originally took on the responsibility of my child. I’m gradually increasing. I’m going to increase my education and just do the next right thing. With him being a young child, you just have to make sure your childcare options are covered whether it’s school break or he’s sick or it’s a snow day or it’s (school) two hours late.
Q: What do you want others to know about you as an underemployed person?
A: I don’t consider myself underemployed. I’m on social security, and my son is on public assistance, and I get an hourly wage. So I don’t have a burning desire to take on more hours. I’m lucky in that regard.
Q: Is there anything that you would want people to know about you as a person?
A: I am a firm believer that, considering where I was a year ago, I was homeless, living outside, with no children, and not a whole lot of hope — that if you start with your small successes and build upon them, you can really get anywhere you want in life. I mean, I can’t stress this enough. I walked on the street, and people did not even recognize me anymore. I ran into somebody the other day, and they were not very nice to me back a year or two ago. And they didn’t even recognize me, so I re-introduced myself, and the person’s eyes were looking at me in disbelief. That made me feel really good, and it saddens me because they felt like their eyes were lying to them. My point is that, if you want to do anything, you can do it if you apply yourself, and believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that believe in you.
Q: Could you elaborate on that?
A: I think that’s one of the biggest things for myself, is that I am surrounded by women where I live and where I work that believe in me, and are my friends for who I am and not what I have. So I look back, and I look at where I was — living behind an abandoned building, and hanging out Downtown. And here I am today. My older son visits, I have a job, a car, a bank account. If I can do it, I know anybody else can. We support each other. In a healthy way. I think healthy relationships are the key to my success now, but they were also the barrier in my past. I think I was just as smart a year ago as I am today, in most regards, but when you have boyfriends or other friends that are addicts, or whatever, if your relationships aren’t healthy, it’s going to hinder any process, whatever it is that you’re trying to do. Once I separated myself from the negativity, I was kind of by myself until these healthy relationships could develop. You’re better off by yourself than by those negative influences because it allows you to grow, and it starts to let other people in, because healthy people don’t want to be around unhealthy people. Like my dad used to say, birds of a feather flock together.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: My past successes. I think the first thing for me that began to give me hope was when I was reunified with my son, Ethan, the 9-year-old. I think most women that have children in the Child Protective (Services) system look at the CPS system as this big, bad agency that they can’t conquer, and to a mutually satisfying arrangement. When I got him back home, they were in agreement and I was in agreement, but it wasn’t like me getting my kid back; it was them giving him back. I think once I had succeeded in that, I became very proud. The women around me at the residence were very proud of me. We have other women there that are struggling, trying to get their children back. I think that was huge for me.
Q: What causes you to feel discouraged?
A: I don’t think anything does anymore. To be honest, after the things I’ve been through it’s really hard for me to have a bad day. I just put things in perspective. Nothing probably makes me feel discouraged anymore. It doesn’t sound right, but it’s true. What makes me most likely to give up is when I’m not grounded — if I don’t have enough discipline to go to bed on time, or to do my chores. Like today I’m at work, I’m thinking about how I need to mop my floor, because my priorities weren’t where they should’ve been yesterday. I’ve got to be grounded, whether it’s getting enough sleep, or eating, or doing my grocery shopping. Self-care, you know. When I neglect the self-care, I become more likely to want to give up, and I don’t want to go to work.
Q: What were you doing this past Friday night?
A: My 18-year-old son brought his girlfriend over for the first time. He actually trusted me enough to introduce me to his girlfriend. We had burritos and tacos, and he stayed for a little bit and we visited, and then I hung out with my little guy and went to bed after they left. He let me into a little more personal space of his. Just him bringing his girlfriend around was huge — before, I could barely even get him to come home with me.
Q: And your typical weekend?
A: Lately it’s been crazy because (after I got my car), for the first month, I spent driving it around in circles. I put like 750 miles on my car in a month. And then last weekend I got my Internet and cable hooked up, so now you can’t get me out of the house. It’s family activities, like last weekend with my son, just looking at the activities for the Winterfest. They’re usually family-oriented. Whether it’s cooking, or hopefully cleaning. My Internet has me hostage. I’m overtired and need to mop my floors. One of my biggest struggles is, whether it was the car or the Internet, as I acquire more fun stuff, or even more responsibilities, is learning to ground myself — to meet my obligations.
Q: Could you elaborate on being grounded?
A: To turn the Internet off at 10, or to just do the next right thing. When I got the car, I was driving all over the place, when clearly I probably needed to be doing something else. And finally I put the car back in the driveway, and I go and turn the Internet on. It comes across as my old risk-taking behavior; as soon as everything is OK, I’ve got to go do something else. Even if it’s positive, as I’m saying now. But now, trying to manage all those bills is kind of scary for me. Now that I have a car, I have car insurance. So now I need to stop buying Chinese and Burger King. So I have something desirable in the fridge that will stop me from wanting the Chinese food. I need to stay grounded. Because my old habits want to kick in, where I could just do whatever I want and notice very little consequences. And now, my stakes are higher. And I have my little man counting on me, too. If I don’t pay the car bill, we don’t have a car. Then how is he going to look at me?
Q: Do you have a hobby? What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I like to try new things now. Whether it’s a place to eat, or to go someplace. I have opportunities now that I’ve never had before, so I like to try to embrace those. To me they’re new, and I guess to a normal person — for example, taking my kid ice-skating; that’s a new experience for me. It’s not that it costs very much money, but it wasn’t a place I was at emotionally to embrace these new ideas. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, and it’s not just a financial thing. It’s being comfortable in my own skin. And to know that I’m equal. That I have clean clothes, and that I have money to buy him a hot chocolate. I can look somebody else in the eye now, versus before, and I can view myself as an equal. I’m much more confident than I used to be, and I think I’ve got a lot of reason to be. I think that the older I get — I don’t know if it’s the older and more sober I get — but the older I get, as I hear in the 12-step meetings, and I can really resonate with it — what other people think of me is not any of my business. I don’t place so much value on whatever other people think of me. I’m comfortable with me, and it’s something I’ve never been able to be. I could’ve had a hundred bucks in my pocket five years ago and I wouldn’t have taken my kids someplace, because I wasn’t comfortable with me. So I love embracing new experiences. I have a lot of options, and a lot of choices. Recovery gives you choices. Everyone has different ones in recovery, but it’s really cool to have choices.
Q: What is the job you would like to have now?
A: I either want to do beginning case management or shelter support, something in that arena. But I don’t want to be stuck at a desk. I also have a page on Facebook. It does some outreach for homeless advocacy. It’s called Homeless in Syracuse Ny. I’ve had some minimal success. I don’t devote a lot of time to it, so for what time I have devoted I’ve received like 60 pairs of socks, hats, gloves. And I carry them in my trunk if I see somebody that needs them. I’m doing a lot of that on my own, and I’m also going to be doing the Homeless Coalition (Coalition for the Homeless) with two of our case managers. And that’s what I meant about the networking here at the beginning is being exposed to people I would not normally be exposed to in a normal environment. My ultimate job, like I said before, is case management. Using my experiences to help somebody else. I think I would find that empowering, and it makes the world a better place and makes my world a better place.
If you’ve been following this series by Inspiration for the Nation, it’s now a good time to take stock of your level of financial preparedness, particularly in today’s uncertain business/political climate.