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January 26, 2006

16 Questions for Teresa Strickland


A couple Fridays ago, at 3 p.m., 44-year-old Teresa Strickland walked into St. Vincent De Paul's free dining hall in Eureka and, with the bright sunflower-and-mountain mural on the wall as a backdrop, became the first client to go through Humboldt County's new Homeless Court.

Pro bono attorney Tracy Herrin presented her case, District Attorney Paul Gallegos detailed the charges against her. Judge John Feeney considered the facts and Strickland's efforts to regain control of her life, then dropped all but the least of the charges and gave her a light sentence of community service.

Lighter than it could have been, anyway, said Strickland a few days afterward. But then, her crimes were fairly slight. In short, she'd ignored a small pile of infractions incurred a year ago until they accumulated warrants and her troubles grew into a daunting mountain.

We talked with Strickland at the Multiple Assistance Center, where she's been living for the past five months.


1. What was your case?

Traffic tickets. And being homeless, and mostly being on the street, the last thing you think of is going to court and being fined when tomorrow you don't even know where your next meal's coming from.

2. So you just ignored the tickets because you had other things to deal with?

I have a lot of medical issues that I have to deal with, and if I hadn't been in here, I wouldn't have come as far in my recovery. I would have already been dead on the street.

3. So how did you come to the MAC, how did you get here?

That's a long story. I was sleeping in my daughter's car, here in Eureka, because she was living in a halfway house at the time and unfortunately I couldn't stay with her.

4. How long were staying in her car?

Seven weeks.

5. How did you come to be homeless?

Actually, I came to be homeless due to some poor decisions on my part.

6. Can you talk about it?

Well, I assumed, for one thing, that when I was told I was terminally ill, that SSI would kick in right away. ... It started in Crescent City -- I was running from an abusive situation. I lived in Del Norte County from 1999 on. And my doctor said, "Teresa, you gotta consider that you can't work anymore." [She applied for SSI but has been denied twice. Her attorney is helping her sort that out.]

7. When were you told you're terminally ill?

That was almost three years ago.

8. May I ask what you have?

That's a little personal. But, however, it is in remission. So I'm OK. Yesterday was my last treatment and I'll go in, in a month, and we'll see if everything's OK again, and then I'll be up for a liver transplant.

9. How did you find out about the MAC?

I was going to their [emergency] center over on G Street because I had my granddaughter with me, and I couldn't sleep in the car with my 7-year-old granddaughter. And I said, "Well, you know what, there's gotta be something, a church or something, that will help us." And so I went to a lady from the church -- I believe it was from the Jehovah's Witness -- who told me about the place on G Street and I went there and I filled out a certificate and she handed me a motel voucher. And then when I went back again a week later, she said, "Well, why aren't you trying to get into the MAC?" And she opened the door for that.

10. Back to the traffic ticket -- what exactly happened?

What had happened is the car had died, coming from Fortuna. We had been living at the mission. We had another man's dogs with us. And a friend of mine was trying to work on the car. The dogs were yapping, they've gotta go pee or whatever, and I let them out of the back seat. Well, a CHP officer goes by, and because it's right on 101 -- well you can't tell the dogs they can't go pee. Now, [her friend] had been the one driving when the CHP pulled up behind us and said, "You cannot leave this car here. So I'll follow behind you and she can drive and we'll get it to the off-ramp."

Well, OK, so that's all fine -- until he runs the plates and he finds out the sticker on the plates is no good. Then he pulls us over, and I said, "Well, my wallet is in the trunk of [another] car that has my license in it." So he didn't write me a ticket for no license, just for not having it on me. And then no proof of insurance. You want me to finish this?

11. Sure.

I was arrested on the spot for having the same type of infractions in Crescent City and in San Joaquin County. But being homeless, staying at the mission -- San Joaquin is a long ways away. And Crescent City is a long walk in the rain. OK? And that's all I know how to tell you. When you can't get a bus ticket, or ... . It's a long walk. Either way you look at it, when you're homeless, you have very little resources.

12. And this is why they have Homeless Court.

Exactly. And so even though I wasn't able to clear up those two [in the other counties] yet, my attorney, Tracy Herrin, has said she would continue to go pro bono and continue with my case even though this case has already been taken care of. I'm going to take care of all of them. I told the DA I'm grateful for their time and efforts to be responsible for a lot of us in the community who don't have the resources, or who just out of fear of being incarcerated don't go on down to the courthouse, to take care of fines. That was my number one fear, being incarcerated.

13. Why was it important for you to do this?

I came in the world clean, and I want to go out clean. I've made peace with all of my friends and my foes and my family -- it's taken me a long time. It's taken me a long time.

14. I'm still curious about how this all began. Where were you born?

I was born in Pasadena, Texas, raised in Las Vegas. My parents and I moved there in 1967. Then we moved to Amargosa Valley, which is 100 miles north of Las Vegas. I graduated Beatty High School. ... I had a good life, and I had a good husband for 16 years. I have three beautiful children. I have a granddaughter. And my son, he and his girlfriend are going to have a baby in August. And my [other] daughter Tess still lives [in Vegas] with her dad. She's 15.

15. So, you're wiping your slate clean, you'll be able to get housing -- after that, what?

My whole goal is to get this liver transplant.

16. Beyond that, have you had any time to think about what you want to do?

You really want to hear this? Next summer, I want to take my daughter and my granddaughter to dig up dinosaur bones in South Dakota. My dad took me to dig up dinosaur bones. I was 4. And I still have the dinosaur bone I found. There's one thing you can't give your kids enough of, and that's memories.


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