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HomeLife In the BerkshiresHomeless in the...

Homeless in the Berkshires: A personal story

I hope the courage to tell my story helps others understand that homelessness can happen to anyone.

My name is Rita Dichele, and I am considered homeless. I reside at Construct’s Women in Transition House, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. How I came to Construct is not a unique story. In fact, what happened to me could result in homelessness for anyone. My story is as follows.

I am 61 years old and disabled for multiple reasons that includes an auto immune disease disorder.

Rita Dichele and Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct Inc.

Despite my disability, I have been able to obtain three Masters Degrees that have allowed me to teach graduate students, principally online. In addition, I have performed extensive community work in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, serving as a member on town boards. Currently, I facilitate a discussion group at the Claire Teague Senior Center. I am also a volunteer at Construct.

My story realty starts with being a caregiver to my mother for 10 years. Mom and I lived together and pooled our sources of income to pay the rent, utilities, food, and other household expenses. We lived in what might be considered a high-end apartment, a comfortable lifestyle. When my dad died my mom was left with enough income to support us in the manner we both were used to. My dad was a pharmacist who provided for his wife and four children, never asking anyone of his loved ones to go without. In fact, I grew up rich and was often the envy of my peers. As a child my mother dressed us in only the best, having shopped at what was the equivalent of the stores we know today, Macy’s or Nordstrom. I remember my friends’ parents bought their clothes that back in the day were called five and dime stores. I never thought I was better than my friends, as we were taught not to look down upon anyone, let alone those individuals who were not as fortunate as we were. So, it made sense to continue with a luxury lifestyle — all too familiar to mom and me.

Participants in Construct’s walk against homelessness proceed west along Route 23 to Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

However, the rent was high in our 1,200 square foot apartment with additional expenses of electric heat and central air. Initially, we were fine meeting our expenses with mom’s Social Security, pension, inheritance, and my part-time work as an adjunct professor. The rent, though, was increasing every time we renewed the lease. When we paid our first monthly rent in 2006 it was $1,150. By the time mom died in 2015 it was $1,500 which according to the landlord was not even market value rent for the Shrewsbury neighborhood we lived in. The rent was increasing, but our incomes were fixed. We used mom’s inheritance to manage our bills; however, soon these funds were exhausted. Nevertheless, we continued living above our means; perhaps, no different from our neighbors. I often felt as if we were living on the edge, meeting bills month to month without opportunity to save money.

Meanwhile, we were both on the lease; therefore, when mom died I was legally responsible for the rent. In addition, to paying rent with my small and meager income, I was now faced with paying all of the household bills plus my own personal expenses. As soon as my mom died, I became poor and was suddenly no different from the kids I grew up with.

Rita Dichele’s room at Construct Inc.

The financial problems I inherited were because I thought mom had two life policies, naming me as beneficiary. Indeed I was the beneficiary but only to one small policy; the larger policy unbeknownst to me had lapsed. Unfortunately, I thought the larger policy was paid in advanced before my father had died. When I learned about the lapsed policy, I failed to recognize the severity of my situation, in the false hope that I could pay my living expenses on one part-time income. Soon I missed paying two months’ rent that would eventually cause my landlord to serve me eviction papers. I was required to go to housing court in Worcester to either face a mediator or judge. The landlord played hardball, insisting that the case be heard by a judge. I faced the judge without any legal representation, while the landlord’s lawyer argued that I be evicted. The judge subsequently ordered me to vacate my apartment, New Year’s Eve, 2015. As the judge’s gavel pounded, so did my heart.

I managed to drive home that day feeling numb, denying the gravity of the situation. In time, the numbness would wane only to be replaced by anxiety, anger, sadness and depression. In less than three weeks I would be homeless. I turned to my friends for help but to no avail; they were unable to offer me a place to live either because their landlords wouldn’t permit it, my presence could disrupt their marriages, or there just wasn’t any room. Needless to say, I was crushed. There were many panic-ridden thoughts racing through my mind.

At the eleventh hour, I found a place to live in the Berkshires, thanks to a friend of a friend. I moved in January 1, 2016, which started my homeless career of couch-surfing. I stayed in that place for seven months, fearing the worst of being homeless. Eventually, it happened again. I was faced with finding a place to live because the house owner was having financial problems, possibly facing foreclosure. I was devastated. I liked this place I now called home. How could this be happening to me again? Finally, I moved in with someone I had known for more than 20 years. At the time, she needed help paying her mortgage, and I needed a place to live. I lived there for ten months only to be blind-sided by my friend needing to use my space for an Air B&B. Once again, I was homeless.

At Construct’s 29th Walk this Way, Great Barrington Selectboard members Bill Cooke, at left, and Ed Abrahams with Construct Inc. director Jane Ralph.

Luckily, I moved into Construct on June 1st and have a large private bedroom that I have decorated mainly with my own belongings. I am quite comfortable at Construct, a place I call home.

However, my comfort level does not negate the fact that I need to find affordable and permanent housing.

So, as I conclude my story hindsight tells me I have made my share of mistakes, especially financially. However, my poor financial choices were not the result of a substance abuse problem or criminal activity. I became displaced initially by living paycheck to paycheck with two incomes followed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I hope the courage to tell my story helps others understand that homelessness can happen to anyone. All of the homeless are not the dregs of society. Some of the homeless can be neighbors who through no fault of their own got into financial trouble.

So, moving forward, I have decided to be an advocate for the homeless population. As I mentioned, I volunteer for Construct. I am a receptionist and tutor, and will soon be facilitating a women’s peer support that has the support and guidance of Jane Ralph, Executor Director of Construct.

In conclusion, this article is the first of a series that I will be writing regarding the homeless problem in the Berkshires. My next article will focus on Jane Ralph’s work as well as her perspective on the homeless population.


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