The Journey Home: Beloved Local Shares Her Experience with Homelessness

Robbyne Spillman lives and works in San Dimas. While technically still homeless, Spillman considers herself safe where she is living now. “I don’t feel like I’m homeless,” she said. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

By Kara Roa

Part 1: A Face of Homelessness

Robbyne Spillman, 55, lives and works in San Dimas. She is a self-described “open book” who is known by locals as the friendly waitress at Pinnacle Peak with a genuine smile and crown of golden hair. But as she begins the interview, ready to share her story about homelessness, her hair is down and she wears a somber smile.

“People are either sympathetic and very nice or very, very hostile,” said Spillman. 

Tales of homelessness encompass a myriad of experiences and stages, often characterized by pain, frustration and hopelessness for people without a fixed residence. 

“Everybody has a different story,” said Spillman.

Spillman is a local woman whose personal journey of homelessness tells a story that many have walked through and many may soon have to face up close and personal, as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a financial toll on many households.

According to a Jan. 11 report by nonprofit Economic Roundtable, “over the next four years the current Pandemic Recession is projected to cause chronic homelessness to increase 49 percent in the United States, 68 percent in California and 86 percent in Los Angeles County.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers someone to be literally homeless when “an individual has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation.”

While technically still homeless, Spillman considers herself safe where she is living now and paying rent. “I don’t feel like I’m homeless,” she said.

“I have electricity, but I don’t have running water. I have a bathroom that is mine solely to use.” 

Humble, yet proud about her space, she acknowledges that she is content to play it safe. When people point out how much she has grown, she responds, “I feel like sometimes I’m still cleaning up disaster control.”

For Spillman, her experience with homelessness came later in life. She grew up at the La Verne and San Dimas border and was married at 19 years old. She went on to purchase a home with her husband at the time and raise her children on Allen Avenue, where she lived until 2014 when she lost her home. 

“I was thinking about, like how to put together the apocalypse that happened to me, as to how I became homeless.”

For Spillman, it was a combination of domestic violence and “a really bad drug problem” that left her without a home.

Spillman somberly recounts a story of loss and regret. 

“I had never done drugs before in my life. It was kind of a bad storm. My mom died. My sister died two months later. I didn’t want to be married. I started hanging out with the wrong people. And I started using meth.”

She shares a tale about domestic abuse that resulted in a story of being powerless.  “He was pretty abusive. … And so he stopped paying the house payment. And I was on drugs. He was giving me drugs. It’s my fault, I’m not trying to blame anyone at all.”

Countless efforts have been made by government agencies and nonprofits to come up with a lasting “cure” to homelessness. But, the root cause is layered with myriad obstacles that many fall between the cracks.

Sadly, Spillman’s story is one that mirrors many experiencing homelessness. Victims of domestic abuse are often in different stages, and as she says, everyone’s story is different.

Part 2: Shelter from the Storm

San Dimas resident Robbyn Spillman’s story of homelessness came at a time when she should have been contemplating a new life in an empty nest. A mother to three grown children, with one in her last year of high school, Spillman’s world had been shaped by being a wife and mother in a seemingly quintessential suburban life. 

Yet, an avalanche of the sudden back-to-back personal losses of her mother and sister within months of each other, combined with an abusive marriage, left her with a drug abuse problem she was unequipped to tackle alone. Her husband eventually moved himself and their children out of the family home, leaving her alone in the house with no support system. Her personal “apocalypse” left her in a strained relationship with her children, and she was suddenly evicted by her husband – isolated and without options. 

“No car. No phone. Pretty much not equipped,” Spillman described. She explains that she was blindsided. “I pretty much gave all my power away,” she said.

Spillman explains that, in hindsight, being “completely dependent” is a common thing in domestic violence. “They take everything away from you,” Spillman said.

What she describes is also known as “financial abuse,” a lesser known term that is prevalent in 99% of domestic abuse cases as reported by the National Network to End Domestic Violence website.

For many women, Spillman’s story is a familiar one. In a survey of Los Angeles County homeless women, more than half had “experienced domestic or interpersonal violence in their lifetime,” according to the Downtown Women’s Center’s most recent Women’s Assessment Needs report

This relationship between domestic violence and homelessness has created a call to action among advocacy groups like DWC to create more meaningful support for the rapidly growing population, a population that’s grown by 41% since 2013 alone, as reported by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

In Spillman’s case, battling a drug problem at the beginning of her journey on the streets severely limited her options and made her feel powerless.

“If I had just been homeless, I may have had more access to help. I had to learn to survive on my own,” Spillman said.

The DWC report found that 82% of women felt “housing was the most difficult resource to access,” which was similar to Spillman’s experience.

Finding shelter

For Spillman, home became her car. She rotated it between Walmart, Sam’s Club and Home Depot parking lots. She was kicked out of her home by her husband in the middle of January with only her clothes on her back and flip flops. In the thick of her addiction, she recounts being unprepared. 

“It was really scary,” Spillman said.

She also recounts a lack of availability for women in traditional shelters. In her experience, most domestic abuse shelters gave priority for long-term housing to women with children. 

“I don’t see how anybody can become stable without a stable place to live,” Spillman said.

Organizations like Pomona-based nonprofit House of Ruth have opened their doors to all victims of domestic abuse and have helped many like Spillman, who unfortunately was unaware of their services at the time she needed them most.

“We take everyone. As long as they have [experienced] domestic violence,” said Antonia Garcia, House of Ruth community service advocate.

Garcia explained the process of receiving immediate help for victims of “intimate partner violence.” The process relies on intakes and evaluations made using their 24-hour hotline with possible accommodations made to their own shelter at an undisclosed location for safety purposes. The website itself also includes a “hide this page” button that automatically wipes the House of Ruth website off the screen and browser history for the protection of victims.

“We try to find out what it is we can help with so we can provide the right resources,” says Garcia. The hotline provides multiple resources including immediate information that can be provided for various shelters to support those in need of drug rehabilitation, homeless services, domestic abuse resources or a combination of needs.

Without awareness of the immediate local support offered by House of Ruth, Spillman spent time on the street struggling with dangerous situations and addiction until she was finally able to get the help she needed.

Spillman eventually found support and shelter through Holy Name of Mary Church in San Dimas. She firmly and emphatically says the program saved her life. 

At the time of her homelessness, Holy Name did not have its on-site winter shelter options. However, Spillman was given vouchers and bus fare for a shelter in Hacienda Heights and food and clothing from the St. Vincent de Paul ministry.

“I had been on drugs and not taking care of myself. But when you don’t have the right sustenance, it’s hard to get places on the bike or on foot.” She recounts being in the Home Depot parking lot in Glendora; just getting to Holy Name of Mary Church was a challenge. 

“I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the energy to get there. It was too much,” Spillman said.

She describes other groups that were willing to help her. However, meeting someone at a set location to receive assistance was not easy for Spillman as someone living with fear and paranoia while on the streets. 

“You also don’t know who you’re waiting for. It’s not like everybody’s got a cell phone on them, like ‘Hey, meet me over here!’” she explained.

Sometimes shelter came from a hospital. Spillman describes feeling supported when she sought help at San Dimas Community Hospital

“I was like, ‘Look, I’m homeless. I’m really hungry.’ So they’d let me stay as long as they could and give me some food,” Spillman said.

Another time, she went to the hospital after getting beaten up.

”They called me a cab to take me back to my car at the Home Depot parking lot. So that was nice.” 

Spillman’s life on the streets came with challenges that she never thought she would face. From where to use the bathroom to how to access clean water, her life’s focus became pure survival for this resident of San Dimas.

Part 3: Homeless in San Dimas

For nine life-altering months in 2014, Robbyne Spillman’s switch to a homeless resident of San Dimas came with new dangers and rules. The quiet town she thought she knew during the day became a different world at night — with new challenges and expectations she had to learn about through survival and not-so-great encounters that impacted her ability to get help.

After losing her house, Spillman still managed to call San Dimas her home while living in her car and trying to find ways to survive on the streets.

“You can either die, or you can do something,” she said.

In the beginning, Spilllman recalls being “very fixated” on getting her house back. She believed the home was fraudulently being rented, and she was unable to retrieve her belongings. So, she went to the local sheriff’s station for help.

However, both homeless and addicted, she quickly realized that life on the streets meant she was treated differently.

“When you go to talk to the sheriffs and you’re on drugs, they don’t believe you.” She remembers being told repeatedly, “‘It’s a civil matter, ma’am.’”

Resigned to finding another path to getting a roof over her head, Spillman changed her priorities and focused on survival.

Her prepaid gym membership became the solution to access a bathroom, shower and quick place to wash her clothes.

“I felt like my main goal was to find food, water and avoid the police at all costs. I’d never been arrested or anything before.”

Spillman said she experienced constant run-ins with law enforcement and was unprepared to be alone late at night.

One police run-in involved an officer asking if she would accept help.

“He pulled over beside me one day. He’s like, ‘If I take you to a shelter, will you go?’’ My problem was I had my dog with me. And they don’t take dogs in the shelter.” 

Spillman continued seeking aid where she could until she was able to get lasting support with friends who helped her get her back on her feet.

Seven years later, shelters like the Winter Shelter now confirm that they “welcome pets and emotional support animals,” according to the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority website.

Hometown help

Since Spillman’s journey with homelessness began in 2014, the city and sheriff’s department have implemented new programs to better address local homeless residents and reach those in need.

The city of San Dimas is working to execute its Plan to Combat and Prevent Homelessness through use of Measure H funds providing “an estimated $355 million per year for ten years — to fund services, rental subsidies and housing,” according to the LA County Homeless Initiative website.

Ann Garcia, senior administrative analyst for San Dimas, oversees much of the city’s homeless outreach and describes the recent San Dimas Homeless Prevention & Diversion Grant Program as a way to address some of the focus areas of the city’s plan.

In the midst of COVID-19, this program would provide “emergency assistance grants to income-eligible households economically impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.” This program requires documentation proving hardship.

The city has contracted with Union Station Homeless Services (USHS) to fund homeless liaisons to work with the San Dimas Sheriff’s Station.

The city’s Community Development Department has worked to continue efforts and provide services to those experiencing homelessness, “including low-income residents and seniors,” Garcia said.

Homeless liaisons canvass the city once a week independently and monthly with sheriff’s deputies to areas affected by homelessness, explains San Dimas Sheriff’s Deputy Waleska Bracks.

Newly identified homeless people that meet requirements and are in need of help are referred to the USHS, said Bracks. As deputies routinely patrol areas, they monitor fluctuating populations around the city and respond accordingly. 

Bracks maintains that “the majority of outreach leads for USHS are generated by the contacts made by the deputies.”

“During winter months we have more because they seek shelter at various locations in the city that offer those services,” Bracks said.

She estimates approximately eight to 15 known homeless individuals live in the city and said there are few, if any, encampments. Encampments are classified as locations where five or more individuals gather.

“We do patrol the area, and if we see or are notified of new encampments, we make sure they get the appropriate resources.”  

When people call to report homeless individuals, Bracks said information is taken and assessed. If service from law enforcement is required, deputies are alerted of the location. If the individuals in need welcome assistance, support is given and referrals are made to USHS and other related programs. 

“If a crime is involved, it’s a crime. It’s not a crime to be homeless,” said Bracks.

Check back soon for the next installment in this series.

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