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.
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.
Check back soon for the next installment in this series.