Saturday, October 26, 2013
MILTON-FREEWATER — The small windows are covered in scraps of fabric. The kitchen floor threatens to sink farther with every step. The ceiling is a collage of peeling paint, blooming water marks and holes.
And the potential for fire makes Cynthia Morris nervous whenever she thinks about the unsheathed and insufficient wires laying behind a cupboard door that’s seen better days.
“This worries me to death,” she said, displaying what looks like strands of common extension cords passing for house wiring.
The front door, however, may win the prize — the knob is missing and a pillowcase is stuffed in the hole to prevent access to wind and curious eyes.
Yet the fifth-wheel camper in a one-block urban trailer park is Morris’ piece of real estate heaven.
“I’m delighted with it,” she said, her eyes bright. “I don’t have a problem with the issues. And it’s all mine.”
Morris, 62, came to the attention of folks in Walla Walla in late summer when she landed here on her way to Seattle. Liz Pierce, who works downtown, saw Morris standing on Second Avenue and Main Street one morning, holding a sign asking for work of any kind. Pierce manages a community Facebook page and asked Morris for permission to report something about the woman’s plight to the page’s followers.
Morris, who maintains she walked from Texas to Walla Walla over a span of 4½ years, told Pierce she was sleeping by the highway overpass at Second Avenue and Pine Street. Morris seemed ecstatic to have found a slab of thick cardboard to use as a mattress.
“She felt like she was a queen, sleeping on that,” Pierce said. “She was really happy.”
People responded to the Facebook posting with generosity, Pierce recalled.
Kathy McConnell, retired from heading “The Kids Place” day care center at Whitman College, was among those.
“Cynthia was looking for work, and I needed help getting some weeding done,” McConnell said. “She said she had worked in landscaping.”
The first time she picked her up to take to her house, Morris seemed hesitant to be inside, McConnell recalled.
“I did her laundry and a sleeping bag liner,” she said.
She learned Morris lives with worsening glaucoma and severe epilepsy that prevents her from working traditional jobs, driving a vehicle or wearing dentures, McConnell said. “When she seizes, they tear up her mouth.”
McConnell helped Morris hook up with some social service agencies to meet basic needs. Traditional housing, the women learned, would have to wait — the list of people needing subsidized housing stretches for about three years in Walla Walla County.
What struck her most was Morris’ refusal to ask for charity to meet her needs.
“She never asked me for anything extra,” McConnell said. “She wants to be independent. She just has this very strong personality and she tries to make life good, even though she’s in this really difficult situation.”
After stints of being homeless dating back to 1972 — Morris gives a multitude of reasons why, including an abusive father, failed marriages and lack of money — it was time to “come inside,” Morris told McConnell.
Thus when the owner of the trailer court offered the permanent use of the fifth-wheel-turned-house if Morris would repair it within six months, the chance to live in a more mainstream manner was presented.
“This is my first indoor home since 2001,” Morris said, clambering up carpeted steps leading to a sleeping platform in the aged “Hy-Lander” recreational vehicle. “I absolutely love it.”
What she doesn’t love is how communities respond to the homeless. Morris peppered the conversation with animated anecdotes of injustices, present and past.
Many were settled in courts or by directors of companies who sent heads rolling, she said. An unjust allegation over a question of her sobriety with a major bus company is why she walks everywhere today, Morris added.
Organized religion and government agencies top the list, she fervently believes.
“I seen so much hypocrisy in churches,” she said. “Pastors are pro-homeless. They make money from us. And the worst thing that can happen to us is a homeless coalition.”
She’s been refused help for not being a member of a church at times, Morris said.
“I look at them and ask, ‘Is this a club?’ I don’t claim a religion. When you claim a building, as far as I’m concerned, you claim a graven image. I’m a Christian, but I don’t belong to a church.”
Morris said it was her own determined spirit that brought her out of her alcohol addiction 11 years ago.
“Now I’m trying to quit smoking. I thought the alcohol was bad, but oh, no,” she said with a laugh and shake of her curly hair.
Morris has also learned to manage her mental illnesses, including “big time” bipolar disorder and more than a dozen suicide attempts, she said.
“My family was the main problem,” she said. “I left them in ’89 and I haven’t seen them since.”
Going homeless isn’t the answer for issues such as hers, Morris conceded.
“I know there are solutions to this problem,” she said.
But she’s not sure others believe the same. People say they want to do something for her, that they will help, but mostly don’t follow through, she added. “I never hear from them, days and days and weeks on end.”
Recently, however, the Milton-Freewater Church of Latter-day Saints came through with a heavy tarp for her leaking roof and a promise to help mount a newer door on the home.
Morris happened to be one of those who landed on the church’s list of projects for Make a Difference Day, explained John Wells, bishop for the congregation.
Like a number of others in the area, she is “just really strapped,” Wells said. “Just not a lot to get by with.”
His flock has offered leftover building materials and elbow grease, he said, but “she still has a lot of needs.”
Even so, she’s not planning to ask anyone for anything, Morris insisted. Not the little stove the camper is missing. Not the hot water heater to replace one that can’t be turned off except manually and from outside. Not for the cream-colored paint she craves to cover a crazy quilt of old and odd paint jobs. Not for the fixtures for a bathroom in need of a complete overhaul.
Not even for the magazines she pores over, relishing stories of natural and civilian history.
“I’m trying to get work, so I can barter for supplies. I will not beg for money. I cannot. I won’t,” she said. “My father taught me, ‘You do not ask for anything in this world.’”
Except for the chance to earn some cash with her labor, Morris said, squinting at the wall where the autumn morning sun peeks through holes.
“I just want to work, even for an hour. That’s 10 TV dinners. Ten!”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.