Successful woman becomes homeless after string of hardships
Debra Townsend is proof that homelessness can happen to anybody.
Debra, 67, had done everything right in life. She was a wife, homeowner and successful businesswoman, with ample savings and investments.
“I was a typical suburban housewife, with a full and rich life,” said Debra, who spent years living in New Brighton, with careers as a securities broker, jewelry executive, and bridal consultant.
Less than a year ago, Debra found herself on the steps of The Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis, homeless.
How could this be?
Debra lost everything after a series of unfortunate events that spanned many years. Key events included:
- In 2010, Debra’s husband of 28 years walked out on her. Out of nowhere, he announced he was moving to Kansas City and wanted a divorce. He left their house to her. “He was packed up and gone in a matter of seven hours,” Debra said. “My world changed drastically.”
- In 2011, Debra’s relatives defaulted on a $70,000 loan she’d given them to buy a house.
- In 2015, Debra could no longer afford her house. She was unable to work because she suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a virtually untreatable disorder that causes extreme fatigue. She sold her home and moved into an apartment in New Brighton, living off investments and savings.
- In 2017, Debra was evicted from her apartment after her savings and disability insurance payments ran out. A kindhearted friend allowed Debra to live with her for the next three-and-a-half years.
These and other events were compounded by Debra’s incapacitating illness; the deaths of her mother in 2008 and father in 2012; an expensive and emotional family lawsuit; and other difficult hardships.
“I thought I was the strongest person I ever knew,” Debra said. “But everything that had happened brought me to my knees.”
In May 2021, Debra moved out of her friend’s apartment when the friend became involved in a serious romantic relationship. By then, Debra was almost fully recovered from her CFS illness and wanted a fresh start. She found and was offered a job in Kansas City, Mo. But when Debra arrived to start the job, it was no longer available. Stranded, broke and frustrated, she used her stimulus payment to return to Minnesota.
Suddenly, Debra was homeless.
Scrambling to find her next move, a friend-of-a-friend suggested that Debra stay at the Harbor Light Center (pictured) until she could get back on her feet. The six-story shelter is the largest homeless outreach center in Minneapolis, providing food and shelter for more than 200 men and women every night.
“I remember walking into Harbor Light with a few bags and telling them I had a reservation,” Debra recalled. “They looked at me like, ‘What?!’ I was older and college educated, and I’ve never had addictions – I was not the face of homelessness.”
Debra embraced her time at the Harbor Light Center. She would spend the next nine months there healing her mind, body and soul.
“I realized that while I was there, I needed to put my time to good use,” Debra said.
She stayed productive by:
- Writing in her journal and reading at least one book per week.
- Helping create a library for residents to enjoy. She gathered books, created an index, and helped paint the room yellow.
- Befriending other residents and listening to their stories. “Most of the women there are in a lot of pain,” Debra said. “They needed someone to be present and listen to them.”
Debra also developed deep bonds with Harbor Light’s staff members.
“They are incredible at what they do,” she said. “They will be in my life forever.”
Debra’s time at the center ended in February, when a caseworker helped her find her own apartment in Minneapolis (pictured above).
Today, Debra is fully recovered from her illness and is excited about her life. She wants to begin working again.
She is grateful for the help she received from The Salvation Army and our donors.
“I have never felt more at home than I did at the Harbor Light Center – it was an amazing experience,” Debra said.