Without A Key
Tuesday, 15 March 2011 16:31
     The power of a key is undeniable– it unlocks doors, allowing access into one’s personal space. One little piece of metal with strategically placed bumps and grooves does not seem all that important, that is, until you are homeless. Kingston resident Nickie Pimental never truly appreciated having a key until she found herself without.
     Things did not start out that way for Pimental, who hailed from Clifton, New Jersey. She was young, headstrong, and fiercely independent when she struck out on her own. Focused on a career in radio, she came to the Wyoming Valley.
     Starting out first at 97.9 FM the BEAR, she then moved on to a show at 98.5 FM KRZ, from midnight to 6 a.m. She was on the right track.
     “I was really a snob,” Pimental said. “All my clothes were labeled and my idea of giving to charity was a black-tie dinner at $500 a plate.”
     She knew what she wanted out of life.   Feeling comfortable in a stable career, she then set her sights on marriage and starting a family. When her son, who is now 9, came into her life, she diverted her focus onto him.
     “Nothing mattered but him,” she said.
     But, things took a downward spiral when she began having severe asthma problems.
     “My lungs collapsed seven times in one year,” she said. “I was 30 years old and could not work anymore.”
     She admitted she had other problems, such  as going out a lot at night, letting her best friend influence her life a bit too much, as well as some legal issues. She soon found that her Social Security disability money was not enough to pay for rent and utilities.
     Then, in January 2008, while attempting to close an old storm window in her apartment, Pimental fell, landing 30 feet below. She suffered a broken pelvis and major head trauma and had to undergo intensive physical therapy just to learn to walk again. She remained at John Heinz for rehabilitation from January 31 through April 13. The rehabilitation ate up her savings and disability money.
     When she was released, the young woman had no place to go. Friends disappeared when they realized she did not have any money or a place of her own. Her family was back in New Jersey, but her huge sense of independence did not allow her to go to them for help. The father of her son lived nearby but she did not want to disrupt her son’s stability.
     “My son’s father and I have a great relationship, but it’s not the kind of relationship where I could have stayed with him,” Pimental said.

Ruth’s Place

     On advisement from the Commission of Economic Opportunity (CEO), a nonprofit organization focused on helping to provide    programs and counseling to help fight poverty, she found herself at Ruth’s Place, a local homeless shelter for single women.
     At the time, the shelter was located in the basement of the First United Methodist Church, off North Main Street, in Wilkes-Barre. Sitting on the steps of the church, clutching her cane and backpack, which contained all of her belongings, Pimental waited for the doors to open at 7 p.m.
     “I was terrified,” she said. “I did not know what to expect.”
     She found herself in the mix of a very diverse group of women. Some had mental health issues, others had addiction problems, and yet others were like her.
     “Oh, you had the occasional fight or someone stealing, but it was a safe place,” she said.
     Her life took on a new pattern. At Ruth’s Place she had a cot, but the shelter was only open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. At 6 a.m., the women were up and dressed. They washed in sinks, as there were no shower facilities, and were out the door by 7 a.m. She had 12 hours on the streets until the shelter’s doors opened again at night.
     Pimental spent the first couple of days wrapping her mind around what had happened to her. She lost her apartment, endured rehabilitation at John Heinz, and was now homeless.
     She would often head over to the St. Stephen’s REACH program, where shower facilities were available, and then for meals at St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen. The rest of the day ticked by slowly.
     “Some women would spend a good part of their day in the library,” she said. “I found my niche at the Anthracite News Stand.”
     The owners had a rule, “If you had a quarter for a glass of water, you could stay.”
     Within the first few months, Pimental decided to use her free time constructively and began to research what types of funding are available for homeless people. She learned about grants and federal funds to help get people back on their feet. The stipulation, though, was that she had to be homeless for a year and would have the “proper documentation to prove it.”
     “There are two ways to qualify for assistance: be homeless for a year with the proper documentation or show that you are chronically homeless, which means you are homeless three to four times within a three-year period,” she explained.
     Deciding to hang in for the long haul, Pimental set out to obtain the right documentation to show homelessness for a year. Her routine continued and a friendship grew with the owners of the Anthracite News Stand.
     All in all, she found Wilkes-Barre to be a relatively safe city. There were some dangers with drugs and alcohol, but since she was at Ruth’s Place by no later than 9 p.m., she felt pretty safe.
     “There were no ‘Johns’ looking for a worker for the night,” she said.
     When the church closed, Ruth’s Place had to move. For a brief time in November, the Salvation Army gave up its fall basketball program to allow Ruth’s Place to utilize its gym. This was a welcome change as bathroom and shower facilities were available.
     “You do not realize how important bathroom facilities are,” she said. “Many businesses do not want you using theirs unless you are a patron.
     I was even caught by the police, once or twice, for urinating by a dumpster.”
     Wanting to help other women, Pimental joined the board of directors of Ruth’s Place. She hoped she could help by providing some insight as to what it meant to be homeless.
     “Most people did not understand what it was like to be out on the streets for 12 hours a day,” she said. “We had to walk everywhere, which in Wilkes-Barre was great because all of our resources are centrally located– community counseling service, the welfare department, CEO, and the soup kitchen.”

A Mile in Her Shoes

     Pimental casually mentioned one day that it would be great if people could walk in the shoes of the homeless. From her statement, plans soon began for a walk-a-thon in November 2008 to raise funds for a more permanent location. The event, spearheaded by her, was titled “A Mile in Her Shoes.”
     Waking up on the big day, however, she was crestfallen. Typical November weather for Northeastern Pennsylvania had set in.
     “It was dreary, slushy, and cold,” she said.
     “I thought, not one person will show up.”
     When she approached Public Square, she was immediately humbled. A little more than 100 people stood waiting to participate.
     “I do not know the exact dollar amount raised, but it was around $10,000,” she noted.
     The walk-a-thon is now an annual fundraiser for Ruth’s Place.
     In March 2009, Pimental’s patience and fortitude paid off. She finally received the rent assistance she waited a year for and headed straight to the Anthracite News Stand. Knowing that the owners’ son sold real estate, she asked for help finding an apartment.
     The next day, she signed a lease without even seeing the apartment. A new routine was in the offing. At first, Pimental felt guilty because she could not bring some of the women from the shelter with her. It took awhile to overcome the panic attacks that would strike when she would leave her apartment for a doctor’s visit.
     “I would cry hysterically on the bus,” she said.
     Two years later, Pimental is quite settled into her apartment. She is very thankful to everyone who donated furniture, curtains, linens, and even towels. She still volunteers at Ruth’s Place and works to bring the “new face of homelessness” to the forefront.
     “It is not just the bum on the park bench,”  she said. “In today’s economy, many people are hanging onto their homes by their fingertips.
     One major medical accident could take it all away.”