Roberta Kriegh happily rolled up her sleeve to display the elaborate tattoo on her right forearm depicting a dog.
"That's Puppy Violet," the 37-year-old Duluth woman said.
"I lost her right before I became homeless," Kriegh said. "She was my everything. I've just kind of been drifting ever since."
Kriegh told her story in two conversations last week, one at the News Tribune building and the second inside the little tower on the east side of the Leif Erikson Park stage. She and her boyfriend had been staying there in a red-and-gray Coleman Squaw Creek 5 tent.
It was Wednesday morning, and it had been her last night to call the tower her home. A police officer had come on Tuesday and told the couple - and the couple in another tent across the way - that they had until 3 p.m. to get out.
They didn't know where they'd go next, she said.
"We can ask the cops, 'So who do I talk to? Who do I talk to?'" she related. "'The city or the park representatives? You're a cop. They sent you here to deal with me. Who do I talk to about where I should go?'"
- Read more in this series: Homelessness in the Northland
Since becoming homeless, Kriegh has spent every day this way, and spent most nights in a tent, even in the coldest weather. She has gone to CHUM's crowded drop-in center, but rarely makes it through the night there.
"Too many people, too much anxiety, too much PTSD," she said.
She usually ends up leaving during the night, she said, and walking outside to try to keep her blood flowing.
One of many
Stacy Radosevich of St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services said the list needs to be updated and might become shorter. But she doesn't think the numbers will change much.
Kriegh said she was just added to the list in September or early October. Her story highlights how complicated the problem of homelessness is. In many ways, Kriegh has been her own worst enemy.
"I have a past," Kriegh said. "I have three evictions."
She also has a criminal record covering 18 years, although it is not extensive. In recent years, it mostly has been misdemeanors for disorderly conduct. She went to prison in 2002 and was released in 2003.
Her mental illness diagnoses include a form of bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, Kriegh said. Also, "I have communication issues and anger - I don't know, it's not really anger, but I'm kind of scary, I guess."
She doesn't look scary. At just over 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 110 pounds, Kriegh has been diagnosed as underweight. Her doctor at Duluth Family Medicine Clinic gave her a "food prescription," she said, but adding pounds seems to be a losing cause. She eats a couple of meals a day - at CHUM, at the Damiano Center or at Union Gospel Mission. Clothed in several layers, she walks to all of those places, and to the library, where she can charge up electronic devices and sit quietly. She walks back and forth to wherever her tent is. One day, when she had a pedometer, it showed she walked eight miles.
She doesn't seem well. Some of her sentences end in a hard cough, and she frequently sniffs back mucus.
But she sometimes carries with her a baseball bat that is otherwise kept locked up for her at the drop-in center, Kriegh said. She has been with her boyfriend for only a month; before that, she was on her own. It must be terribly dangerous to be a woman outside alone all hours, the reporter said. "Unless you're a very violent woman," she responded.
Between Social Security disability and Minnesota Supplemental Aid she takes in about $860 per month, she said, and she prides herself on having at least a couple of dollars left at the end of the month.
She never panhandles, Kriegh said, and she never goes to detox, although at times she drinks heavily.
"I'm allergic to pills," she said. "It hurts me more than it helps me to take pills. So I drink and do other stuff."
When drunk, she goes somewhere to pass out or she tries to find something to eat to balance it out, Kriegh said.
She earned her GED and she has had jobs - at the Lifehouse youth shelter she was a client, then a volunteer, then a worker and even a board member for a time. She once had two full-time jobs simultaneously, at KFC and as a telemarketer.
She likes helping people, Kriegh said, and she'd like to work with children, but she doesn't expect to have the opportunity.
"I'm not trying to act like I'm OK when I'm not and be around people's families," Kriegh said. "I get too violent."
She needs an advocate, Kriegh said. But she "lost" the social workers assigned to help her. She described turning away a social worker who came to see her at the tower. "I blame myself because I can't deal with people sometimes," she said.
Kriegh was brutally frank about herself, and frank about the reason she was willing to be interviewed. She hopes someone will remember her, perhaps from the Lifehouse days, and decide to give her a fresh start.
She'd be glad for her government checks to go directly to a landlord, she said, keeping only what was left for herself.
For now, she's getting along as best she can, surviving from day to day. It's hard always feeling cold, Kriegh said. Yet she's also thankful.
"It really sucks being homeless," she said. "But we are very appreciative to have places like the Damiano, CHUM, Union Gospel Mission that help us out and will give us a place to stay and do provide us a meal or snacks. ... Without them, we would be super lost."
TO GET HELP
If you live in St. Louis County and are:
- Homeless now
- Living somewhere without working utilities
- Living with family and do not have space of your own, or
- Going to be homeless in two weeks or less
Call United Way 211 or (800) 543-7709, and:
- Make sure you're speaking with the Duluth 211 office
- Ask for a "housing pre-screen"
- Be ready to write down appointment information.
Or call CHUM’s outreach hotline at (218) 461-8505.