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Apr 21

We Made It through the Woods

Posted on April 21, 2014 at 9:51 am by Dawn Corrigan

Jeannie and Cujo 2Born and raised in Pensacola, Jeannie Benfield came from a good family. Her father served in the Navy, then became a police officer, reaching the rank of sergeant before retirement. He and his wife were outdoor enthusiasts who often took the family on camping trips when it was time for a vacation. “We did the KOA campgrounds, that kind of thing,” Ms. Benfield says.

At the age of 17, she married her first love. They stayed together for 19 years and raised two beautiful children.

But despite this stable background, on November 1, 2009, Ms. Benfield, along with her beloved dog Cujo (both pictured), found herself taking up residence in one of Pensacola’s homeless encampments along Bayou Texar, where they would remain until April 2013.

Now, looking back on the trajectory of her life, she says wryly, “I don’t want to go camping anymore.”

In 2013, Ms. Benfield became a participant in Pensacola Housing’s voucher program for rental assistance. May 1 will mark the one-year anniversary of the day she and Cujo moved into their apartment, and she recently completed all recertification steps required to qualify for the program for another year. This is a significant milestone, according to homelessness expert Dr. Robert Marbut, who says the recidivism rate for persons who were previously homeless drops greatly after the one-year mark.

Dr. Marbut also indicates that, nationwide, the three root causes of homelessness are unemployment, mental health issues, and substance abuse. When asked if she can name the factors that contributed to her own homelessness, Ms. Benfield responds promptly. “I wasn’t able to work any longer. Not enough to support a household, anyway. For a while I kept working part time. I used to go work at Action Labor from the woods. I also worked at Bealls, sorting clothes. But after a half day, I would be limping. I’ve had scoliosis since my teens, and it’s deteriorated significantly since then. I applied for Social Security benefits, but the approval process can take awhile.

“A lot of people in the woods are like that,” she adds. “Some collect cans. Many are mentally disabled. Some are veterans. The vets can have issues. Post-war syndrome. Take Murphy, for example. He was an MP in the Marines. Every month he gives his pension check to his family, who live in a house. But he doesn’t live there with them. He hears noises, that sort of thing. He’s out in the woods.”

In her observation, “Everyone’s got skeletons. My skeleton is drinking. Before my husband and I divorced, we tried AA, but it didn’t last. He was in denial. He would say, ‘I don’t drink—I just need my milk before I go to bed.’ He stopped going, and then I did, too. I should have continued without him.”

Ms. Benfield says she’s better prepared now for “real society” than she was before her time in camp. Her apartment is tidy and charmingly furnished. A sewing machine, which she kept boxed up in the woods for years, rests against one wall. She uses it to make quilts for her grandchildren (three, with a fourth on the way). They live in Virginia with her daughter and son-in-law, who have also taken in Ms. Benfield’s ex-husband. Her other child, an adult son, lives in North Carolina.

Ms. Benfield has tips for those who are trying to manage a household budget on a very low income, particularly when transitioning out of homelessness. “I picked up furniture at thrift stores. The St Vincent de Paul store is willing to help people coming out of the woods. I got my king-sized mattress from them for free, except for a $20 delivery fee. Waterfront Mission was great, too.” She says it took five months to fully furnish the apartment.

Ms. Benfield also recommends monitoring one’s daily electricity usage. “On the Gulf Power website, they’ll walk you through setting the tool up. Once you’re monitoring, you can look for ways to save money. For instance, I keep my hot water heater off, except when I’m using it. My mother taught me that. With the help of this tool, I’ve got my electric bill down to $50 a month, and that’s even using the AC in summer.” Indicating her most recent usage printout, she points to a spike on Sunday, March 17, and smiles. “That was the day before Cujo’s birthday, so I was baking all day.”

Her most important advice: pay your bills first, and stay on a budget.

Even when she was in the woods, Ms. Benfield was an organizer who liked a lot of structure. “I had a routine. People brought donations to my camp, and I would pass things out. My camp was a drop-off area for the community. I’d sweep my area to keep it free of debris. We had rules. No cursing. No butts on the ground. If Cujo didn’t like you, you didn’t come in. We had Cathy Harris of Streets and Lanes Ministry on Wednesdays—she’d bring hotdogs and worship.”

Ms. Benfield was the only woman in her encampment. When asked how she survived, she says simply, “I had an ax, and Cujo.” Problems were rare, for the most part, and when they did occur, the culprit was often a drug dealer—or spiders. “We called them charlottes and patricks. The charlottes were big enough to cover the top of a coffee can. There would be an egg sac like a cotton ball attached. Mothballs were my friend, because they keep the spiders away.”

Not all danger came from those encamped alongside her. “Once, I fell and jammed my thumb. I went to the ER, and they said I needed surgery. It happened when I was crossing the street. A man in a car saw me and floored it. He tried to hit me. That’s what it’s like sometimes, being homeless.”

One of the biggest hardships was water. “You had to pull water. There was a business nearby that allowed us to do so, as long as it wasn’t during business hours. I had to wash out there—I couldn’t get to Washburn to bathe. And I had to boil the water. If I didn’t, it would make me sick. I had a Coleman stove. You’re supposed to use the other type of gas with it, but I just used regular gasoline. Once, I burned my hand.”

When asked if she can name the factors that allowed her to leave homelessness behind, once again Ms. Benfield answers promptly. “We believed in God—that’s what got us out of the woods. Yes, I was waiting for approval for my Social Security benefit, and yes, I was waiting for Section 8. But faith is all we had out there. So, those are the three things: my Social Security benefits coming through; housing assistance; and, most important, my faith.”

She admits she’s made some mistakes since becoming housed again. For example, “when I first moved into the apartment, I rented some furniture, rather than buying secondhand. I overpaid for months.” However, it did have a positive side. “My credit score rose 80 points. Now I have a card from Navy Federal. I put things on it, and then pay them off, and I’m building my credit that way.”

When asked how she and Cujo are doing now, she says, “Thanks to the Section 8 program, I don’t have trouble paying my bills. I’ve never been late. I can afford my rent. I even have cable and wifi, and I’m living on $750 of income a month. Maybe someday I can even buy a house. A simple house—with a yard for Cujo.”

Cujo is a priority. That birthday on March 18th was his 10th, and his life alongside hers has often been a life of hardship. After being a loyal companion during years of struggle, Cujo was injured in September 2011 when he was shot by a police officer investigating reports of copper thieves in the woods. Since then, Cujo’s had 11 surgeries, including one where pins were implanted. That’s something he and Ms. Benfield have in common—for both, material from their own hip bone was used to make their surgical rods. When the time comes, she plans that they’ll both be cremated, and then the rods will be given to her daughter.

For now, though, life is good. “We’re so fortunate. We made it through the woods.”