By Rachel Singer
Steve Hartman, a journalist and storyteller on one of my favorite shows, CBS Sunday Morning brings to his viewers stories of ordinary people who have an extraordinary story.
I want to be like Steve Hartman.
When I first began writing “Our Hometown Stories,” I had visions of opening the Santa Clarita Valley white pages, closing my eyes and letting my finger pick out a name at random. I would call that person, we would sit down together and I would hear their story.
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I have yet to be so brazen, but Kathi’s story is as close as I have come.
I had never met Kathi until I approached her in the Vons parking lot in Canyon Country. She was someone I had “seen around town” and someone whose story I wanted to hear.
Kathi has lived in and around the Santa Clarita Valley since 1976.
She is the mother of six, grandmother of four and homeless.
She lives in a canvas tent along the banks of the Santa Clara River. We call it “the wash”.
In the sweltering summer months, a copse of trees provides her with shade and privacy. Springtime brings wildflowers and during the rainy season, she has waterfront property.
Kathi is bright, intelligent and introspective. How she found herself homeless is a story she is not shy or embarrassed to share.
It is what it is.
Bad decisions, bad people and bad luck were the outline that ultimately became Kathi’s life story.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Kathi was an “Air Force Brat.” She was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 19, 1955. Her father was a Master Sergeant who held a Top Secret clearance. Even today, she is not quite sure exactly what he did when he left the house each morning.
The family moved around often, as military families do, settling in Sacramento for almost 10 years in 1958. “I have very happy childhood memories of that time,” Kathi shared. “My parents were very involved with all five of us kids, from Catholic school activities to family camp outs.”
“I was the oldest, so my dad was the hardest on me,” Kathi recalled. “As a kid, I took it to mean that my dad didn’t like me.” Unfounded as her feeling may have been, her adolescent years were filled with turmoil. “I was empty inside, and quiet. I felt like the odd man out.”
Kathi’s feelings of inadequacy coupled with her father’s strict military demeanor, was the catalyst that whipped her fragile emotions into the perfect storm of self-doubt and self-hate. The storm became a hurricane when the family was stationed in Hawaii during her thirteenth year.
“When we moved to the big island, I attended public school for the first time. I cut loose, I rebelled and I began looking for love,” Kathi told me.
It had all the makings of a sad country song.
Though Kathi was truant for a good part of her high school years, she was innately smart and her grades were good enough to earn her passing marks. The military approached her father and made it clear that she was an embarrassment and that he needed to control her.
Kathi smiled when she told me “My parents threw me a Sweet 16 birthday party. I couldn’t believe they would do that for me. I will never forget what a great time I had.”
It was shortly after that wonderful evening, that Kathi and her father made a trip to El Monte, where she was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
As with a lot of people that have an emotional disconnect, Kathi liked the hospital and the doctor assigned to her care. She stayed in the facility for eighteen months where she finished high school and was only one of a few residents allowed to leave the grounds to attend college classes.
“I grew up a lot there,” Kathy stated.
Her family returned to El Segundo and Kathi joined them. She worked as a civilian at the Air Force Base and contemplated a career in the military. Conflict with her father, which she attributes to her stubborn streak, led her down a long path away from her family and home.
“I met Danny”, Kathy said, “and stayed with him for all of the wrong reasons. I became pregnant and gave birth to my daughter Dana in 1976. We moved with Danny’s mother to Lake Hughes, which is how I originally came to Santa Clarita.”
That union did not last. Kathi continued with her story, “I then met Tom, who is the father to my children Travis and Kelli Ann, born close together in 1982 and 1983. Kelli Ann was 3 months premature and that was a scary time. Tom was in and out of prison and I was alone with the three kids.”
Kathi met Mike, who she still calls “the love of my life.” Their daughter, Sarah was born in 1988. The couple stayed together through very rough times for almost 10 years. (In 1998, Mike was found in a coma and subsequently died from alcohol poisoning.)
Kathi’s living situation in the early ’90s went from terrible to horrible. She could not keep a job and was abusing drugs and alcohol, all the while trying to raise her children. The county stepped in and put Travis, Kelli Ann and Sarah into the foster care system. Dana was living with her father, Danny.
Kathi went into a rehabilitation facility in Acton for six months. She was a model patient and became the Vice President of their Alcoholic Anonymous group and was a mentor to incoming residents.
Upon her release, Kathi was able to get her children back. Dana continued living with her father.
Kathi was clean and sober for almost two years. Unfortunately, her time in rehab did nothing to treat her addiction to the wrong men.
“I got pregnant with my daughter Amber in 1992,” Kathi shared. “Her father was a really bad guy and I did drugs with him one time.” When she was born, the hospital tested the baby and found drugs in her system. Amber was taken away and immediately put into foster care and up for adoption.
Kathi never got her back, though she was able to have occasional visits with her.
Kevin, a patient that Kathi met in Acton, was the father to her sixth child, Jake, born in 1993. Soon after his birth, Kathi and Kevin parted ways. “I was doing really good and was able to keep my five kids with me for a long time,” Kathi stated, “I waitressed and supported us on my own.”
Kathi held it together for as long as she could. Life was difficult for her and she was constantly battling her own demons. “When the kids were teenagers, I finally gave up,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I told the kids they were on their own. Some went to live with friends and some went back into foster care.”
Her son, Travis, who is in the Air Force and serving in Iraq, never forgave Kathi and she has not spoken to him in 10 years.
After she gave up her children, she now only had to worry about herself. Kathi found jobs waitressing and cleaning houses. The pay was never enough to allow her to settle down with any stability. She would live wherever she could find a room.
Kathi has lived from Green Valley to Canyon Country with many stops in-between. She has worked on a horse ranch in Placerita Canyon and taken care of an elderly lady, all in exchange for room and board.
In 2007, Kathi was given a small trailer. She parked it off of Sierra Highway in an area covered in dense brush. She was able to survive on food stamps and by collecting bottles and cans and turning them into the recycling center. “You would not believe what hard work that is, “Kathi said, “especially in the hot sun.”
In October of that year, her quiet existence was shattered by the sounds of helicopters and sirens. The Buckweed Fire burned through Agua Dulce and was headed to Canyon Country.
In what seemed like an instant, her trailer burned to the ground with what little belongings she had inside.
Now homeless, her nomadic life took her from Baker Canyon, to the Rivers End campground, to the White Rock Trailer Park and now to the Santa Clara River.
In 2009, Kathi found a companion who was willing to give her the unconditional love she desperately sought. He had curly dark hair and a sweet face. He was part Labrador and his name was Harley. “I bought Harley for $50. It took me a week of collecting cans and bottles to save up enough for him. “
Kathi became teary eyed as she told me about her dog, “Harley loved to chase after rabbits. One night about three months ago, he was chasing a rabbit and ran onto the 14 Freeway and was hit by a car. I didn’t want a city shovel truck to take him away so I dragged him off the freeway and buried him in the wash. Right now he has orange flowers on his grave. I miss him really really a lot.”
I asked Kathi if she has ever used the homeless shelter on Golden Valley Road. Her answer surprised me, “No”, she stated, “even though I live in a tent, it’s my home and it’s mine.”
When Kathi is not able to collect enough bottles or cans to sustain herself, she will ask for money by holding up her homemade cardboard sign that says 'Lend a hand if you can, God Bless.'
“I consider that a last resort, it’s humiliating and I hate it,” Kathi emphatically stated.
Kathi shared a story with me that took place this past June. “I was doing a crossword puzzle in my tent when I heard a voice say “Kathi come out here.” I looked out to see two girls standing in the wash. The older one said, ‘it’s me Kelli Ann and this is Amber’. I was completely shocked. Kelli Ann had not spoken to me in years and I had not seen Amber since she was taken away as a baby.”
I was so embarrassed that my girls had to see me homeless. I began crying in shame. It ended up being one of the best afternoons of my life. The girls and I talked outside my tent for 5 hours. Kelli Ann had forgiven me and was the one that searched for and found Amber. Not only did I get to meet my daughter, but also my new baby grandson.
It was a great day.”
Kathi’s life has not been ideal, she does not fit the typical Santa Clarita demographic and her life is definitely not conventional, but it is her life and she is okay with it.
She is clever and resourceful; she comes by it honestly. She is the 7th generation granddaughter of Chief Joseph.
Chief Joseph was the leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce Indians. In the late 1800’s, he resisted the government’s forcible attempt to move his people off of their land and on to an Indian reservation. He was known as a peacemaker and humanitarian. He lived out his last years in exile in Washington State on the Colville Reservation. One of the country’s largest hydroelectric dams which spans the Columbia River in Washington is named for him.
I am a firm believer in the old adage, “do not judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins.” I think Chief Joseph would appreciate that irony in that.
I also know that Steve Hartman was right.
Everybody does have a story.