What does the face of the homeless look like?
Does it look like this?
There are many paths to homelessness, and in her lifetime, Kanti Mani has seen many of them -- her own path as well as those of the numerous women who end up at the shelter Kanti once called home.
Her path began half a world away in India, growing up in a solid middle class family. Family in Kanti’s culture extends far beyond the parents and siblings who share a house. It includes cousins and cousins of cousins and friends of cousins and onward. It is a universe that extends around the globe but is as close as a phone that whispers the goings-on of each member of its extended community. It is a place where love and dedication to parents means doing nothing that would cause them shame. It means marrying the man they have chosen for you even if he lives a world away.
Kanti never really thought twice about her arranged marriage. After all, it had worked out well for her sister, and the man her parents had chosen for Kanti was the cousin of her sister’s arranged husband -- family.
Without even the benefit of a current photo beforehand, Kanti celebrated her engagement with her future husband when he came to meet her in India. Her extended family was there to witness the engagement and to send Kanti off to the new world for a new life there.
Kanti (right) at her engagement party with father, mother, sister (behind) and other family
The actual marriage happened within days of her arrival in North Carolina. Kanti had no use for the dress she had carried from India for the occasion. They got married in a courthouse, with her husband’s father and their cab driver for witnesses.
The abuse started that night.
Often it was just emotional, the constant criticisms of her dress, of her cooking, of the way she spoke. But then it became physical, often escalating after her husband had been drinking, which was frequent. So frequent, in fact, that the good job he had presented for himself to Kanti’s parents was gone within weeks of her arrival. “He had a Master’s in computer science. He looked like a pretty stable person with a good job. But a week and a half after I got here his company gave him notice that he had to finish rehab if he wanted to keep his job, and he did not comply with that.”
And then he lost his driver’s license after a DUI conviction. Though she had held a professional position with LG Electronics in India, in her new country with no paperwork to get a job of her own Kanti spent many of her days driving him around and many of her nights in fear.
At first, she suffered the abuse in silence. “I knew that it was not normal, but I didn’t know how to react to it. Being the kind of independent woman I’ve tried to be I didn’t want to ask anyone for help. I wanted to fix it myself.”
But then slowly, carefully, she began to share her situation with family. “My mom and dad were very supportive of my position. My father told me to stay away from him a little bit, but he did not want me to get a divorce. Maybe my husband would find that he would miss me and want to do something to make our life better, but that never happened.” As the situation worsened at home, Kanti became more convinced that this was not something that could be cured with a light dose of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ medicine.
“He was physically abusive. He’d throw stuff at me, push me against a wall. There were so many nights we slept in different rooms and I would have to lock myself in the other bedroom. One time he had a knife in his hand, chasing me.”
She told her cousins and word spread. “There was lots of opposition in my family to leaving him. Divorce is not very common in India. Everyone talks about everyone and there was a lot of pressure on me. So I was worried I would be coerced to get back with him even though that was not what I wanted to do.”
She knew she had to go. Kanti contacted her cousin in Seattle who offered her a place to stay for two weeks. After she bought the airplane ticket she had had just $100 left.
“I had planned on running away but I didn’t know what would happen to him, if he would try to get in the car and go looking for me and get in more trouble. I decided it was best to tell him I’m going to my cousin’s house on the west coast.”
He wouldn’t let her take a suitcase, so she shoved what she could in a garbage bag, the wedding gown brought from India left behind. On the way to the airport she stopped by the Goodwill and spent six of her precious dollars on an old suitcase and emptied the contents of the garbage bag into it.
“When I left he got really mad and his parents were really mad because everyone found out about it and it reflected badly on them. It showed that they had hidden a lot of things they shouldn’t have. At first I was thinking I should support my husband and not share his weaknesses with other people. And then I thought, this is an arranged marriage that everyone was supposed to know about beforehand.”
As Kanti tells me this story I’m struck by the dispassionate recitation of her past, similar to the way one might describe one’s employment history to a recruiter at a job fair. And it occurs to me that this is a story that has been told many times. Undoubtedly recited to the many agencies and care workers she came across once her flight had started.
I also see Kanti, a world away from what is familiar, from the parents and sister who had always been her pillars of support, making choices for herself that she knew would provoke a torrent of criticism and rebuke from the outer circle of family. Having the wisdom to know what she needed to do and the strength and independence to do it.
Where did that come from, I ask. Who were the people in your life who showed you this way? “My mom is pretty strong but I won’t call her independent. She works as a clerk for a public agency, but even for the smallest things she would have to ask my father. Now that he has gone she has become stronger.”
Whatever its source, this young woman sitting before me exudes poise and self-confidence. She owns her own past without apology and refuses to pass blame to anyone else.
“I figured it was a decision I had made to move out of the relationship. If that meant that I had to live on the streets for a week or two weeks I knew I would do it. I didn’t have the money to go back to India. I couldn’t ask my cousins for the money. It was a choice I had made and I knew I had to face the consequences.”
When I point out that her husband was not her choice, she remains consistent.
“If I wanted not to be married I could have told my parents, and they would have felt bad about it. It could have happened, but I guess that was my choice to follow my parents’ decision.” Looking back it seems like a risky choice to make, but not for Kanti then. After seeing her own sister’s husband chosen by her parents, she had been expecting the same for her.
(young Kanti with father, right)
Plus, there was the promise of America. Kanti’s father was ill and she knew it would be up to her to support her parents and help pay the medical bills. “I anticipated that I would move from a middle-class family in India to a better off family in the United States. That would allow me to send money that I earn to my family, which would be considered a shame to the girls' family in India."
But things didn’t work out the way she anticipated.
Finally away from her abusive husband, Kanti now became hostage to the deadlines that dictate the lives of the homeless.
Before the clock ran out on her Seattle cousin’s hospitality, Kanti found New Beginnings Shelter. By now, her irate husband had crossed the country and tracked her down. When he began stalking her, counselors helped get a protection order. “The protection order kept me safe. I was able to call the police.”
New Beginnings provided a room for her first 45 days. Before that clock struck, she had to find another shelter or face living on the streets. Fortunately, she found Elizabeth Gregory Home.
When one looks at the process of transitioning to a bright path, it is like undoing an intricate lock, one tumbler at a time. For Kanti, leaving her husband was the first. New Beginnings the second, and Elizabeth Gregory seems to have a bearing on every tumbler thereafter, including the one the brought her to me.
I had the privilege of meeting Kanti as a result of my previous story about Joyce Israel (finding unconditional love for her special needs son). After our interview, Joyce and I arranged to get together for dinner with our husbands, and it was Rick Israel who suggested I meet Kanti. A successful businessman, Rick had been looking for a community charity for his company to adopt. He wanted to do more than write some checks, he wanted to really make a difference. After reading this story in the Seattle Times about a shelter for homeless women that had lost its funding and was on the verge of closing, he found his target. (Several other donors responded similarly. Read this inspiring follow-up story in the Times). Rick now serves on the Board of Elizabeth Gregory Home (EGH) where he met Kanti.
Today, after having been a resident there for ten months, Kanti Mani works at Elizabeth Gregory Home. “I started out being an overnight resident manager. Then I got promoted to being an operations manager, and I’m the program director now.” She does some accounting, the field in which she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in India, as well as some fundraising and general operations work, because the shelter doesn’t have the money to hire a development director. As program director, “I pretty much sure the program runs smoothly; enforce the rules; and ensure that everything is going fine for the resdients and the agency. Due to lack of funding we have downsized our staff from 10 - 3, which means a lot of multi-tasking for everyone.”
“My job at EGH has been the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Because I’ve gotten so much out of EGH, I feel that I should give back.”
In July, Kanti will start work on what she hopes will eventually be a PhD in either clinical psychology or social work. She’ll be enrolled in evening and on-line courses in that pursuit.
After leaving EGH, she moved to permanent housing through the Seattle Housing Authority, and now happily lives in the U District with roommates her own age. She has no plans to return to India, though she dearly misses her mother, sister and niece. Her father passed away recently.
She likes living in Seattle, where “the people are friendly and the houses are closer together” (than in North Carolina). “People have big hearts here. One thing I appreciate about this country, especially, is that people, if they believe in something, they give money or they help in one way or another. That’s different definitely from India.
(Kanti with Seattle roommate)
“I do want to get married some day, but I don’t think I’m ready. Thinking about my last marriage, I would have been in a lot better situation if I had been financially stable. If the marriage did not work and I had money I could have gone back to India, but that did not happen. Instead, I had to buy the $6 Goodwill suitcase.”
About being homeless, Kanti would have us all remember, “people don’t always become homeless because it’s their choice.” There are many paths to take, and Kanti’s is one.
If you would like to help others like Kanti find their way out of homelessness, she would be happy to take your contribution to Elizabeth Gregory Home. Your gift can make the difference to a woman like Kanti, to set them on their own path towards a life off the streets.
- Janet Pelz
Kanti Mani’s Not-So-Secrets for How She Does It
- “It has a lot to do with my self confidence and my love for my parents. Every decision I’ve made I’ve thought, how does this reflect on my parents? When I left the marriage I knew people were going to talk about them but I thought eventually I would get a job and I would be able to support my family, and keep my father alive. I was sending money to them from the little government support I got. I feel a responsibility to my parents. I miss my mom very much and I would like to bring her here to stay with me a few months.”
- “I think people need to believe in themselves. That a tiny bit of confidence in themselves goes a long way.”
What books has Kanti read recently?
- Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars, by John Gray “It’s helped me understood a lot of things about the opposite sex and I learned a lot about myself.”
Whom does Kanti want me to interview next?
- Many women at Elizabeth Gregory Home have amazing stories to tell.