Phaewryn O'Guin was one of the people profiled in a 2011 cover story in The Commons when she was living in the woods in Bellows Falls. Today, O'Guin is a student at Vermont Technical College earning top grades in engineering.
Phaewryn (J.D.) O’Guin, a student at Community College of Vermont’s Springfield campus, serves as a member of the Community of Student Representatives. O’Guin was profiled (by first name) in Allison Teague’s Dec. 7, 2011 cover story, “Into the woods,” a story that explored the struggles and challenges of living without a home in the area.
Originally published in The Commons issue #394 (Wednesday, February 8, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.
Dear Governor Scott: Congratulations on your win.
You may remember me from when I wrote you while you were the lieutenant governor. I’d been living in Bellows Falls, suffering from severe mental illness, homeless, and yet still very active in issues that mattered to me.
I’d love to speak with you about where I am now, and where I am going. I feel like, after reading your budget address, I really relate to several of the issues at hand.
I am now in college at Community College of Vermont, one of your great state colleges. I am the student representative for my campus (Springfield), and I also am trying to solicit interest from other CCV students to start a student chapter of IEEE, the largest international, professional association for engineers in the world.
So far, I have a perfect 4.0 GPA in my studies at CCV. I’m active in the student body, and I’m actively working to bring more STEM participation to Vermont state colleges.
And I got here because Vermont saved me.
* * *
I moved to Vermont in 2003, because I was homeless and it seemed the best place in the country to be when one has no ties to anywhere else. Some nice people in Albany let me stay in a camper on their property for a while until I found my first job in Vermont, at the Craftsbury General Store.
From there, I moved into a tent in another nice Vermonter’s backyard, until I save enough money to rent my first residence in the state.
During my several years in Hardwick, through the great social services in the village, I became aware that I was in an abusive relationship. Using the skills and strength given to me by that great organization, Aware Domestic & Sexual Violence Services, I was able to find the strength to go to court, get a restraining order, and escape that relationship.
Unfortunately, at the time, I had been secretly sleeping in the closet at my job instead of going home.
Due to the time missed at that job, the fact that I was sleeping in the closet, and the fact that I was severely unable to perform my duties while being absolutely terrified for my life, I lost my job.
Not long after, I could no longer pay my rent, and I ended up homeless — again.
During those years, I earned the highest annual income in my life: $21,467. On that income, I had opened a cat rescue and saved about 20 animals. But it all fell apart when I had to escape a toxic relationship where I was both physically and emotionally abused — and when I also had to give up the secondary income he provided for the household.
I ended up homeless because even with a full-time job working as an office manager, I couldn’t pay the bills on one income. You see, it’s just not possible on $11 per hour to keep a roof over your head in Vermont.
I don’t know how I feel about increasing the minimum wage, but I do know how it feels to lose your home because you can’t afford one.
* * *
During this process, I also suffered from a longstanding mental illness. As a teenager, I had been depressed and used to self-harm. The stress of an abusive relationship and then the absolutely terrifying process of escaping an abuser was more than I could handle.
I experienced a severe mental health crisis when I found out my life was falling apart and that I was going to lose my home — to be out there, alone, truly alone, with nothing. I’d never been alone before, and it was absolutely terrifying. I had lived with one of those “rugged conservatives” in the state, and I went for a period of time with no health insurance. I’m still paying some pretty high medical bills.
But thanks to another outstanding Vermont family who took me in, I was able to receive — for the first time — professional care for my mental illness from a private psychiatrist.
You see, there’s a problem of a lack of psychiatrists in the state. In some parts of the state, no doctors at all provide psychiatric care. In many other parts of the state, others do not accept Medicaid.
But things change. After two years of living as part of this family, they asked me to move on.
* * *
I was, once again, homeless. At the time, I had attempted several part-time jobs, but my mental illness was so extreme that it was almost impossible for me to do the job duties and hold myself together.
I did find one job I could handle, working in the meat department of a small, locally-owned grocery in Waitsfield, Mehuron’s Market. I worked about 20 hours a week, and I did manage to make enough money to pay the rent on a tiny basement apartment in Williamstown.
However, what I’d not considered when I took the only apartment I could afford, was the gas to make the commute.
You see, there are no buses in rural Vermont. Many Vermonters have to drive upwards of 75 miles a day just getting to and from work. My trip was 30 miles each way. Many weeks I slept in my car, because I didn’t have enough gas to go home and get back to work the next day.
My life was dismal. So when an opportunity came about for me to move in with a friend in a new area, I took it.
* * *
I moved to Bellows Falls in 2010. I didn’t know a few things at the time. I hadn’t considered, for example, the fact that there weren’t actually any jobs in Bellows Falls, nor were there any psychiatrists there.
At the time, for my mental illness I was on medication — medication that I absolutely required to be functional. I found a job in Brattleboro (another job with a 25-mile commute).
But I didn’t find any psychiatrist who was accepting patients. My primary-care doctor outright refused to prescribe psychiatric medications to me, and when I tried to look for other doctors who would consider doing so, I was labeled a “doctor shopper.”
I’d never heard this term, probably because I’m clueless about drug culture, but it describes addicts who go from doctor to doctor to get multiple prescriptions for drugs to abuse. I assure you, that was not the case. But I was immediately dismissed at every doctor’s office, and no one would accept me as a patient.
So I went without necessary psychiatric medication.
My life fell apart. In desperation, I tried to get into an inpatient hospital program again and again. I was told that was the only way to get psychiatric care. Again and again, I was turned away by screeners employed by HCRS (Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, the local designated service agency).
The screeners refused to admit me or even allow me to see a doctor. I was referred, by my primary-care doctor himself, via ambulance to the Springfield Hospital emergency room, only to be told by HCRS employees three times to “go home” because “we can’t do anything for you.”
I eventually took the 6 a.m., hour-long daily bus ride to Brattleboro to the Retreat, where I would sit in the waiting room until someone could be discharged and a bed would become available.
You’d think that would be a happy ending. But I was misdiagnosed and prescribed medications that made me worse. And I became homeless again.
I also spent nine days in the Windham Center for Psychiatric Care in Springfield, whose staff also refused to prescribe the medications that I had taken before and that had helped me function. Instead, I was prescribed more medications that made things worse.
I spent two years homeless, camping in the forest outside Bellows Falls, with my three cats and a friend.
During that period, I was saved by Vermonters once again — this time, in the form of a great community nonprofit, Our Place, a drop-in center and food shelf whose staff helped me apply for Social Security disability. They referred me to a new program, Pathways to Housing Vermont.
Pathways accepted me as a client, got me in to see a private psychiatrist, who finally diagnosed me correctly: PTSD and anxiety. (Go figure, after being a battered woman, and growing up with a drug addict as a mother who made me sick for attention.)
I was put on the right medications, and for the first time in my life my head cleared.
* * *
Today, Governor Scott, I write you as a Vermonter, as a survivor of domestic abuse, as someone with mental illness, and as a woman in engineering.
I write you to tell you what it takes to make my life livable today. It’s sort of a long list, so I’ll keep it basic.
Because I do not have the means to own a car, I depend on public transportation. But because I live in a rural area, I also depend on The Current’s Medicaid-funded rides to doctors’ appointments.
Without this transportation, I would once again become disabled by my health. I would have to get all my medical care locally, and — I’ll be honest — it’s not great care. We’re talking about the same hospital that turned me away three times while in mental-health crisis.
I depend on Medicaid and Medicare. I paid into the system all my life, and I absolutely need those funds now. I have no income besides my Social Security disability of $896 a month. I can’t afford health insurance. I already pay a copay on my prescriptions — it’s very low, and I hope it stays that way. It’s subsidized by Medicaid, and it is absolutely essential to me.
Now, you may be wondering, how can I live on $896 a month? I live comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment because of a subsidy.
I depend on that subsidy to give me a housing voucher from the Vermont Department of Mental Health. Without that voucher, I will be homeless again.
With that subsidy, I can afford to have a roof over my head and basic needs like toilet paper, soap, razors, and Q-Tips — items I lived without while homeless. (You don’t realize how much you love Q-Tips until you haven’t had any for two years.)
Please consider working on that backlog of applications for Section 8, which is so backed up that the waiting list is actually closed. All people deserve housing they can afford.
Additionally, I depend on EBT food stamps. Today, I have eaten 976 calories — calories that I could not have gotten from healthy food sources without EBT benefits.
* * *
Finally, with my basic needs met, I am able to focus on my life. So these days, I depend on financial aid for college. Without it, I would be just one more person on the system. I would be doing nothing with my life. I would have no future and no hope.
But I’m not. I’m focused, determined, and absolutely dedicated to improve myself, to give back to my community and to all the Vermonters who have helped me when I had nothing at all.
I’m going to get my degree — but it all depends on you, Governor Scott, and your leadership.
Without the support of the state of Vermont, I would not be on my way to a second career in technology.
I would not be volunteering for STEM organizations.
I would not be working to bring more technology and engineering resources to students in the state.
I would not be on my way to giving back.
* * *
I depend on these few things that the state of Vermont funds in order to succeed.
Please don’t cut these wonderful services, which have enabled my recovery and the recovery of others like me.
Please work to build better mental-health services in the state, to bring more psychiatrists into the state, to fund Medicaid services that support people in crisis.
I’m depending on you, Governor Scott.
You got my vote.
Do you have my back?
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