By Sarah Ford
“Homelessness is scary,” says Rikki Hernandez, a new vendor to the Denver VOICE who signed up in December 2018, needing some source of income as she searches for other employment opportunities.
Rikki is not homeless herself, though she has stared that possibility in the eye frequently. The thought terrifies her. Recovering from addiction and striving to maintain balance in the medications she takes for her mental health concerns, she is terrified of what could happen out on the streets.
“Even the idea of sleeping on a park bench taking medication...it’s traumatizing,” says Rikki. “I have PTSD and depression and take my medications faithfully … and when you’re homeless like that you can’t.”
She has managed to keep a roof over her head through governmental assistance and the jobs she’s been able to hold down, but she says she has been forced out of several jobs by her situation. Most recently, she says she lost her job because she was facing imminent homelessness but her employer wouldn’t let her take time off for her housing search.
“I had to walk off and say, ‘I can’t be homeless, taking medication, and [then] get up and go to work. It’s not realistic,’” says Rikki. “I was really offended by that. And that was a really good job that I can do and be stable with my physical and mental health disabilities. I felt kind of cornered.”
It’s not just in employment where Rikki says she has faced discrimination because of mental illness. Compounding her financial challenges are overhanging legal charges. Those charges, she says, come because she is often treated unfairly because of the stigmatization of mental illness.
She lost parental rights for her son due to failing to take her medications, but says she was cornered into the situation.
“I had postpartum depression and was recovering from a car accident, my mental health was slipping, and I was off my medication for nine months. I was clean and sober, following the instructions of my mental health providers, and instead of saying ‘let’s get her into an in-patient treatment program and get her stabilized,’ they charged me.”
Now, Nikki is only able to see her son once every two weeks, which she says has further taken an impact on her mental health. It has also led her to face a strained relationship with her four daughters.
“If they (care providers) had said ‘let’s get her some treatment’ I wouldn’t have a penal record. I would have learned more about my disorder and I would have been clean and sober,” Rikki says.
Now, she faces an uphill battle in her job search, and is trying to overcome the labels of “violent” and “totally crazy” she feels were slapped onto her following a conviction for physical assault as a teenager. At the time, she says her grandfather’s spouse was assaulting one of her daughters, and she intervened.
“The charge made me out to be some kind of horrible person … when I was protecting my life and my child, and I was mentally unstable,” she says. “I was a victim of circumstance in that I fell through the cracks with my diagnosis. Back then, I wasn’t diagnosed, I lost my children, I was depending more and more on drug abuse just to survive. It was a horrible thing. Since then, I’ve really changed my life around. Unfortunately, it took me going to prison to get off the drugs and have some type of success.”
But she says she wanted to share her story for those who face similar stigmas regarding mental health.
“I’m trying to get out there that our voices do matter and should be respected,” she says. “And God can’t give you more than you can handle … he made you this strong for a reason. That’s what I want to express to my daughters … we went through all this for the strength because God has a plan for us. We can be survivors.” ■