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{My Story} From home designer to…homeless–one FOF’s story

2012 February 22

We’ve all heard “rags to riches” stories, but what about the other way around? FOF Norma Byrd, a successful California interior designer went from decorating multi-million dollar homes to sleeping on friends’ couches. It could have been any of us…

[Editor's note: The essay below, by FOF Norma Byrd, is part of a series of personal blogs from our readers. Have your own story to tell? Email your idea to geri@faboverfifty.com.]

When I’d see a homeless person with a hand-scrawled sign standing at an intersection, I wondered “How? Why?”  If you were industrious and conscientious such a thing could never happen to you… right?

Wrong. Three years ago I learned the hard way that it could happen, because it happened to me.

I’m an interior designer and have made a modest living since 1986. I built strong relationships with my clients and even became the president of my local chapter of the ASID (American Society of Interior Designers).

But, in 2000, I embarked on a fast train to disaster. I sold my condo and bought a 1947 vintage house in a lovely San Diego, California neighborhood. I felt I should have a home reflecting my personal design tastes–a showcase of my work that would one day meet my needs for retirement.

My mortgage broker and friends asked if I would be able to handle the stiff payments needed to make my dream home a reality. I was sure that if I couldn’t, I’d simply sell the new house. I never thought it would come to that.

Enter unplanned exigencies. The architect took two years to complete construction plans; the bank took another year to approve and fund the loans. Demolition revealed that the existing foundation and flooring systems couldn’t support the new structure, setting back the whole operation even more. The cost of building and materials rose dramatically; real estate went into decline, and I was running out of funds with the house nowhere near completion. Then, a major client, a successful builder, virtually went out of business, taking my major source of income with him. In desperation, I borrowed heavily against extensive credit card limits and maxed them all out trying to pay subcontractors working on my house.

In September of 2008, I moved into the unfinished house living for months without heat or electricity. I was still clinging to hope that some miracle would save me. In 2009 the unthinkable happened–my dream home and an investment property I had mortgaged for the new construction, both foreclosed.

I have never experienced such wrenching heartbreak in seventy-plus years. I was forced to leave my home, which at the time was only six percent from completion. I had no money, no savings, no investments–nothing left. I sold my SUV, put the rest of my possessions into storage and for the next fifteen months lived with friends. It was tough not to beat myself up for taking on something so monumental and then blowing it completely. There were times over the past three years, I wondered if I’d be joining those homeless people on the street corners, and without friends, maybe I would have.

In October of 2010, I moved from San Diego, where I’d lived for 47 years, to Durango, Colorado. There, with state aid and Social Security, I moved into my own tiny apartment. I’m adjusting. I still hope to get my design business going again, so that I can get back on my own two feet. The venerable adage, “If God leads you to it, he’ll lead you through it,” has never been more true. Life has not given up on me–there’s something good to come, but I have to help make it happen. AND… I WILL SURVIVE!

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  • Genie in Dallas says:

    I have been in a similar situation for several years and beating myself up for some bad but well-intentioned decisions has been the worst of it. In the end, I find I am not living in a dumpster (as feared); had to get humble and try new jobs at little more than minimum pay, had to decide what I really wanted (to trust that I can call myself an artist), and to reach out more to friends and family.

    I am happier than I’ve ever been, and I still don’t have any savings or more than a couple hundred bucks in the bank at any one time! We are survivors, and FOF’s! Heck, I’ll be 65 in a few months. Who knew 65 would be so cool?

  • Vicky says:

    Norma,
    I put off reading your article until I had enough time to really read it, take it all in and, as expected, shed some tears. I’ve known you for so long and have seen your projects, your art, your energy, your home. I’ve sold my jewelry, rented out my place, and have maxed out my credit cards. I went from having my own place and designing for homeless women and their children to renting a room out of state to cut as many expenses as possible. My stuff is in storage too and I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford to keep it there and will eventually lose that too. The tougher thing for me is… nobody knows. I applaud your honesty!

    • Peggy says:

      I can relate to you and Norma . Not for the identical resaons but similar. I have never been in this position and never thougt I would be . For me it is still new and scary. To be 65 and facing such uncertantity is devastating.
      I try each day to do a little more and move forward and continue to explore options, however, I know there is no quick fix and only my best friend knows my true situation.

      I wish both of you well and I know you are on the right road back. God Bless you both and your honesty.

  • Karen says:

    Just goes to show the ability of the human spirit to over-come the lowest of times and embark on a new adventure, no matter how humble, it makes for a refreshing call to appreciate what is yours and what you can achieve!!

  • Jan Vega says:

    Esther – your comments nailed it! You totally said everything I wish I had.
    All the very best to you, Norma!!

  • Hawklady says:

    Dear Norma, you are such a beautiful talented woman. You will rebound and find your path. I will send a prayer for you now.

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally says:

    Your article amongst all others drew me in. At last, someone bold enough to reveal human vulnerabilities.
    I wish you well, totally well, prosperous, flourishing, and I was going to put aware. No need to – you already are. I teach writing, to homeless women and women in transition at the Women’s Room in Pasadena, an offshoot of Friends in Deed, an ecumenical endeavor. This blessed place has a room, decorated like a home, the walls a deep peachy color, where the art work pulsates.
    On Tuesdays, early afternoon, the room fills with women of all colors and sanity levels, and nobility fills the room. I’m not overwriting, but everyone has a story, and everyone is given their appropriate dignity. New strengths emerge. They can do laundry and take showers, and find food. It’s a beginning. The Women’s Room in Pasadena, California, is a prototype of what people who care can do. We always need more money to pay a full time director. The part time director is awesome. We truly have community. These people, and people like you are the noble ones in society. It’s easy to be happy amidst comfort and harmony, and a roof over your head, but harder when you sometimes have shelter, or live in a shelter (no easy tale), or just face all the weather, economic forces, kind words, mean words, and still reflect inner beauty.
    My very best to you.

  • Carol says:

    How unselfish of you to share your story. I have lived by the adage, “God doesn’t give you more than he knows you can handle.” It has helped me get through the hard times, which are similar to yours and it gives me confidence knowing there is someone else in control and that no matter what the path taken, the destination will be worth the struggle. God bless you!