By DENNIS WYATT
Michelle Whitaker is a happy, high octane 38-year-old.
Being dynamic is almost a prerequisite for a single mother like Whitaker who is juggling a job, school, volunteer work and raising three children.
Daughter Dakota, 18, graduated high school earlier this year with high honors.
Daughter Kailee, 16, is carrying a 4.5 grade point average. Son Melvin, 8, is in elementary school.
Whittaker, while she’d prefer to be in a traditional college campus setting, is pursuing a Bachelor’s in Psychology via the Internet through Grand Canyon University.
All in all, Whitaker comes across as someone who has her life together.
An old friend thought so when he greeted her for the first time in years this summer congratulating Whitaker for her successes and given her a hug.
It’s a far cry from their last meeting.
“He tried to kill me,” Whitaker offers nonchalantly.
Whitaker isn’t joking. She was on the streets of Manteca at the time thanks to getting swallowed up in drugs.
For 7½ years between drug induced highs her worries were about the fundamentals.
“The only thing you’re worrying about is where am I going to sleep tonight,” Whitaker said. “Can I get into a shelter — a vacant building? If I can’t find a place I need to sleep on the street and worry about who is around me, worry if they are going to abuse me or steal my things.”
Now five years and four months removed from the street — she keeps tally daily on how long she has been sober — Whitaker is employed as a case worker at the Manteca HOPE Family Shelters. She is also part of the Manteca Police Department’s effort to address homelessness. She accompanies Manteca Police Community Resource Officer Mike Kelly to homeless encampments in a bid to offer resources to help get people off the streets. Since July 2016, more than 150 homeless men and women in Manteca have either gotten into treatment programs, been reunited with relatives who are often out of state, or have found a job. Of those, 100 have not returned to the streets.
Growing up Whitaker said she had all of the advantages — an intact family, loving parents including a father who is a pastor, a nice home in Manteca’s Shasta Park neighborhood, two brothers, cats and a dog. She was involved with agriculture her freshman and sophomore years at Manteca High and had a FFA pig project. She also dabbled in high school rodeo. After high school she enlisted in the Army.
She had a medical discharge after being injured in basic training. Several years after that she became a drug addict.
At age 25, Whitaker traded her family’s 1970s Brady Bunch style home for abandoned warehouses and a boarded up county agricultural services office along Moffat Boulevard. When those weren’t available, “home” for the night became Library Park, a deteriorating trailer park, and even the notorious “Tweaker Towers” — a second floor collection of old-style single room apartments in downtown Manteca.
Showers were no longer a daily occurrence.
“You wait until a homeowner leaves and then you go up and use their garden hose to shower,” Whitaker said of efforts to try and stay clean on the streets.
She became well versed in the often invisible world of the homeless. She learned to stay away from certain homeless territories such as Northgate Park in north Manteca where a tougher crowd of homeless hang out. She learned to Dumpster dive.
But first and foremost she knew what she was.
“I was an addict,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker — who is a volunteer member of the San Joaquin County Homeless Task Force — has been fairly effective at helping steer homeless individuals into recovery programs. It’s not as much that she is persistent without being pushy, as the fact she has street cred in Manteca.
When she asks a homeless person, “dude, aren’t you getting tired of this?” Whitaker hits a nerve because she’s been there and is no longer homeless.
Those who roamed the streets when Whitaker did — and are still on them — typically react in shock and disbelief when they encounter her now.
The fact she holds herself up as an example that it’s possible, Manteca Police were able to get two individuals off the streets who they thought would never happen as they had been homeless for more than 20 years.
Whitaker — who is also part of the Celebrate Recovery effort — notes many homeless who are still on the streets have started attending the weekly gatherings.
“They address hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” she noted.
She said the homeless effort by Manteca is appreciated by many on the streets who now believe people care about them.
Whitaker credits Manteca Police who she dealt with when addiction controlled her life and the help she received from HOPE Ministries six years ago for ”talking her back” into living and allowing her to get her life and children back.
“I’d be in prison or dead,” Whitaker said if it wasn’t for the police and HOPE Ministries.
Whitaker said that she hopes people who come across homeless “would think this person has a tragic story and not think they are a dirt bag.”
“Talk to them,” Whitaker said. “They’re human just like you.” ■