The long road home
A new mom’s struggle to stay off the streets and build a better life
Morticia Mulberry Maxine Collins—Morty, or Moo, for short—is an excellent hostess. She's fond of greeting guests to the house she shares with her mother with a beaming smile, a booming “Hiiii!” and an upraised arm bent at the wrist. The gesture is her approximation of a fist-bump and she's likely to repeat the greeting several times, as it's her current favorite of the dozen or so words constituting her entire vocabulary at the age of 17 months.
Morty's doting mother, Alexx Collins, usually can be found just steps away, and is the obvious source of her daughter's bubbly demeanor. Collins is quick-witted, world-wise beyond her 28 years, and possesses a natural charisma undiminished by her penchant for salty language and the tattoos partly covering her face.
Those tattoos, she explained during a recent visit to the home, are a treasured reminder of who she is and the places she's been, subjects she had plenty of cause to reflect on that evening—Monday, Aug. 21.
She’d just completed her first day of school at Butte College and her old road companion—a dog named Boo—lay curled at her feet. Morty slept contentedly just a few feet away—her belly full of home-cooked hamburger bits—in a place she calls home.
For much of Collins’ life, such simple comforts were beyond her reach. She was kicked out of her home at the age of 14, and spent 12 years homeless. Her decision to get off the streets came in February 2016, prompted by Morty’s impending birth: “I went from being a homeless drunk to spending eight months on the street pregnant, getting bigger and bigger all the time and not knowing where I was going to go,” she said. “I didn’t know where we’d live when I had her, or if I’d be able to keep her. I was terrified, and thought I might have to give her up for adoption.”
Morty did have a place to come home to thanks largely to the eleventh-hour intervention of local homeless advocate Siana Sonoquie, who helped Collins find shelter near the end of her third trimester and maintains a close friendship with her. That shelter was temporary, however, and the family’s housing situation remains tenuous today: Mother and daughter must vacate their current home soon, and have no place to stay beyond Oct. 1.
With her hard-earned progress and her daughter’s well-being hanging in the balance, Collins is charged with finding a more permanent home with limited resources and little to no housing or credit history. But she’s no stranger to adversity and, like the many challenges she’s faced in her life, it’s another she’s determined to overcome.
Collins takes issue with the term “rock bottom” (“You can always go lower,” she said), but dozens of instances in her biography could qualify as such. Each spurred in her a spirit of survival that helped her navigate the murkiest depths with nothing more than, as she puts it, “a habit, a positive attitude and a cute dog.”
She holds little back when describing the good, the bad and the ugly realities of her childhood and years spent living outdoors. As she talked about her early years, it became apparent her summation—“I had a kind of rough childhood”—is a mammoth understatement.
Born in Bakersfield, Collins moved several times as a child, with her family eventually settling outside the town of Snohomish, Wash. She suffered abuse at the hands of a trusted adult who began feeding her alcohol around age 11 and later exposed her to pot, cocaine, heroin and meth. Still, she didn’t become a regular user of hard drugs until later in her teens.
When she was 12, her mother married a man she refers to as “the only person who provided any real love or structure” in her young life. That comfort was short-lived, as he committed suicide shortly after her 14th birthday. She was kicked out of the house soon after and her numerous attempts to return were denied, leaving Collins to fend for herself. As terrifying as that was, she believes it ultimately was better than life at home.
“I have a lot of positive feelings about living outside, to be honest,” she said. “Even when it’s bad, you have to turn it around in your head to keep yourself from being miserable. When I first became homeless I was very timid, shy and awkward. I literally gathered all my social skills learning to panhandle.”
Collins found a new family, of sorts, on the streets of Seattle. One day, two homeless men saw her walking and, concerned about her relative youth and the fact she was visibly upset, invited her to sit down. They rolled a spliff, listened to her story and offered to take her under their wings: “It was by a park where a lot of vagranty-types hang out … some bonafide crackheads, some drunks, your occasional tweaker; all these people you might look at and think, ‘Blech!’ But those people took care of me. They fed me, got me stoned, made sure I had blankets, walked me everywhere I needed to go … they could easily have took advantage of me, but nope, they took care of me.
“I wanted to go home; I didn’t want to be that street kid,” she said. “But I grew accustomed to it, even fond of it. I was in charge of myself. I was a teenager, living in abandoned buildings, skateboarding around, causing a ruckus, dying my hair whatever color I damn well pleased … I could do whatever I wanted to, and it was awesome.”
Sonoquie says it’s not uncommon for homeless individuals to suffer difficult upbringings: “A lot of problems can be traced back to adverse childhood experiences,” she said. “Alexx grew up with a lot of trauma happening, and living on her own so young was partly a move for self-care. A lot of people in homelessness grew up in environments with abuse, drugs and alcohol, and many understandably choose homelessness over that. Those issues are definitely factors in Alexx’s case.”
Later in her teens, Collins began traveling, hopping freight trains and hitchhiking along a rambling route that took her to every one of the lower 48 states over the next several years. A musician who plays guitar and the musical saw, she learned new skills like “gasjugging”—playing music or telling jokes for spare change. At one point she was married, but the relationship didn’t last.
Chico became part of her regular route and, after “meeting a fella I fell madly in love with” here, it became her de facto home. That relationship faltered as well, but she stayed connected to Chico.
At times, Collins reveled in the freedom that homelessness and traveling offered, but at other times she wanted desperately to escape the hardship and degradation she witnessed, and often endured. She continued to “dabble, a lot” with hard drugs, but said her main vice always was booze. “I became a pretty raging alcoholic by the time I was 18,” she said.
She began acquiring facial tattoos at age 19, which she explained are partly an homage to her lost stepfather. When he was around, her family lived in a ramshackle cabin in the woods of Washington, slowly improving the home and living a simple life. “We were like a happy, functional family, for a short while,” she said. “We’d cook outside on a campfire every night and eat dinner together. Even though we didn’t have diddly squat, we were making a home and, having never had that as a kid, it felt good.
“I was cooking outside at a Rainbow Gathering [semi-regular meet-ups for traveling-types held in remote areas around America] one night and I thought, This feels like home,” she continued. “It felt like being back with my stepfather again, and I decided I never wanted to forget that feeling. I realized I don’t need [material goods] to be happy. As long as I’m fed and have people I love and I’m doing the things I need to live, things will be fine.”
The collection of tattooed shapes has grown over the years—in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Portland, Ore.; Northhampton, Mass.; and other stops. “I added to it whenever things my stepdad said suddenly made sense, or when I’ve connected my past to my current understanding of life.
“[The tattoos] mean even more to me now because things are changing,” she said. “I’m doing new things, living inside and working towards a job that can help me help people. I don’t want to forget where I came from, and that’s damn near nothing. And damn near nothing can be fine; it can be just wonderful.”
Collins said she’s known she wanted to be a social worker—the reason she’s attending Butte College—since her early 20s, inspired by her experiences at YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center in Seattle, a drop-in center for homeless youth: “They didn’t just give me food and clothes, they paid me to get my GED,” she said. “At the time, my husband and I were in different states and I just thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to help people get off the streets, just like these people do.”
Though Collins had the desire to escape homelessness, it took another four years to find a way. One of the major steps she took in the interim was to quit drinking, a move prompted when she found herself in a relationship with another alcoholic: “We were cutely depressing. We had the same wake up, detox and get drunk schedule,” she said. “I loved him selflessly and quit drinking to try to help him stop.”
He didn’t stop with her, nor did he stop after being hospitalized at Enloe Medical Center for three weeks due to damage from drinking, she said. He eventually died from the ravages of alcohol on his body.
“I had to leave him when I realized, I can’t stay for this. I can’t change this,” she said. “I knew if I stayed I’d be watching the ship go down, and maybe go down with it. I wasn’t ready to let go of myself; I wanted to keep going. After getting sober and trying to help him, it changed my vision of alcohol. It changed my thoughts on a lot of things, and I haven’t been that same drunk person since.”
Collins also spoke of a friend who fell victim to life on the streets, a young girl who endured horrific sexual and physical abuse here in Chico, and was eventually found dead of a drug overdose.
“She reminded me of myself,” Collins said. “I saw the same little kid in me that bad things happened to, and I thought maybe if I saved her I could save myself. But I sometimes think, well, at least she’s safer now. Maybe she can restart as a cantaloupe or a butterfly or a dog or something. She’s not suffering the way she did when she was alive. That’s the most positive thing I can find about it.”
Though sober, Collins’ struggle with street life continued through her pregnancy with Morty. She saved some money—through panhandling, playing her saw and working odd jobs—but it spent fast living hand-to-mouth, and especially so while carrying a child. She availed herself of social services to obtain prenatal care and a two-week motel voucher toward the end of her term.
Then, at 38 weeks pregnant and with just two days left on the voucher, her last-ditch plea for help reached the ears of the person she credits with making all the difference—Sonoquie. “That woman saved my life,” she said.
Sonoquie is a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised who left a good-paying job in the corporate world several years ago to work in the nonprofit sector. She currently does contractual work at the Jesus Center and volunteers at Safe Space, a seasonal homeless shelter, and Crisis Care Advocacy and Triage (CCAT), a local organization dedicated to harm reduction and crisis intervention for individuals suffering from homelessness, mental illness and addiction. At the time, she was volunteering for Stairways Programming.
“I reached out to [Stairways] for help and they said there was a six-month waiting list,” Collins said. “I was on the phone yelling at some guy saying, ‘Fine, I guess I’ll just give birth under a bridge!’ when I got a Facebook message from Siana saying she wanted to meet me. She picked me up and took me to Denny’s and said, ‘We’re going to do this; we’re going to get you into a house.’”
Sonoquie empathized: “As a single mom with an infant, I had stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge on the same motel voucher program, so Alexx’s situation really resonated with me.” At her urging, Stairways was able to move some residents to different locations to make room for Collins.
Collins was housed for Morty’s birth—on March 21, 2016—but the situation wasn’t ideal. She said substandard living conditions led to the closure of that particular house, and she found herself crashing with friends while planning a move to Reno. “Couch-surfing with my daughter was humbling and horrible,” she said. “I never wanted to be that person.”
She eventually made it to Reno, but that living situation also fell apart, as did another attempt to settle in Wisconsin. With nowhere else to go, Collins called Sonoquie from more than 2,000 miles away; Sonoquie made arrangements for Collins to stay with one of her relatives in Chico until she could find a more permanent place.
“By that point I considered her part of the family,” Sonoquie said. “We’d become very close. Sometimes agencies can only do so much, and it comes down to one human helping out another human.”
“Since I got back here, the doors have opened,” Collins said. “Things are happening. I mean, I started school today, I’ve had a job since I’ve been back, I’m volunteering … I’ve made five-fold the progress I was ever able to before.”
Upon her return, Collins connected with more social services to help secure her future. She’s found free child care through Valley Oak Children’s Services, which enabled her to start school and pursue more employment opportunities, and has been working and volunteering with CCAT as part of a welfare-to-work program. For a time, her job included picking up trash and monitoring the area around the Jesus Center as part of CCAT’s now-defunct contract to provide those services.
“She’s so great at outreach and communicating with people, because she has such a range of personal experiences and amazing people skills,” said CCAT Director Lisa Currier. “I can totally see her doing work like this well. She has a huge capacity for understanding and an even bigger heart.”
“Alexx is magnetic, talented and intelligent,” Sonoquie said. “She’s kind and has a knack for what she calls ‘calming people’s tits,’ which means she’s really good at de-escalating people. As someone who’s worked in the business world, I could see her running a company someday. She has all the major traits, and so much experience from living on the streets and having to hustle.”
Regarding Collins’ current housing crisis, Sonoquie said, “She has a baby and an incredible dog, and a lot of people can say, ‘Just give up the dog,’ but that’s not possible in this situation. Most affordable rents in this community are not set up for babies or pets. It’s very slim pickings.”
Despite her uncertain housing future, Collins remains steadfast in her resolve to keep a roof above her and Morty’s heads. She has her eye on a house she thinks would be perfect, is going through the application process, and hoping for the best. She’s also proud of the progress she’s made.
“I know people who’ve had long periods of addiction and spent long periods outside who’ve turned their lives around,” she said. “I’m not going to lie and say the ratio of people who try and succeed is high. It’s not easy; it’s extremely difficult. But I like to believe I’m a good example. I had nothing, and now here I am.”
A few days into her scholastic career, Collins called to report the profound effect her finally found path has had on her: “Every day when I’m driving to school, I get this feeling that’s so overwhelming I have to pull over and cry,” she said. “I’ve heard the term ‘tears of joy’ but had never experienced it. I can’t believe I’ve come so far.”