The local organization Sweet Revenge Ladies is helping Catherine Pettie, 55, with shelter, clothes, food and her job search after she spent 18 months living in her car through one of Delaware's most brutal winters in recent history.
How does someone end up homeless?
For Catherine Pettie, 55, it started when she tried to help her son.
Pettie was living in Prince George’s County, Md., near Washington, D.C., working for an insurance agency. Then she decided to follow her calling and study to be a pastor. While attending classes, she worked part-time at a department store as a customer service representative.
She said she was doing just fine, paying her bills and looking forward to a life leading a church congregation. Then her son called and said he needed help.
“My son married a girl in Delaware, and they were having some marital problems. He wanted me to be here,” said Pettie.
Her son’s wife had a daughter from a previous relationship.
So Pettie moved in with them to try to help and to take care of the daughter while the couple tried to sort out their problems, but things didn’t work out.
“My daughter-in-law didn’t want my help, at least not how I wanted to help. I’m an old-fashioned woman,” said Pettie.
One day, her son left with his wife and his wife’s daughter.
“Apparently, she told him, ‘We’re moving out. Are you coming with us?’ and he went with them,” said Pettie.
Pettie stayed in the apartment and kept paying rent, but she couldn’t afford to keep paying the phone bill.
“Once I lost phone service, I lost contact with him,” she said.
When she wasn’t able to find a job to pay the rent, she started living in her car in the Dover and Camden areas.
“It’s tough out there. No one’s hiring, and there’s not a lot else out there to turn to when you’re a Christian,” she said.
She parked in lots at different stores, “trying not to be so noticeable.”
She stayed in her car for a year and a half, not able to find work, hindered by the obstacles of having no real address and having a driver’s license from Maryland.
“I lived off $153 a week in unemployment,” she said.
At libraries, she’d use the Internet to search for jobs in Maryland, hoping she could find one and move back home.
“Libraries kept me afloat,” she said, providing a place she could search for jobs, and a place she could read newspapers and magazines to keep up with what was going on in the world.
The rest of her time was spent walking through stores and in her car, including during the brutal winter, with some of the heaviest snowfalls in Delaware in years.
When the car was too cold, she spent time in convenience stores and grocery stores, trying to stay warm.
Then finally she lost everything.
“I came back one day to the store where I had parked, and my car had been towed,” she said. “I had no other choice but go to a shelter.”
She went to Shepherd’s Place in Dover.
Bus ride leads to new ‘family’
One day while riding a bus, she was offering her “street ministry” and met Rev. Edward Lane, the pastor of Second Chance Ministries. His wife took her to Centennial United Methodist Church in Smyrna on Sunday, Oct. 17, and Pettie spoke to the congregation about her experiences and her faith in God.
Sandra Nix was attending church that day.
“It was so touching,” said Nix of Pettie’s speech. “After Catherine got done speaking, I asked for her phone number and I told her to call me every day, and I’ll try to get you the help you need.”
“That’s exactly what she said,” said Pettie. “It was really heartwarming.”
Nix is a member of Sweet Revenge Ladies, non-profit organization that helps the needy from their club’s headquarters between Smyrna and Townsend. The group’s name means “sweet revenge” against poverty and disease.
Nix called Margaret Guy, the founder of the group.
“I told her, ‘You’ve got to hear this woman’s testimony,’” said Nix.
While Guy wanted to help, she also wanted to be responsible with the organization’s resources, and so she checked on Pettie and confirmed information with Pettie’s previous employers in Maryland.
“Sweet Revenge Ladies are going to try to help Catherine get back on her feet,” said Guy. “She can do volunteer work here in our building, and we’re going to try to help her find a job.”
Pettie is using the computer at Sweet Revenge Ladies building to search for jobs online.
After meeting Rev. Lane, she had been staying with his family, and the members of Sweet Revenge Ladies are going to offer her a place to stay, too.
“I’m feeling a little more secure,” said Pettie. “I’d like to find employment and get back in the flow of things.”
Faye Rhoades, president of the Middletown chapter of Sweet Revenge Ladies, said Pettie reminds her of her mother.
“You have a family now,” Rhoades told Pettie. “We’re your family. That’s what our group is all about — people helping people. Catherine will be an asset to us. She’s a beautiful person. If there’s anything we can do for her, we’ll be there.”
Nix said, “If you heard her testimony, it would touch your heart.”
Pettie hopes her story will encourage others to lend a hand and make a donation to help others in need.
“My main concern being out there, when you’re homeless, is there’s resources for women with children, but there aren’t a lot of resources for women or men if you don’t have children,” she said.
The founder of Sweet Revenge Ladies also hopes that more people will give.
“It’s amazing there are so many people out there who have so much, and then there are so many who have so little,” said Guy. “An organization like ours that doesn’t have a lot of financial support is the one that’s helping her. We need people to send financial donations so we can continue to help people like Catherine. We’ve gotten lots of clothes and that’s appreciated, but what we need are financial donations so we can help people with rent, and heat, and electric bills so they won’t be homeless. It only takes the blink of an eye for someone to be in the same situation as Catherine. I can’t believe she was sleeping in her car in the snow this winter. I can’t imagine. More people need to reach out and use the blessings they have to help people like her.”
“Not everyone who’s homeless is a drug addict or a prostitute,” said Pettie. “You get in a situation and it’s hard to know where to go for help.”
Now that the Sweet Revenge Ladies are helping her, how does she feel?
“I’m very happy. I can’t begin to say,” said Pettie. “I want people to know they have a way out. They have an avenue. Sweet Revenge Ladies are out there.”
Ben Mace is the editor of the Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times, a sister paper to the Dover Post.