It may have started when Melissa Mosby was just a child as she watched her mother sexually abuse her older siblings, or when she was herself sexually abused by other family members. It could have started when she was 19 years old and gave birth to a daughter, Erin, with cerebral palsy. Or it could have started when Erin died six years later.
Mosby can’t pinpoint exactly which events in her life made her homeless today. What she can decide on, though, is that the death of Erin was when her life really “started spinning out of control.”
There was nothing easy for Mosby about raising a handicapped child. In addition to being completely blind, Erin was unable to sit up, eat or take in information.
“It’s different when you’re feeding your baby with a spoon and when you’re just putting it in a syringe and dumping milk in her stomach. But I tried to make it bonding time. I used to give her chocolate,” Mosby said with a smile and tears in her eyes. “My grandma would say ‘you shouldn’t give her that,’ but you could tell she was just trying to taste it… she liked it.”
Since Erin’s death, Mosby had two more children, a 23-year-old and a 21-year-old. She married and had one more child, a 14-year-old, and after separating from her husband had one more child, a 5-year-old.
Today, though, Mosby sleeps alone. Usually, she sleeps in a side entryway of a local theatre.
Mosby has been homeless on and off for 10 years. She keeps in contact with her eldest through Facebook. But aside from a weekly phone call, she hasn’t seen her 5-year-old, who resides in Columbus with family friends, in a year. She is no longer in a relationship with her husband, but an expensive divorce is the least of her worries. Her main concerns are making money for food to eat and finding a place to sleep. Although the Drop Inn Center, the largest homeless shelter in Greater Cincinnati, welcomes men and women 24 hours a day, Mosby prefers solitude.
“In the winter months, I stayed in the basement of an apartment building. The sheriff came down and the owner was upset I was in his place,” Mosby said. “It’s not right to enter somebody else’s property, but I’d rather face the anxiety of getting caught every morning than dealing with shelters where there’s no structure.”
It’s in this solitude where Mosby does what comforts her most—reading and writing.
Mosby’s desire to read at a young age helped her later on in life. One of her most-loved books, Tunnel Vision by Fran Arrick, is about a teenage boy who commits suicide without leaving behind a note.
“That’s what my brother Michael did,” Mosby said. “I read that years before my brother committed suicide when he was 18. But I feel like that book really helped prepare me, without me even knowing, what it would be like when my brother took his own life and didn’t leave behind any reason.”
Mosby attributes her passion for reading partly to her oldest sister Clara, who died in 1994.
“She’s my idol,” Mosby said. “She’s the one who threw me a book and said you’re going to be ignorant if you can’t read. So I read.”
One of Mosby’s most vivid memories of her sister was when she walked in on her lying on the floor being molested by her mother. As her sister moved her hand away from her eyes, she saw tears streaming from them and shouted for Mosby to please go away. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 92 percent of homeless women experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives.
“So I left,” Mosby remembers. “I didn’t want to make my older sister cry. My sister wrote me a letter one time that was prompted by when my mom asked me to do something and I said no. She said ‘you remind me of the song My Prerogative by Bobby Brown. Don’t lose that. I love you the way you are.’”
Receptionist at Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition Roosevelt William agrees that Mosby certainly has her “prerogative.”
“She comes in here and she knows what she wants,” William said. “She’ll stand up for her rights.”
Mosby isn’t afraid to transfer this mindset into her writing either. Program Manager of Streetvibes Anna Worpenberg first noticed Mosby’s gift for writing at a writing workshop.
“One of Melissa’s articles was produced in like 15 minutes and was incredibly detailed,” Worpenberg said. “She writes really raw, vulnerable pieces and she’s not afraid to put herself out there.”
In one such piece, Invisible, Mosby speaks about how it feels as a person experiencing homelessness to be blatantly ignored on the streets. Mosby writes,
“We share the universe, the planet, the state and this city. We share 12th and Vine St., 13th and Main St., Court and Walnut St. We share Peaslee Park, the field at Sycamore and Woodward, and Washington Park. We share Final Fridays and Second Sundays and every day in between them in OTR… there is no discreet, polite way to pretend someone is invisible.”
Worpenberg describes Mosby’s writing as some of the best work she’s seen come in from distributors.
“She calls out the people who don’t see her and I think that’s part of the mission here at the homeless coalition,” Worpenberg said. “We try to wake them up and say ‘you need to see these people as people, not homeless.’”
Although Mosby has no problem standing up for herself, she said being ignored on the streets isn’t something that one can just get used to.
“This one guy told me, ‘I envy homeless people, they have no responsibility!’ I said, ‘are you kidding me?’” Mosby said. “What makes you think I didn’t go through the normal process of life and I just got turned around some kind of way, something happened to me or I made a choice that caused this? That doesn’t make me any different than you.”
Besides just selling Streetvibes, Mosby spends her time looking for employment while working once a week at Mannequin Boutique, a vintage store that donates proceeds to seven different charities.
“She’s an integral part of Mannequin and she’s a part of the Mannequin family,” said Ilene Ross, manager of Mannequin. “She’s timely and she does her job and it’s always with a smile on her face.”
Above all, Mosby wants people to know that she wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for the help of other people.
“From my birth to right now, I can’t even imagine what a path to a healthy, whole life would look like,” Mosby said. “My life is what it is. I’ve done things that made it worst. But I’ve done things that made it better at times, too. For someone to say ‘this is your own fault, get out of it yourself’ is someone who doesn’t believe that as human beings, we need help. And it’s okay if I need help to get back on track.”