About 23 years ago, Altoona resident Peggy Thatcher wanted to experience what it was like to have no home in order to better understand the homeless patients she encountered in her job as the intensive case manager for the former Altoona Hospital Community Mental Health Center.
So wearing an ID necklace in case of an emergency and with $20 tucked in her shoe, she headed out alone in the cold of January on a bus destined for Washington, D.C.
On Thursday, Thatcher, who is now retired and serves on several boards such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Blair County and the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers' Association, recounted her 1989, 10-day experience to about 20 to 30 people at the Altoona Area Public Library.
The library's Adult Circulation Supervisor Shelley Williams invited Thatcher to speak after hearing about her experience and deciding other people should know about it too, she said.
Thatcher said reading every book she could find on the subject could not have taken the place of her experiencing homelessness herself.
She said she called her church every day at noon to check in and asked the people at the bus station to keep her ticket home ready to go because she wasn't sure she could stick it out, she said.
Never revealing what she was doing, Thatcher said she met a man and a woman who lived under a bridge with their 2-month-old baby, saw a man passed out in an alley clutching a liquor bottle and talked a woman, who was covered in dirt and lice, into taking a shower. She also came across lots of drug users, and encountered drug dealers and prostitutes.
Thatcher remembered a fat black man who wore an overcoat lined with drugs. He would call her his girlfriend and grab her butt. She let him for fear of what might happen if she didn't, she said.
"It would have been a not pretty sight," Lavender Capenos-Paolucci, 9, said from the audience.
Thatcher attended church while in Washington and listened as a preacher told the congregation they were sitting in the murder capital of the world.
She wondered what she was doing there. She recalled a Bible passage about foxes and birds having their homes, but the son of man having nowhere to rest.
Thatcher said she never forgot Ella, a former psychiatric nurse from Florida who had been homeless for eight years. During Thatcher's short stay, Ella was raped and violently murdered.
At that point, Thatcher thought about coming home, but she stuck it out. She remembered how she had loved ones waiting for her back home.
Ella's ashes were scattered in front of a Martin Luther King statue where she, when she had been alive, would wave her Bible and pray, Thatcher said.
"You've probably seen people just like Ella," she said. "We should not have homeless people in Altoona, but we do."
In Blair County, there are people who sleep in tents and in their vehicles, she said, adding that while 179 people in Altoona got housing relief recently, more than 400 were turned away.
Thatcher, who said she slept little during her 10 days in Washington, did not go hungry decades ago because there were plenty of places to get a free meal, she said. Most people also had health care and a change of clothes. Social workers and the like were also available to aid those seeking help.
Not everyone she met was poor or jobless either, and some did chose to live without a home, she said.
Most homeless people are not "crazy," she said. "They're just down on their luck," she said.
Thatcher said about 3.5 million people are currently homeless in the United States.
"Homelessness is described as the lack of affordable housing," she said. "It spreads across Altoona. It spreads across our state. It spreads across our nation."