Carol Lockhart said she used to feel bad when she would watch television and see homeless people sleeping in cardboard boxes, and whenever she saw a bag lady on the street she would give her a dollar or two.
"My heart always went out for things like that," said Lockhart, 39, who lives in the Hotel for Women in Santa Ana, a temporary shelter for homeless women.
"I never thought it would happen to me--ever," Lockhart said.
But for six weeks this summer--after having to move out of her Huntington Beach apartment when her two roommates got married--Lockhart, too, joined the ranks of the homeless.
Unable to afford a place of her own, Lockhart--who is unable to work because of epileptic seizures and lives on $475 a month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI)--at first slept on friends' couches. She even spent a night in a friend's car.
"I went from place to place, but I couldn't keep staying at friends' houses," she said. "Pretty soon it was like I was right out on the street. I guess I really never realized how easily it could happen to somebody."
When Lockhart hit the streets in June, about all she had with her was a bag of clothes--four T-shirts and three pairs of sweat pants, two of which she ended up cutting off to make shorts.
On her first night on the street she ended up going to sleep about 2 a.m.--in a planter next to a gas station.
"At first, I sat on the curb and looked at it," she recalled. "I said, 'No, I'm not going to do this. I'm just going to keep walking around.' But I was just so tired. I wanted to go to sleep."
Some nights she would sleep on the beach. Other nights she would sleep in bushes next to an apartment house and, occasionally, she would sleep in an apartment complex laundry room where it was warm.
"I didn't like being out at night. It was scary," she said. "Sometimes I'd sit in a coffee shop and drink a cup of coffee. I'd just sit there four or five hours."
One night she found an old mattress next to a dumpster and pulled it behind some bushes where she slept--until about 6 the next morning when someone saw her and turned on the sprinklers.
"It scared me, and I looked up and saw this guy," she said. "I thought he was going to call the police. I said, 'Don't do anything.' I got up and left."
A respite came when she received her monthly SSI check. She said she checked into a motel, "the cheapest one I could find . . . but (the money) was gone in two weeks."
Then it was back to the streets.
"I thought I shouldn't be living like this," she said. "It's horrible. Nobody should be living like this."
Although the weather was warm during the day, Lockhart said it would get cold early in the morning. But, she said, her worst moments on the street were when men would harass her.
"They'd harass you about sex," she said. "I'd say, 'You just get out of here.' That happened different times--any time they see you with a bag. That's why I tried to keep my bag someplace, and I tried to have clean clothes."
Living on the street, Lockhart said, was worse than she imagined it would be.
"I had never been on the street before. I was raised in a middle-class family and had everything I wanted. Nothing like that ever happened to me. I always thought that it was their fault that they were on the street because they didn't want to do anything--until I was there.
"I had what I wanted; then all of a sudden it was gone, and I was on the street. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it's true. It just happens. It can happen to anybody."