Young grandmother gets a fresh start

Marsha Lyles doesn’t look like a woman who is down on her luck. She lives in a tidy apartment complex in one of the quieter corners of the East Bay. She wears a stylish silver chain over her black turtleneck, with matching earrings, bracelet and watch. There’s even a newer model SUV sitting in her carport – the rear windows covered with stickers by her grandchildren.

But spend some time with Lyles, 50, and you learn that just a few weeks ago she was living in that car. That, after 21 year of running a successful independent cleaning business in Oakland, she has spent the last two unemployed as a result of a work-related injury and the downturn in the economy.

She lost her home to foreclosure in 2009, after falling victim to a predatory loan company. She was evicted from her last rental apartment in June after her employer-paid benefits lapsed. Because she didn’t have a substance abuse problem or any dependents – her daughter is 32 and married – Lyles was turned away from virtually every shelter.

The longtime Bay Area resident attempted to maintain her dignity by depending on friends to let her into their homes every morning so she could shower and get properly dressed. She tried to move forward by studying interior design at Chabot College in Hayward, even while living out of her car, but was forced to give up school when it became too costly.

Despite outward appearances – the ready smile and natural elegance – Lyles has had an incredibly rough streak.

“I couldn’t understand everything going on,” she said. “To get this far in life and I can’t take care of myself.”

Much-needed break

Thanks to the assistance of Andrea Wong of Alameda County Social Services Agency, a Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund grant put Lyles in a new apartment by paying her security deposit and a portion of her first month’s rent in October. It has given this vibrant young grandmother a much-needed break and perhaps the opportunity to turn things around.

“When I got the keys to this place I was so grateful,” she said, asking the location not be disclosed because of previous domestic problems. “I slept on the floor that first night. I didn’t care. I was just so grateful to have my own place.”

Lyles kept a personal journal while living out of her car, detailing all the harrowing nights sleeping in strange parking lots and the unexpected kindness of acquaintances and strangers during the ordeal.

There was the friend who offered up her own bed for the night; one who unexpectedly restored Lyles’ cell phone service, allowing her to stay in touch with her grandchildren; and a delivery driver who gave her gas money when she needed it the most.

“God just really sent angels my way,” Lyles said. “But sometimes he didn’t send anyone. It was just something I had to go through. I was so broken. You know how a glass shatters? That’s how I felt. I felt like a crystal glass that had broken and the pieces just went in all directions. I felt like I was losing my mind.”

Lyles said that when times were good, when she was pulling in up to $3,000 a month from each of her many residential and commercial clients in the nicer parts of Oakland, she was the one helping those in need.

“I would take food and blankets to the people on the streets,” she said. From them, in turn, she inadvertently learned survival skills – small things, she said, like keeping a bucket and bag near her car to use as a makeshift bathroom.

“Emotionally, I’ve gone through a lot,” she said.

‘Not up yet’

Lyles said she hasn’t slept the past few nights because she still feels unsettled. She has to contend with rent, utilities and keeping her refrigerator stocked. Her vehicle registration fees are due and she needs to renew her car insurance policy.

“I’m not up yet,” she said.

The day we meet she is getting ready to collect bottles and cans to recycle, hoping to cover some of her basic living expenses.

“Here I stand at the door of maybe homelessness again,” she said. “I’m praying for a miracle. I don’t want a handout. I want a job.”

There is some hope. Lyles, who is also licensed as a commercial driver, is on a waiting list for a job at the Port of Oakland. She was also offered a position at BART earlier this year but needs to complete adult school and pass her GED test first, something she’s actively pursuing.

“I want to wake up from all of this and put myself back together,” she said.