Sexual assaults of women living on the streets are a frequent occurrence, I later learned, and they also can lead to debt — vast amounts of debilitating, suffocating debt. The cost of my ambulance rides to various hospitals as a result of that trauma amounted to nearly $4,000. The hospital bills for subsequent treatment were over $48,000, charged to me, as hospital administrators later said, because I “refused” to talk and therefore they didn’t know I was homeless.
I spent the first year of my homelessness suffering abuse; I spent most of the second year behind bars. After a complaint that I had bathed in a public river near Salt Lake City, I was incarcerated from September 2016 to March 2017. Although debtors’ prisons were officially abolished in America in 1833, I paid my fines by sitting in an 8-by-10-foot cell for six months.
In April 2017, a nonprofit group called Journey of Hope helped me find a home. I began earning $11 an hour as a clerk at a grocery store in Salt Lake City, and I rented a spare bedroom in a private home for a year. When that agreement ended, I rented an apartment, for which I had to pay double the deposit because my credit had taken a hit from the ambulance charges I had not known I accrued. I had mistakenly thought that since I had been homeless, the bill would be forgiven. A local church agreed to help me with the security deposit for the apartment, but after about a year there, the IRS came after me for penalties due on taxes I had already paid. The agency said I owed $2,300 in fines.
I called an accountant I consulted during my years as a business owner, and he offered to help for free. “What were you supposed to do, file your taxes while being held hostage in a storage shed?” he told me.
In the middle of all this, I went to a nonprofit group in Salt Lake City that helps people with their credit, and its financial advisers noticed that two of the ambulance rides were placed for collection on the same day, for almost the exact same amount, leading them to suspect that I had been charged twice for the same trip. Having started to work as a journalist again, I called the ambulance company to question the charges and made it known that I was writing a story about my experience with ambulance debt. Within weeks, the bills were dropped.
At that point, I thought I had put the debt of homelessness behind me. My credit score was in great shape again. But then, in the summer of 2021, another threat to my financial health arrived in the mail. A letter from a debt collection service said I owed $48,253 for the treatment I received during the time I was homeless.
Once again, my credit score plummeted. And once again, I fell back on my reporting skills and the power of the press. I wrote to the hospital and was upfront in saying that I was writing a story about the challenges I had faced. Why, I asked, are you billing me, when I was homeless and you could have billed Medicaid or written the bill off as charity?