The scary thing about Annette Cooper is that she could be your mom. She's filled with warmth and offers that particular kind of motherly advice that doesn't get said aloud nearly enough.
“I've got plenty of anecdotes, honey,” she says with a slight German accent, taking a break from painting one of her picture frames, “but I don't want you to make the same mistakes.”
Annette's mistakes are the kind many women can relate to. The story of how she ended up living in a tiny one-room office space in Mission Hills with all of her belongings stuffed into trash bags, forced to take what she laughingly calls “bitch showers” using a bathroom sink, is the age-old tale of falling for the wrong man.
At 18, Annette left her home in Stuttgart, Germany, with just a few suitcases. A few years later, she found herself married, pregnant and working in ad sales. Her husband, she says, was abusive, so she filed for divorce and took off with her son to San Diego.
She arrived in 1979 and started a housecleaning business. Her father helped out by buying Annette and her son a beach house in Carlsbad. Annette raised her son alone and planned on remaining alone for the rest of her life. It wasn't until she was 52, standing solo on the beach, that her life plans changed.
She met a man and sort of lost her head.
“All of my friends who met him have said, ‘We didn't like him, but you were so much in love with him you wouldn't have heard us,'” she says.
Annette fell under the love spell, got married, sold her house—a move for which her son still hasn't forgiven her—and moved to Tobago, a small island in the southern Caribbean. It took a little more than a year of living out her “simple life” fantasy before things went wrong.
Annette calls the day she was evicted from her Tobago apartment “that horrible day.” Her new husband, it turned out, hadn't paid the rent. A few days after the eviction, she found out that he had another wife, a Vista woman who was living on a neighboring island.
“Now I call him the bigamist,” Annette says, laughing.
The months that followed were hard. The husband had burned through almost all of her money. Annette was so depressed that she stopped eating and might've died had her son not flown out to retrieve her.
“Depression is too simple of a word,” she says.
Back in San Diego, Annette's son gave her a place to stay for six months but told her she'd have to get back on her own after that.
But Annette was too depressed to do anything. Six months went by and, in a last-minute rush, she found a job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly couple. The comfort was short-lived. The husband of the couple died, and Annette found herself at the San Diego Rescue Mission. She quickly got accepted to Rachel's Night Shelter, Rachel's Day Shelter and, eventually, the House of Rachel, but while she found the camp-like feel of the night shelter “kind of fun and interesting,” she found living in the house and sharing a single room with a stranger while constantly being bothered by a stream of faceless volunteers intolerable.
In short order, Annette managed to get herself kicked out and was lucky enough to find someone who offered to put her up in the empty office space temporarily. Now she spends most of her days painting, looking for places to sell her work and looking for someone who needs a good German housekeeper.
“Everyone's just a paycheck or two away from this,” she says. “Just hope and pray things never go this way for you.”This story is part of a regular series aimed at introducing San Diegans to their homeless neighbors, one name and face at a time. It's our way of advocating for more humane homelessness policies.