Altoona woman’s turnaround leads her to City Council post
Maria Guzman spoke and gestured energetically, eager to show a visitor to her tiny, tidy apartment in Altoona all of its furnishings.
She pointed with pride to a couch that pulls out into a bed, then showed off her new, flat-screen TV. She did likewise with her kitchen table and chairs, then took a few steps toward a wood- and gold-colored cross mounted on the wall, below which rested a Bible on a small end table.
A moment later Guzman’s face lit with a smile as she noted a small, green plastic dinosaur hanging in a window, a gift from a homeless acquaintance last year, when Guzman, 58, was homeless herself and spending nights at the Sojourner House homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire.
Those items and others in Guzman’s apartment are gifts she has received since she was the first person to be housed at Solis Circle, a former assisted living facility-turned-affordable housing complex in this city of about 8,000 east of Eau Claire. In fact, virtually every item in Guzman’s new home was given to her by others, a visible link to her strong support network and her growing connection to the community.
“This is my little palace,” Guzman said, gesturing to the neatly decorated space around her, one of 25 units at Solis Circle. “Everything in here is because of the support I have in this community, because of the friends I have. It all has so much more meaning to me because of that.”
Guzman’s connection to her community will grow further beginning April 7, when the woman who was homeless just four months ago presumably will win a seat on the Altoona City Council. She recently decided to seek the council’s District 3 position, for which she is running unopposed, after incumbent council member Andrew Schlafer declined to seek re-election.
Guzman said she had never considered a position in local elected government, had never even dreamed that serving in such a capacity was possible. The Brooklyn native who lived most of her life in Philadelphia, working long days on her feet as a housekeeper and for a catering business, didn’t believe life as an elected official was in her realm.
“People like me, people who are poor, racial minorities, homeless, we usually aren’t in those kinds of positions,” Guzman said.
Such a life seemed even further away after Guzman was forced to quit her physically demanding job because of arthritis and fibromyalgia. After her husband became ill and died in 2014, Guzman moved to Chicago, then to Eau Claire to live near family. When that didn’t work out, Guzman suddenly found herself homeless last spring, spending her days at various Eau Claire locations and nights at Sojourner House.
Depressed about no longer being able to see her grandchildren and overwhelmed at the strain of life on the streets in a city where she knew virtually nobody, Guzman felt like her world was spinning out of control. Terrified and seeing no way out, Guzman pondered ending it all.
One day she almost did. She made her way to a downtown Eau Claire bridge, and as sorrow overwhelmed her, she felt her hopes and dreams floating away, just like the water below. Her eyes watered as she resolutely prepared to jump.
Just then a passerby approached Guzman and asked how she was doing. Startled, Guzman turned to the person, temporarily shaken from her thought of plunging from the bridge. She credits the chance interruption with saving her life.
“It was a guardian angel, that person coming along at just the right time,” an emotional Guzman said. “If that wouldn’t have happened, who knows if I would be here now.”
Still facing homelessness, but with a newfound will to survive, Guzman set out to do whatever she could to improve her situation. She reached out to organizations that assist homeless people and others, seeking employment and assessing what benefits she might qualify for. She worked to get enrolled in public housing lists. She started a job cleaning at Sojourner House, working mornings in the same place where she spent her nights. She also landed a job at the Eau Claire County Job Center.
Then Sojourner House staff told Guzman about a new, 25-unit affordable housing project in Altoona that was seeking tenants. She had made calls in previous weeks seeking housing that hadn’t worked out. But Guzman overcame her doubts and decided to contact the person in charge of housing at the Solis Circle project anyway.
The next day Guzman received a call back, conveying good news: she would have a new home, a home of her own. Guzman screamed with joy.
“I couldn’t believe I would have a home,” she recalled of that moment. “I just couldn’t believe it. For the first time in a long time, something good was finally happening.”
Guzman’s unlikely path to an apparent local elected representative has its roots in her being housed at Solis Circle. Altoona Mayor Brendan Pratt met Guzman at a ceremony in September celebrating the development’s opening.
Nearly two years earlier Pratt had helped lead an effort to address a lack of affordable housing in the Chippewa Valley. As he talked with Guzman on that day and subsequently, he thought her life experiences, outgoing personality and desire to help had the makings of a City Council candidate.
“She was working on a petition to get the bus route closer to Solis Circle, closer to where people who needed that service could access it,” Pratt recalled. “She was already doing work for her community.”
The more they talked, the more Pratt was convinced Guzman should seek a council seat. Guzman accepted Pratt’s offer to run for the council position, but she subsequently struggled with apprehension about whether she was up to the job.
“I thought ‘Are you serious?’ ” Guzman said. “Can I really do this? What do they see in me? I was homeless. I can’t do this … I had so many doubts.”
However, Guzman decided to seek the council position. The woman of Puerto Rican descent said she realized if she had overcome so many past life difficulties, if she had overcome being homeless, she could learn to do her part to help city government. In fact, she decided she had an obligation to do so, given her positive life turnaround.
Pratt is glad Guzman made that decision. She will add a diverse perspective previously lacking in Altoona city government, the mayor said, and her life experience will enable him and other city officials to view issues through a different lense.
“Maria will bring a lot of insight to some areas we maybe haven’t previously thought about,” Pratt said. “She knows the struggles that people go through, and can offer us possible ways to help … She has lived that life.”
Altoona City Administrator Mike Golat said Guzman will offer “a new perspective on issues facing the city, given her unique background and lived experience.” He praised her kindness and optimism, even as she has faced adversity.
Guzman acknowledged she still has difficult moments, still has tough days. But she said she is “grateful beyond measure” for the many kindnesses others have shown her, acts she said fuel her desire to help others.
“I want my voice to be heard, and to be the voice for so many people who are struggling,” she said. “If I can do that, it will be my way of repaying the many people who have helped me.”