The name may not be familiar, but there is no mistaking the face.
Anyone who frequents downtown Washington has noticed Leona Zitkovich. She's been a fixture in the city for several years now, frequently making her home on sidewalks and park benches.
She's the petite woman with leathering skin and streaks of gray in her hair, styled most recently in disheveled pigtails. She can be as quick with a smile as she is with a scowl, and her cantankerous personality can be intimidating.
“If you don't like me, don't bother me,” she said. “If you don't have something good to say, don't say it. People will say, 'I don't like her.' Well, nobody asked you to.”
Leona Zitkovich has led a troubled life, to say the least. The 62-year-old suffers from impaired thinking, disorganized speech, paranoia and delusions, making it difficult for her to maintain any steady train of thought, much less differentiate between fact and fiction.
She blames the fact she is homeless on the judicial system and social service agencies. In her mind, they have failed to do right by her, and nobody can convince her otherwise. As a result, she has a lot of trust issues. Repeated offers to engage a case worker in helping her secure permanent housing are defiantly refused because previous efforts, she said, were unsatisfactory.
“I'm tired of the system,” she said. “I'm not neglecting me. The system is. It's the system that wants to stop people from having good housing.”
How did Leona end up on the street?
“Let me think. I think it was the courts,” she said.
She received no alimony after her divorce, and the only job she ever had – and for a brief time at that, she said – was at Dairy Queen. She relies on Supplemental Security Income, a needs-based program that provides a monthly check to people who are blind, over 65 years old or have a disability.
“I deserve disability,” she said.
Despite all her faults and insecurities, she can be very polite.
While sitting on a bench in front of WesBanco on South Main Street on a recent spring evening, Leona acknowledged every lawyer exiting the Trust Building, referring to them as sir and bidding them a good evening. Local police and motorists she knows were greeted with a wave, and anyone who shows her the least bit of kindness is called darlin' or baby doll.
Leona is a Washington native who dropped out of high school in 1968 when she became pregnant. “Back then, you were not allowed to stay in school,” she said.
She kept the child, and when he was old enough, he joined the Marines.
Leona eventually married, but the marriage didn't last. “I don't want to talk about my marriage,” she said.
The couple had a son, and before he was barely old enough to walk, Leona took her two children and moved back home with her parents.
“The best thing was to look ahead for the future of the kids as well as myself,” she said.
Her youngest son is serving time in a correctional facility.
She also has five grandchildren, none of whom she sees. “It's best not to see them right now,” she said.
Most of her adult life is rather sketchy, as she recalled a few memories, none of which were good, while we talked at length while sitting at a picnic table at Courthouse Square.
Leona said the last place she called home was an apartment in East Washington, but she claimed she was surrounded by drug addicts who partied all the time. “It was not healthy,” Leona said. “When I have a house or apartment, I don't want in an atmosphere of drugs. I've never done them, and I don't drink.”
She spent three months at Safe Haven, and she's spent a few nights at Avis Arbor, the City Mission's women's shelter. On nights when she sleeps on the streets, she's not afraid. “I never had too much worry,” she said. “People look out for me.”
During the day, for a while, Leona would sit in on hearings at the Washington County Courthouse. She stopped going to the courthouse when the “conspiracy” began. She spends a lot of time walking, and when she does, she picks up litter.
“I'm occupied,” she said.
As she gets older, though, Leona is finding it harder to weather the cold winter nights on the streets. She has high blood pressure and asthma, and this winter, she landed in the hospital for a few days after she began to experience difficulty breathing. She also has what she calls plenty of stress.
“I try not to really think about everything,” she said. “You've got to get to the solution, settle the problem and move on.”
At the same time, Leona did receive her share of reprieves this winter. She was a frequent guest at motels on the outskirts of the city, requesting rooms where she felt most comfortable and relying on her SSI benefits and the kindness of friends and acquaintances to finance her stays.
But that's not the answer, and she knows it. It's financially draining, and she's beginning to wear out her welcome.
“I'm getting tired of living outside, eating here and eating there, when I could fix my own meal and make sure my house is clean,” she said. “I've seen enough in my life. I'm tired of being victimized and threatened, but not being patient. A lot of women would not have survived what I've been through.”
And she owes her survival on the streets, she said, to two things: “Luck, and my faith is strong.”