By Tom Barnidge
Contra Costa Times Columnist

DONNA GREER said she had the most unsettling experience of her life last week. When she looked into a mirror, she saw a homeless person looking back.

At 10 a.m. Friday, she was evicted from her five-bedroom Tracy house, the one she envisioned as her "dream home" when she bought it for $450,000 eight years ago.

With its value now barely half that, her savings exhausted and more than $300,000 left on her mortgage, she knew foreclosure was inevitable. She couldn't even blame the bank, she said. She had been behind on her payments for a year.

Her life crumbled beyond repair a long time ago. The water company cut off service in November -- a neighbor let her run a hose from next door -- she heated water on the stove to take sponge baths and relied on food stamps to pay for groceries.

But nothing prepared her for the day she walked out of her house for the last time. She couldn't even offer her house cats a place to stay.

They had become her family, she said. First, a Siamese, then two strays from the park. She kept adopting until eight furry friends shared her home. Her photos of Picasso, Boots and Boscoe appeared in Cat Fancy magazine, she bragged, but that didn't mean she cared any less for Spencer, Remington, Oracle, Blackjack and Da Vinci.

Greer frowned as she pondered their fate, looking every one of her 60 years.

She said it's stunning how easily a lifestyle can unravel when you pair bad luck with bad decisions. "My story would be great for Dr. Phil," she said. "I'm the tale of everything you shouldn't do in life."

It wasn't always that way.

She once parlayed a business degree from Cal State Hayward into 13 years as a purchasing agent for a department store chain. A badgering boss and frayed nerves finally ended her tenure.

She resurfaced with a management firm that did work for Hewlett-Packard, but that job ended when the company failed to win a new contract.

Sure, her path was bumpy, but it never seemed headed toward the streets. Greer was married in her 20s, living comfortably in Alameda, and was a loving stepmother to her husband's two young kids. After seven years of marriage, though, her husband came home one day and said: "I met someone else, I don't love you and I'm leaving."

A relationship with a female friend filled the void for several years, but when her live-in partner developed a fondness for drugs, everything turned sour. The mate who had helped with household expenses became a freeloader.

That's when she should have looked out for herself and found a job, Greer said, but her divorced mother's failing health demanded her attention.

After Greer's father died, most of her inheritance went into her house -- first on a down payment, then the mortgage. Unable to find work, she sold her jewelry to make ends meet. Her savings evaporated. So did friends. Her stepchildren cut off communications.

"When I told a friend I was going to be homeless, I never heard from him again," Greer said. "People don't want to hear about homelessness. They think I want money, that I need a place to stay. I'm thinking 'How about a hug or a cup of coffee?'

"When I used to see homeless people, I always wondered, 'Where are their friends and neighbors? Where are their families?' Now I understand."

Maybe that explains her concern for the welfare of her cats.

"The cats stayed with me," she said. "Nobody else has."