A Place to Call Our Own
Imagine you are asleep in a warm bed, underneath thick cozy comforters, in the dead of winter. You stir in the middle of the night and open your eyes, though the darkness would fool you into thinking your eyes are still closed. You move around, stretching your legs and taking deep breaths, relishing your safe haven of warm air that encompasses you. Your foot sneaks out of the corner of your blanket and you feel the ice-cold air pierce your hot skin. Quickly, you snatch your foot back under the blankets and into the furnace that is your body heat. Peaceful in your quiet, warm darkness, the bliss of the night is not lost on you. And suddenly, you have to pee.
I like to use this analogy when describing some of the people I meet in the homeless shelters that I frequent throughout Rhode Island. Although the majority of men I encounter at Harrington Hall are desperate for a stable roof over their heads, there are a few that have made the shelter their home. They feel comfortable there. Their daily routine is so ingrained in their heads – wake up at the shelter and have breakfast, take the RIPTA bus to get a dose of methadone, meet up with friends at K. Plaza, bus over to McAuley House for lunch, meet friends at Burnside Park, and hang out until bussing back to Cranston for dinner and another night in the shelter.
“Some people feel comfortable here,” a shelter regular tells me as we chat. “They get a monthly check, free food, and don’t have to pay rent. They feel free. They don’t want the responsibilities that come with getting housed. This is their home.” It is hard for me to understand.
I experienced homelessness in high school for years, and I cannot identify with not wanting to settle down and come home to a place where the bed is yours and you can choose when you want to turn the lights out for the night. But my friend tells me, “It’s like when you’re under the covers in the middle of the winter. You get so comfortable that you never want to leave your bed. But eventually you will have to pee, and you can’t hold your pee forever. So no matter how long you try to stay in your bed, you will have to get up, face the cold, and go pee.”
My own experience with homelessness is a major driver in my life. When I first got to Brown, it was such a drastic change from my former life. It was hard to adjust at first, but soon it was like I was never homeless. That part of my past was erased, presenting itself in my head as a bad dream that didn’t really happen. Eventually, trauma from my past crept into my subconscious. I could no longer ignore the adversity that ultimately led to my success at Brown. It was the acceptance of my past that led me to seek out service opportunities for the Rhode Island homeless. Now, I embrace my past homelessness as the motivator of my future endeavors. Being able to identify with the difficulties that the men at the shelter are experiencing allows me to connect with them, gain their trust as a peer and friend, and gather valuable information on what they identify as imperative needs in a recovery program.
Working at Harrington Hall has been incredible so far. My task, as a part of my iProv internship, is to design an alcohol recovery day program for the all-men’s shelter in Cranston. This includes: researching best practices of programs for chronic inebriates and chronically homeless adults with substance abuse disorders and mental illness, developing a program model (that includes services provided, staffing needs, and community resources available), creating a curriculum for programming, and developing a performance evaluation plan for the program. Halfway through my eight weeks, I’ve learned so much. Designing an alcohol recovery program is a daunting task--impossible almost. It’s hard to have all of this responsibility when I still identify as a non-adult. But this is my task, and I am doing everything in my power to complete it.
Although sometimes I feel lost in the shuffle, I go into work every day with the intention that I will finish this program design and it will make a difference. A recovery program is very important for this population. Men are trying to get their lives back on track, find housing and jobs and a purpose. Many of these men have substance abuse problems and the only way to get back on track is to recover. Most men at the shelter feel like I felt when I was homeless: lost, lonely, helpless and hopeless. We don’t feel comfortable where we are. We want to get our lives back in order. But we are haunted by the fear of failure, the fear that we will fall through the cracks and never get a chance at stability. In the end, we all want that place where we can snuggle underneath the covers and create a cocoon of blankets. We want a place we can call our own – where we wouldn’t mind braving the cold to go pee.