The Sweet Smell of Success

Success is something to savor and be proud of, especially when the outcome is worthwhile. For a number of people formerly living without a home, a family, or life security, there is much success in once again having it all and having it for all the right reasons.

Not everyone ascends out of homelessness and back into their own life again. That’s a fact. Many, if not most people don’t escape from such a situation, and for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, some ascend out of homelessness only to later fall back into it. But for those who do get out of the vicious cycle and keep their new life, a celebration of their story is well deserved.

To go through a life recovery process—fill out housing papers, get a job, an income, make new friends, open bank accounts, deposit money, file tax returns, and finally get a place of one’s own—for these people who have transcended dire circumstances, life is now sweet.

It’s a delicate experience, getting back on one’s own feet again. One walks on pins-and-needles and feels giddy. It seems impossible. But it’s real this time.

* * *

The new or rediscovered things, although little and incidental by most standards, are startling to the winners. For example, not having to carry all your life’s belongings in a big backpack all day like a mule, being able to go home anytime you want, being able to fill out a form with your own home address and not that of a shelter, having a key, especially a home key, after years of not having a key to anything except maybe a tiny locker in a shelter, and so much more.

A big moment is realizing that you now have a private mailbox after years of having someone give you your mail from behind a desk or in an open pigeon hole in the wall at the shelter.

You can cook whatever you want in your own kitchen, and not just what’s served that day. You can prepare it at any time, not at a prescribed hour. You can buy your own groceries. And you aren’t given ten minutes to eat. You can take your time.

You can shower at leisure and there’s a door to the bathroom. And it’s private. That’s a big improvement.

And no more shelter cots. You now have a comfortable bed to sleep in and you can sleep as long as you want. No more bugle and wake-up calls at 6am and announcements to get out of the shelter by 7.

In fact, you can now even have some people over to watch the baseball game or just for dinner. But you do have to be careful about who you invite over.

Let’s look at a few stories.

* * *

Jim, who was neither a drinker nor a drug user, was simply homeless by circumstance. He had been a career Marine and had served his country well. But he wound up in a homeless shelter, immediately determined to get out of it. He got into a transitional housing program and waited a while, finally getting his own place. He’s had it for almost twenty years and has never had a problem. From time to time he’s had to go to a food bank to make ends meet, but he’s a satisfied man. When he was in transitional housing he saved all his money for use when he got his permanent place.

Janice, who drank and used drugs, and who had relapsed a number of times over the years, did the wrong thing and lost her home. But she finally got a grip, saw the light, and turned her life around. With little income, she was in a transitional housing program where she finally got a subsidized apartment in a nice town. She’s been there in her own home for a few years, and despite every once in a while getting stressed and feeling like picking up a drink—an urge to which she doesn’t succumb—life is sweet. She likes her comfortable new bed, especially compared to the cracked and stiff plastic mattresses she had to sleep on for years in shelters.

Jack, who was entirely estranged from his family, and who had been in jail and used drugs before he was able to get a grip, moved from a shelter into an outside congregate housing sober residence. He chose this path rather than wanting to be alone on his own, which he says he will do again someday when he feels stronger. He’s working again now and enjoys it. Living with other people isn’t so bad, and he finds it supportive to keep himself in check to do the right thing. He’s saving some money for his future, something he really hasn’t thought about in years.

Moe, who had been homeless for years, was lucky enough to be picked up in a public park by a street outreach team who was able to hook him up with a local housing authority. The agency moved him into a permanent apartment in a nice public housing project. Moe says he couldn’t have broken the vicious circle by himself, and that he was lucky the street outreach team came up to him. He had stayed away from shelters except to sometimes get a meal. He lived outside. No one was tracking him and he was off the radar. It was almost like divine intervention. Now, for years he’s managed, with some help from social services and faith-based organizations, to stay in his own apartment.

* * *

The French writer Voltaire once symbolically wrote that we must cultivate our own garden in which to flourish. That’s the message, really. If someone can do positive things to get his life back and keep his life above water, then once he gets the necessary break he’s lucky because he knows it’s an opportunity that comes but rarely. And he will succeed, with strength, determination, and the moral support of others.

So we applaud the people who have risen like the mythical phoenix bird out of its own ashes and taken their lives back again. May it happen like this for more and more people.

We also pray and have hope for those who have not yet made it out of the homeless conundrum or who are otherwise lost in their lives and seeking a good port in a terrible storm. May they see the light and get a break. And may the storm clear forever.

Finally, we mourn for and remember those unfortunate people who didn’t make it out of homelessness, who died under a bridge or on a street or in a cardboard box, alone, sick and unable to have found the light. Their struggle, strength, torture and message has not been lost—in some instances they have inspired changes in social
policy. Meanwhile, we celebrate the successes.

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