Cheryl and Dane both have extraordinary stories to tell. Each spent many years on the streets, homeless, and without direction. Yet, both now have a reason to smile. I heard them recount their life experiences earlier this week when they came to Framingham State University as part of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau Program run by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Watching them stand before a crowd of strangers and recount how their lives fell into despair was an incredible act of courage to witness.
Cheryl, now 63, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a young child, her stepfather ruthlessly abused her to the point where, at age 13, she ran away from home. When she arrived at Port Authority in New York City, she met a man who enticed her to become a prostitute. It was not long before she got involved with heroin and then crack. Eventually, she came back to the Boston area and remained homeless for many more years, frequently sleeping under bridges.
Sixty-six year old Dane was the oldest of 15 children, and from a young age he was expected to take on a lot of adult responsibility. Feeling that he had been robbed of his childhood, he left home at 16. He got involved in petty theft and served six years in a federal penitentiary. While incarcerated, he learned a trade and found a job soon upon his release. Not long after, he met his wife. His life seemed to be on the upswing. But, the marriage got rocky and she threw him out of the house when the fighting became unrelenting. He moved into a one-room apartment and started driving a taxi. But, he soon turned to cocaine and in time got hooked. His driver’s license was eventually revoked and he became homeless.
It would seem Cheryl’s and Dane’s lives could only continue to spiral downward. Yet, amazingly their stories did not end on the streets. Each of them now lives in their own apartment. Having a place to call home has enabled them to turn their lives around, to the point where they have enough self-respect and self-confidence to share with a crowd of strangers the details of how their worlds used to consist of hopelessness and despair.
This transformation is due to an initiative known as “Housing First” which aims to provide the chronically homeless with an alternative to the temporary fix afforded by spending a night at a shelter. “Housing First” is based on the tenet that having a place to live is a basic human right, as well as the principle that homelessness should be solved rather than managed. And lots of research indicates this strategy works; renowned journalist Malcolm Gladwell publicized the program’s successes a few years ago.
For Cheryl and for Dane, there are no more nights of sleeping out in the cold. They now each have a sense of dignity that had long been missing in their lives.