There was a big room in the rear section of the shelter which, if I want to be true to this entry then I have to say this here, I had never been to a homeless shelter before. I’ve spent time on the streets and needed places to crash in my youth. I have experiences with financial hardships and misfortunes. But to compare my story to others would be an injustice and to say that I understand would do people a disservice because I’ve never had to live in a homeless shelter before.
Perhaps my preconceived ideas and the pictures in my head were intimidating enough. So, it was safe to say that I was nervous. Safe to say that I was intimidated by the invitation and feared that I would be a flop. Not to mention, this was early in my new idea of a career change and consequently, my anxiety was high. My social fears of speaking in large rooms and in front of large groups of people was enough to stir my stomach and leave me nauseous which, by the way, no one ever believes me when I talk about this.
I have panic attacks before I speak. I have breakdowns before my presentations. In my head, there is an old voice that is a remnant of my cognizant past which fears the exploitation and the exposure of me being a fake, a lie, or found out that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
However, without digressing any further, after speaking in front of a roomful of law enforcement officials, I was invited to speak at a Northern New Jersey homeless shelter. This was a result of my involvement with a legal initiative that supports recovery instead of the typical arrest and process routines. The operation was created because arresting and processing is something that typically does nothing more than lead to the revolving door and more of the same.
However, I only mention this as a means to provide a background. Going forward, I admit that I was new to this process. I was a rookie here with a lot to learn. I was not young by any means; however, I was young to this new concept that I might be able to find my purpose and build a new career.
I was about to learn things that showed me how little I knew and how much more I needed to understand. I was about to learn about boundaries and how important boundaries are in a professional setting. In no other way to explain it, I was afraid yet hopeful and captivated. However, I had so much more to learn. As for the homeless, this was a word that acted like a mark which was no different than the terms junkie or bum.
I suppose that stigma is part of our culture. I suppose that I expected to see people in the shelter who talked to themselves or people with plastic bags on their feet. I mention this in full-disclosure because I want to be honest about this. I also want to be clear about how wrong I was and how I endured my first lesson of cultural biases and diversity.
The room was large and clean. In fact, everything was clean. Of course, it would be inaccurate to say that no one in the room had struggles with mental illness. It would be inaccurate to say that everyone was clean or that no one fit the stereotypical or distinguishing marks of street life.
But in the same text, I am someone who struggles with mental illness. On either end of the table, whether it be on the side of help or the opposite side and in need of help, I have always been a part of the mental health world. I have my own scars and marks of shame. So therefore and sincerely, perhaps this was a time where I realized my levels of status and pedestals or the way we sensationalize people as “better” or “worse” was in need of revamping.
Would you like to know what I saw?
I saw people. I saw people who identify as women and people who identify as men. I saw people who identified as trans and those who refrained from identifying at all. I saw mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. People who you would never know about their situations if you passed them on the street. In fact, you would think nothing other than hey, they’re people.
Everyone there had a story. Then again, everyone has a story which includes you and I, the neighbor next door and the house down the road. We all have a story.
We all have a background; however, in the case of someone who has earned the term of homeless, no one ever looks at them and thinks about their story. It is seldom that people recognize them and consider how this person was someone’s child once. This person lived, loved, laughed and learned, not unlike anyone else in this world.
So, in short, the first thing I noticed is that I saw people. I did not see “homeless,” but instead, I saw people who were in need of assistance or support.
I was invited to speak in the cafeteria and tell my story and talk about what I was doing at the time. I was invited to tell them about my experiences with deployments to emergency rooms and to discuss the opiate epidemic.
I was to tell about my experience as a person in long-term recovery and to show that people do recover if they have the capacity to work an understandable program and improve without looking back.
My time was not too long but my discussion was impactful enough to create a large round of applause. This was noticed by the directors and administrators who explained that, to date, no one had ever received a round of applause.
I waited around to speak with the people who lived in the shelter. I sat with a few people and, in all honesty, there were people who looked to dodge the system and looked to pull a scam. I say this to paint an honest picture and I mention this because the directors and administrators treated them fairly and equally.
There were people who literally opposed my presence and who quite clearly and forwardly approached to say they wanted nothing to do with life in recovery.
But, what they did say afterwards is that they appreciated my story and shook my hand with a means of support.
I was more like a passenger on a trip at this moment. There were people of all kinds who approached me to discuss different ideas and talk about different ways to get ”out” or find housing.
If I am thinking correctly, perhaps this was my second public presentation and I was petrified that I would say something stupid or do something wrong.
A woman sat with me as she ate her pie for dessert. She began to tell me how she was also in recovery and how this was where she lived.
We talked for a while about her life. Then she asked me a few questions about mine. Next, she asked if I knew why the guests of the shelter gave me a round of applause.
“Do you know why that happened?”
I answered, “No.”
“It’s because you spoke to us like we were people,” she said.
“And not like we’re homeless or poor, like a bunch of diseased freaks.”
There are times when I see myself and my efforts. There are times when my game was faulty. In moments of insecurity or fleeting moments where my internal narcissist rears its head, I can see where I lost myself. I can see my faults and flaws and dare I say this, I am no better or worse than anyone else. I am not above or beneath anything. In fact, I am capable of making life-changing mistakes and doing inappropriate things.
I can see where there were times when a wrong decision cost me more than I considered. I can see where my mental challenges and emotional hang ups, or my insecure bullshit, or egocentric, or ego-driven needs and manias got in the way of me and my best possible self. I can see what addictive thinking does and where instant gratification comes with irreparable causalities.
I can see where there were times in my life that I had quit without quitting by self-sabotaging and why? The answer is because at the moment, I was not at my best self. I was operating on behalf or responding as a result of something, which in my head was misinterpreted or like a child – I threw a tantrum because I was not getting the right attention. I can see this.
I can see where this impacts a person’s behavior, including my own.
I can think back to times of personal and financial crisis. In fact, it was only by luck (and a good bankruptcy attorney) that I was able to reframe my financial outlook and maintain my housing situation.
Nevertheless, I had the benefit of standing before this community in a cafeteria and speak with people who were simply this: people who experienced loss, tragedy, family deaths and physical ailments. I met with people who lost their way due to bad healthcare. I met with people who were in a humble surrounding and who were there to seek help, find housing, and get back to a life they’d rather be living.
This was the birth of a group known as Breakfast with Benny, which still goes on and still has an impactful touch on me as well as the people who arrive and talk openly about their lives.
Had it not been for this opportunity, there are so many things that I wouldn’t have in my life today. Namely this, I have a better understanding about the inaccuracies of stigma, a wealth of friends who have changed my life and Sunday morning coffee time with an extended family whom I love nearly and dearly.
I think about the alterations of our fate and how somehow, almost cosmically, our paths change and intertwine with purpose and reason.
I think about every moment that has led me up until now which goes back to a time before the moment I sat with a woman as she ate her pie at the shelter.
I think back to the time in 1998 when I put on my apprentice uniform and entered into the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 94, and where this has led me since my apprentice days at 909 3rd Avenue.
I think about the ideas I had about my future – or should I say, I think about the wonder I had for my future and the worries I had about what my future would look like.
Every twist and turn, downfall and resurgence has helped me to create this moment. As I mention this moment, I have to end this here because it’s Sunday morning and in a few moments, I’ll sit with my family at Breakfast with Benny – because we’re still running strong!
Life is meant to be lived with your eyes open –
Not closed and wishing you could see something else.