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Prisoners of Affliction
The path to homelessness is a winding one, with as many variables as victims.
Homeless. Standing alone, the word by itself conjures up an image in your head. A defeated-looking person with a cardboard sign, or someone passed out on a park bench. Both are reasonable images. They’re the homeless population you’ve seen — either in your day-to-day life, on TV or in the movies. But living without a permanent address doesn’t necessarily equate to begging on the side of the road, or sleeping out in the open.
According to the latest homeless Assessment report to congress, 65 percent of the homeless Are living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs.
Some are the working poor — those living hand-tomouth, who can’t cobble together enough money to afford rent, so live in motels. But statewide, substance abuse represents the largest reported demographic group of homeless, followed by the severely mentally ill, according to the Governor’s Interagency Council on Homelessness Annual Report. “Most of the target symptoms of many mental illnesses is being afraid of people, and not being combative with people,” says Scott Rose, president and CEO of Way Station, a nonprofit mental health organization. He adds that there are some medical protocols that have been determined by research to be more effective than others. “We’re finding that people can recover…and people can get to the point in the recovery of their illness that they can become a productive, happy individual — they just may need some support, or need some medication.”
Of course, curing homelessness isn’t as simple as giving someone a pill, or sitting and talking with them in a therapy session. Vocational intervention, like sheltered workshops have been shown to double the employment rate of people with serious mental illness. The evidence-based practice of supportive employment, which involves placing people in competitive jobs, has been shown to be even more effective. “There’s this perception that people with disabilities don’t want to work, and that is so untrue. They desperately want to be part of the community, they have an enormous amount to offer, and we just need to be more open to understanding their skills,” says Scott.
While some are resistant to assistance, this is symptomatic of a larger issue. The homeless here aren’t hopping on trains with bindles, smelling the air of freedom because they don’t want to conform to societal norms. They are victims of circumstances — sometimes of their own doing — in need of professional help and counseling to become productive members of society again. For some, this requires hitting “rock bottom” before they’re ready, and for others it just takes a little guidance and structure.
The Huddled Masses
Harold Matthews is a 52-year-old from New York. He’s soft spoken, and thinks long and hard before speaking. He doesn’t fidget — he sits in his chair almost stoically — though that may be a side-effect of the medicine he’s on to treat his bipolar disorder. It’s hard to picture, having met him in this condition, but he’s got a little bit of a reputation for getting kicked out of, or outright banned from, stores downtown. Not for stealing anything, or fighting. He can just be “a little much.”
When Harold takes his medication, he’s lucid, thoughtful, and attentive, otherwise he says his mind can be all over the place. “Now I have people to remind me, but before when I had the pills myself, I’d misplace pills, they’d drop away from me, or I couldn’t find ’em. Here they help me take ‘em the way they’re supposed to be taken.” He came to Maryland in 2007 after he and his wife split up. He spent time on the couches of friends, but was effectively homeless until getting some help and direction from Turning Point — a program of Way Station that offers treatment, rehabilitation, and employment programs, among others.
Parker T. Coyle is 28. He has a unique mixture of confidence and melancholy. He often speaks through gnashed teeth as if he’s holding back tears. He’s strong, has a firm handshake, and looks you in the eye when he talks to you. He’s “from” Frederick, Md., but he’s also from Minnesota, Annapolis, Japan, and Arizona — the last two care of a stint in the military. When faced with tragedy, Parker’s coping mechanism used to involve as much booze as he could fit in his system, and sometimes drugs.
His formative years were a little dicey and involved some run-ins with the law. He was able to keep things just on track enough until he drank himself out of college. Aimless, he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. While initially stationed in Japan, he kept his boozy tendencies mostly in check. He was trusted, and says he excelled at his job. After two years in Japan, and two years in Yuma, Ariz., he decided to not re-enlist. He and his girlfriend drove to Tucson to enroll in college. That’s when, for the first time in his life, he was homeless, living in his car, working a minimum wage job, and waiting for his G.I. Bill to kick in. He was still years away from being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
While it seems she never had a very good relationship with her mother, the two hit a breaking point and Christina “moved out” when she was 15.
Katie Pinkham is a 45-year-old mother of one from Massachusetts. Her father was educated at Harvard and Yale, but academics weren’t her focus. She had her first drink when she was 5, but didn’t start drinking on an alcoholic level until she was 10 — which happens to be the same age she was sexually abused. She discovered marijuana around 12, and cocaine around 14. She dropped out of high school just two months before graduation so she could focus on her addiction. She did settle down for a spell, got married, and moved toVirginia. She got her GED, and enrolled in community college in Fredericksburg.
Despite efforts to better herself, she still wasn’t happy, she says. One night, a fire ravaged her home, and both she and her husband were lucky to get out alive. They lost everything. Katie says she felt like this was a sign, and losing everything meant she could break off her marriage — no strings attached. She started drinking heavily, and got into a dysfunctional relationship with another man. “I was sick, so I was looking for someone sicker than me,” she says. She just hopped around at that point. She was homeless in Blacksburg and Richmond, Va., and then found out she was pregnant. A spell of sobriety followed, and so did several relapses, which brought her to the CAMEO House in Hagerstown.
Christina would prefer to remain anonymous, but in her 36 years she’s seen it all. While born in Hagerstown, she moved all over the place — from one eviction notice to the next. Her father was out of the picture when she was 7, she says, after he went to jail for child molestation. Her mom brought Christina and her sister back to Hagerstown, before testing out the waters in Florida, back to Maryland, and up to Connecticut. Because she moved around so much, city to city, state to state, she never finished school on time, and never made a lot of friends. While it seems she never had a very good relationship with her mother, the two hit a breaking point and Christina “moved out” when she was 15.
She came back to Maryland, staying with relatives and working two full-time jobs, until she found a place she could call her own. “I did that for a while, but at some point, I felt like it was just too hard. I was lonely.” She started letting people who needed a place to stay live with her, and things progressively went downhill. “My house became a party house, and then of course I didn’t want to work — that’s not in the schedule when you’re partying ’till 5 a.m.” She got kicked out, got pregnant with her first of five children, and moved around the state selling drugs to make ends meet. She slept in City Park, behind Pangborn Elementary in the woods, in stairwells, shelters, and on couches. After losing custody of her children, she deadened the pain with drugs before finding help for her addiction.
The Tired And The Poor
The unifying characteristic of these four people is that they needed structure, some form of outside assistance. Guidance, counseling, therapy — in some cases more than others — were necessary to return these people to a place they are comfortable being. Harold still needs a little more help, but he’s striving to find work. He lives in government-assisted housing and takes classes at Turning Point for anger management and job coaching. Again, it could be from the medicine, but there is something eternally positive about Harold. When asked about his upbringing, he says, “I have a big family that throws the best little cookouts that you’ve ever had.” He doesn’t talk about the time he got busted for stealing newspapers from the machine and selling them, or getting banned from stores. Even his brief time in jail in Hagerstown is recalled with pleasantries. “They were really nice to me in there. They would cook meals for me. I couldn’t believe it.” And it’s like pulling teeth to try and find out about his days in the library, and nights outside or in a shelter — only saying, “I never was one to go out into the woods and sleep.” Harold misses his mother, who he turned to in times of crisis. “I have a mom that was really nice. She was the perfect example of love for me.” He misses his wife, and her sense of humor. “We were married in 2000, and we separated in 2006. The divorce papers haven’t come to me yet. So we’ve been married since then, but I haven’t had the adventures of being married for 15 years,” he says. He gleefully recalls the day he hit a scratch off ticket jackpot of $3,333, and the way his wife said, “Harold, you did it!” Harold is a work in progress, and he’s happy to work toward that progress.
Overcoming abuse took Katie decades and there have been countless ups and downs on her road to recovery; living without an address was only a part of it. Even when she lived without a place to call her own, she only had to sleep under the stars one time that she can recall. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a female, but I always had someone that said, ‘You can spend the night with me.’ I was always really friendly and I made friends really quick.” When she realized this wasn’t a healthy way to go about life, she sought help — and found out she was pregnant. Katie got clean and sober right away, but had a succession of relapses that could be triggered by big events, or nothing in particular.
After an 18-month period of being sober, she celebrated getting all As at HCC, and thought, “You know what, I deserve a drink.” Within a week, she was back to doing it all the time and was homeless again. “I was staying at a friend’s house on their couch, and they were helping me take care of my son. I would just put him wherever I could place him. I was neglectful.” This time her bender was bad enough to get arrested and lose her son to foster care. She was in a car that got pulled over and the cops found drugs. Her son was in the backseat without a car seat. “When the blues went on behind us, I just knew it.” She went to jail, and two days later the reality of the life she was living hit her. “During that process I went back to rehab and to another halfway house. That was a turning point in my journey.” After a stint staying at the W House, she got into transitional housing and regained the custody of her son. “He went through a lot, but he’s doing great. I put him through Hell.”
Currently Katie and her son are living in low-income housing, where they’ve been for about four years. She just earned her bachelor of arts degree in social work from Salisbury University and was accepted to the master’s degree program. “If I can change, anybody can. You just have to find a little bit of inspiration somewhere, somehow.”
Parker found his inspiration while staying with a fellow boozehound. Something clicked and he realized he hit the bottom. He was on probation, drinking every day, and decided he just needed to end this — to do something, anything. “I always exceeded expectations. I was told I was going to do great things, and now look at me. I’m 26, homeless, and I have nothing.” He didn’t come to this conclusion over night though. Parker wears his emotions on his sleeve. It’s hard to tell if this was always the case, or if this comes from his sobriety. He has a long history of drinking and getting in trouble. While already on probation in high school, he got back into the bottle and his mom kicked him out of the house and called his probation officer. Instead of going to jail, he was sent to wilderness school in Cumberland. During his senior year of high school, he spent one year, three weeks, and four days, or “something like that” at the wilderness school. Almost with a sense of foreshadowing, he spent that year outside living in a tent. He was given another chance when he went off to college in Queens; but again when left to his own devices, he let alcohol take charge and dropped out. He moved back home and was doing odd jobs but, his mother insisted he needed to find direction. He decided to join the Marines. “When in doubt, that’s what you do. I definitely wasn’t making enough to support a family. That was what made sense to me.”
After boot camp, he graduated from combat training, went to MOS (job training) in Mississippi and graduated at the top of his class, before being sent off to work on aviation supply in Okinawa, Japan, for two years, he transitioned to Yuma, Ariz. While in Yuma, he met a woman he fell in love with, and within months the couple were expecting a child and were married — in that order. Just months later his grandmother passed away. While Parker was back in Maryland for the funeral, his wife stayed home. “It started a pretty hasty downward spiral in my life. I separated from her after I found out she was cheating on me.” Parker met another woman, and opted against re-enlisting. After his service was up, he and his new girlfriend headed to Tucson to attend college. The two lived in their car, worked low-wage jobs, attended classes, and camped on the weekends. Right around the time his G.I. Bill kicked in, Parker’s brother died. “I don’t know specifically what happened that night, but I know he drank way too much, and there was a little bit of heroin found in his system.”
When Parker returned from the funeral, his new girlfriend was gone. He finished his semester, and came back to Maryland. He returned on Mother’s Day. It was a welcomed surprise — for two days. Parker got drunk, and was kicked out of the house. He lived in his car again, this time in the Wawa parking lot in Annapolis on Spa Road, and worked three jobs. When he put enough money together, he got himself a place and started drinking again. Then he lost his jobs, and next his apartment. Not long after, Parker was pulled over and was arrested for drug possession — he had 3.5 grams of MDMA. He didn’t post bail and stayed in jail in Queen Anne county. “What was I going to do anyway? I was homeless.” Parker stayed in lockup waiting for his court date for over two months. His first visitor was a representative of the Department of Veteran Affairs. “I didn’t pay much attention to it, honestly.”
Out of jail, Parker was back to doing odd jobs, living with another alcoholic, when it hit him. He called back the Veterans outreach person, and within five minutes had an appointment to be there the next day at 8 a.m. “I belonged in a rehab facility. And it started a new journey, which has been amazing. My whole life has changed completely in the past two years.” After three months at Perry Point Medical Center, Parker transitioned to the Welcome Home House in Hagerstown on Jan. 19, 2014. They helped him get his license back. They helped him find a job, and gave him one-on-one counseling and rides to recovery meetings. “The main barriers to becoming a normal citizen were out of the way. I dove into recovery in every sense of the word.” He’s now working for a contracting company doing information technology work, and has plans of starting a business venture of his own on the side.
The stability Parker found in the military and from treatment is what Christina lacked her entire life. Moving coast to coast, leaving friends and apartments behind was a regular occurrence. This left her lonely much of the time growing up. “We just kept movin’, movin’, movin’ all the time. More times than I can count, I’d come home from school and our possessions were on the sidewalk…and then we were on the move to a new a city.” When she was 15, while living in Connecticut, she was ready to move on her own terms and left. The initial move to independence was short-lived, but within a year left for good to live with relatives in Maryland. She worked hard to find a place of her own, and did so while working all the time. That’s when drugs started creeping into her life. Within the next three years she was arrested, pregnant, and living in foster care. Boyfriends came, and boyfriends went — most had drug issues, she says. She continued to move around from house to house, and sold drugs to make ends meet.
When Christina was pregnant with her fourth child, she and her three boys were living at CASA. While on a phone call to the father of her youngest child, she was overheard saying, “This is my baby, I’ll kill it if I want to.” The next morning she was woken up by a social worker who brought with her a court order to take the children from her custody. “I was not trying to let that happen. I took the kids and I ran.” Carrying her two youngest children, she didn’t get far. She wanted to get the kids to their fathers so social services couldn’t do anything. Then the police showed up. “They said give us your kids or we’ll forcefully remove them. I had no choice but to hand them over.” With her boys being taken away, she was handcuffed and says she saw the social worker talking to other police officers laughing. “I assaulted her.”
When she was released, she blew off all her obligations. She didn’t follow up with court orders, or her probation officer. She got pregnant with her fifth child, and settled down again for a short stretch of time. But then she found access to prescription pills through a relative, and started drinking heavily. One night, she rolled her Bronco while drinking and driving, and spent a little more time in jail. “I was drinking heavy, I was taking pills, and I rolled my truck.”
When she got out of jail, and no longer had custody of any of her children, she just stayed high 24/7. “I didn’t care at all. I slept on steps, I slept in abandoned apartments — stay away from me, and let me be high. I stayed like that for close to five years. I had nothing to live for and thought maybe I could kill myself this way.” She managed to get a job working at a carnival, and occasionally stayed in motels and often in a vacant apartment. “We lived it up in that abandon-minium. It had running water, a fridge, electricity...” She also found solace with a group of people behind Pangborn Elementary School. “There were a bunch of us living out there. We even had a playpen set up out there for the kids. Kids in a playpen livin’ in the daggone woods. We had frying pans and everything.”
After three months at Perry Point Medical Center, Parker transitioned to the Welcome Home House. They helped him find a job, and gave him one-on-one counseling.
When sober, Christina still aspired to regain custody of her children. She met a new guy, and found a place to live. With a permanent address, she thought that could be the missing link to being permanently reunited from her kids. But those plans were extinguished when the building she was staying in caught fire, and she was charged and convicted of arson. She’s been out of jail for more than a year. She’s been clean, and has come to take her past for what it is. “I’ve accepted I won’t get my kids back.” But every single day, she has to remind herself that she’s OK. “I do normal things now. I like having an apartment better than being homeless. “I don’t worry about not being sober, now I worry about paying the bills.” This clutch of individuals with divergent pasts and varying futures, who have managed to avoid being buried by their afflictions, have various social programs to thank for being folded back into society. They all have suffered from various mental illnesses, but are living proof that being damaged does not equate to being broken.