When Caitlin, an Outreach Specialist on the Coordinated Entry team, met James in the winter of 2015, she was moved by his kind, good natured disposition. Originally from North, South Carolina, James never disclosed intimate details of his childhood and only mentioned a family he once had when Caitlin asked what led to his homelessness. Although many factors often contribute to someone experiencing homelessness, James attributes his primary reason to his alcoholism. He never wanted his family to know how dire his situation had become and instead isolated himself from the world.
Typical of individuals who have been chronically homeless, James looks far older than most 63 year olds. But, there is more to James than what meets the eye. For the majority of his life, James was an auto-mechanic, and it is no secret around Union Station, where he spent the last 20 years homeless and gained a reputation as a master mechanic. While the majority of individuals experiencing homelessness tend to carry multiple bags of their belongings with them, James’ suitcase is full of just his tools; they are what is most important to him.
Every time Caitlin visited James, he always made a point to ask, “How are you dear?” This caring nature worried her team during the relentless winter storms, where James slept every night on the ground. Even though a concerned community member bought tents for those sleeping around James, he always declined. Caitlin could only convince him to sleep on a thin piece of cardboard and blankets to keep him off the cold concrete. Coupling this with his drinking, his health and safety were of immediate concern.
After the last brutal snowstorm, Caitlin noticed that James had a new sense of trust in her, and was ready to begin addressing his basic needs. His team at Pathways DC got his needed documents together- Medicaid card, Social Security card, birth certificate, and DC ID. When Caitlin handed James his birth certificate, he lightly ran his hand over the name of his mother, saying her name in some disbelief, “This makes me want to cry,” James told Caitlin. It was a nostalgic moment because it had been decades since James had last visited South Carolina. For someone living in the shadows of homelessness for so long, this official document was a small light recognizing his existence and place in his family. The work of teams like Caitlin’s at Pathways to Housing DC are much more than talking about vital documents and appointments. Daily, humanizing activities are where the real relationships are made.
Although James had a supportive team at Pathways DC, he experienced setbacks along the way towards recovery. Part of Caitlin’s job is to support James through his setbacks, navigating to housing. In May 2016, Caitlin learned that the encampment James had been living in was scheduled for clean up. Her team worked tirelessly to secure him a housing voucher, and, because of his vulnerability, several weeks later James was matched. James had chosen an apartment on New York Avenue so that he could easily access his community at Union Station. Caitlin had never seen him happier than when he finally received the keys to his apartment. Through tears, James told Caitlin, “Oh, this means more to me than you know…”
Today, James continues to drink, but now does so in the privacy of his home. He lives walking distance from his health clinic that he visits whenever he is ill, something he never did while living on the street. James is working towards having a real income and wants to learn how to cook healthy meals. Each morning, he wakes up early to work at Union Station, says hi to friends, and then comes home to the security of his home. James truly believed that getting a little sleep on the cold ground of winter and in the sweltering heat of summer would be the best he would ever have, he thought that just surviving was all he could hope for. Today, his life is better than he could have ever imagined. Caitlin recently visited James- not at Union Station, but in his apartment, sitting next to him on his couch with the news flashing across his TV. James had one thing left to tell Caitlin, “You have no idea how happy I am. Thank you for giving me a home.”
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