Friday, March 27, 2009

it shouldn't have to happen...but what to do?

One of the things that has puzzled me in my job is knowing that there are many homeless who don't sleep in shelters, and yet not knowing where they are sleeping.  As I've gotten to know more and more people I've been able to gain insight into this, and some of the stories simply blow me away.  While some of those who sleep in the "great outdoors" do so by choice, others have simply burnt all their bridges, this is a story about one who burnt his bridges time and time again, and also, a story of survival.  

Devon was one of those kids who never quite fit in.  Like so many others in the homeless community, he comes from a broken home and his addictions began at an early age.  Inside Devon there is A LOT of rage.  He's angry about his circumstances, and while he tends to be in control of his impulses while sober, when he drinks, he's a very scary individual.  Devon managed to make his way to a permanent restriction from our services, and had to spend a very cold winter living outside and trying to keep from dying.  

During the summer Devon would find spots by the river or hidden away in back alleys.  As long as he could stay off the radar, he was able to go about his life in relative piece.  When winter came however, it was too cold to sleep in the open.  Devon, like many others before him, and I'm sure many to come, moved into new accomadations...dumpsters. Packed full of garbage and rotting food, these metal conainters make a good place to curl up.  Unfortunately, the garbage bags can act like quick sand, dragging someone to the bottom where it's hard to get out in a hurry.  

One of the other tricks to staying, or at least feeling, warm in the winter is to drink large amounts of alcohol.  As the alcohol runs through the blood you feel warm making it easier to fall asleep and easier to bear the cold.  So, one night, as Devon slept drunkenly in a dumpster, he didn't wake up when the garbage truck came, instead, he woke up as he landed inside the garbage truck.  The details of how he survived are a bit of a mystery, but he did, and realized he needed to change his living arrangements.  

Devon moved from the hidden away dumpsters to a prominent heated bus shelter.  Here we covered him with blankets many a night on van patrol, waking him up to make sure he hadn't gone into an advanced state of hypothermia.  As Devon was brought to the drunk tank more and more often it became clear that the police, like us, felt sorry for him and wanted to protect him from freezing to death on the coldest nights of the year.  Despite the horrible things he had done in the past, staff advocated for him and Devon is now allowed to use our services, and to this point, he's shown a lot of respect and thanks.  

In talking to Devon, it's hard to imagine him as a horrible monster.  To me, he is kind and gentle.  I think perhaps the dumpster was a life changing experience for him.  While he hasn't stopped drinking, I haven't seen him in a drunken rage in ages, and he's connecting with the people around him in the community and with the staff at the shelter.  They say everyone has to hit a rock bottom before they change, I wonder if this will be his rock bottom, even though he hasn't decided to abstain.  Maybe he's already started making the changes needed for survival... 

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