When Being in Jail is Better Than Being Free

“Oh wow, he stinks!”

I’ll never forget his words. It had been 3 months since I had taken a shower. I knew I smelled bad, he didn’t need to say it for me to know. People could smell me before they could see me.

My hair was knotted, my clothes were dirty and ripped, I was sweating dirt. If you looked at my feet you would have looked away. The sores were so bad I could barely walk. I had walked so much. I had to. It was too embarrassing to ride the bus. So I walked. And I walked. And I walked some more. I walked so much my body told my brain, “You can get where you want to go but you can’t use me to do it.”

I remember seeing my reflection in a window and thinking to myself, “Wow, you actually look the way you feel on the inside.”

One time, I ran into this guy on the street who knew me and when he said hi, I pretended I didn’t know him.

I denied who I was because I didn’t want anyone to see me like this.

Do you know what it’s like to be so embarrassed by your life that you deny who you are?

The officer, the one who felt the need to shout to the world how bad I smelled, he wouldn’t even take me in his car. He was so disgusted he called another officer to come get me! Talk about rock bottom. I was there.

After years of being angry with the laws, I never thought I would be so happy to get arrested.

All I wanted to do was sleep. To find a corner in the hold over and lean against the frigid steel. When you’re living on the streets you don’t sleep much. On the streets you are sleeping on top of ants. It’s hard to sleep with bugs crawling all over you, it trips you out.

But the jail cell… the jail cell was peaceful. There’s no peace on the streets. You are constantly looking over your shoulder, protecting your stuff, trying to stay alive.

In that moment, jail was life.

I had shelter.

I had food.

I had protection.

I was better off here.

Her Name was Heroin

I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. My mom was an Attorney and my dad was an Architect. Life was pretty good for the most part. I took care of my younger sister and got good grades in school, life was pretty good. Everything appeared normal on the outside but my dad was doing his best to keep a secret, he was Bipolar.

Chaos became normal.

Never knowing when he would come home calm or come home screaming, I grew up expecting the unexpected.

The chaos of my home took a toll on my emotions and created a lot of anxiety. I tried to keep things in our home peaceful, I tried to make sure my dad was always happy so he wouldn’t start yelling at my mom and sister, but nothing I did was ever good enough. It wasn’t long before I started drinking to numb the emotional pain I was feeling inside. Shortly after high school I joined the military and moved away from my family. I finished my Bachelor’s degree, met a girl and ended up getting married. Life was going really well until the demon of mental illness crept into my own life.

Up and down and up and down, I could never seem to find a happy medium. I tried my best to keep things under wraps. I was a soldier, soldiers have to keep it together.

I did a pretty good job hiding my emotions until my wife got pregnant. I was excited. I dreamt of they day I would be a father. I wanted to shower my child with the affection and love I had always hoped for, but I never got the chance. My spirit was crushed when my wife told me she didn’t want to keep the baby. I didn’t want her to have an abortion but I loved her and I knew she wasn’t ready, so I agreed to support her.

After she had the abortion, I began to carry a lot of guilt and shame. I felt we made the wrong decision. I couldn’t live with the choice we made and I carried regret with me daily.

The guilt and shame made it harder and harder to control my emotions and the mental illness began to show. I didn’t want people to think I was weak. I didn’t want them to know the real me. I tried to hide it, to suppress my unstable mood swings, but it didn’t work.

Life was slowly starting to spiral out of control and I didn’t know how to manage the chaos.

That’s when I found her…

Heroin.

Oh the euphoric feeling she brought me.

The escape and release I felt when we met face to face. It was just what I needed, a temporary escape from my dreaded reality. My world as I knew it was crumbling to pieces and heroin was the only thing that made me happy.

My marriage was soon over. My family began to disown me. I lost my job and had no idea how to support myself. Life became too much to bear. I felt like a burden to everyone in my world and couldn’t find meaning or purpose in life anymore.

So, I did the only thing I knew to regain control of my life, I tried to end it. But it didn’t work!

“Stupid idiot! How could you not do it right the first time?”

So, I tried again. “I don’t want to be alive, life is meaningless, just let me die! I’ll get it right next time, you watch!”

But the third time didn’t work either.

It was at that point, that I realized I wanted something more. I couldn’t go on living the way I was living anymore. I desired a better life. I desired stability again. Independence. Sobriety. I wanted to be a productive member of society. I longed to feel worthy, needed, loved.

I longed to be married again. To be the father I always wished I had. To share the love I was so eager to give, with a wife and children of my own.

So I tried. I really did. I tried to stay sober. I went to meetings. I was vulnerable and shared the demons in my closet and I learned about myself.

I grew.

I changed.

But the progress didn’t last.

The dark cloud continued to hover and the emotions I had suppressed all my life all began to resurface. The chaos returned and everything I had worked so hard for was slipping through my fingers. I was in a state of panic and I didn’t know what to do.

Amidst the chaos, I could hear her calling my name.

“Chris… Chris… Come back to me, you know you miss me…” — Heroin

Mama Didn’t Know No Better

Mama didn’t know no better.

She just did what she learnt. She didn’t know.

Her mama had men in and out and in and out, there was always a new man around to call daddy. There was always a new man around to make happy so they didn’t scream at her or beat her.

We was always scared. When the mens was mad, they hit her. When the mens drank the beers, they hit her. When the baby cried, they hit her.

Mama tried to make the mens happy. She only did what she learnt to do. I don’t blame mama.

I don’t blame mama for all the mens that beat on me. I don’t blame mama for all the mens that touched me. I don’t blame mama for all the mens that were mean to me.

Mama just did what she learnt to do.

The light bill always got cut off. We didn’t have no food. Mama tried her best but her check wasn’t enough moneys. We needed to pay the bills, and I loved mama.

So… I did what I had to do to help pay the bills.

When mama brought the mens to the house, I knew what to do. So I did it, I helped mama.

Mama didn’t really care that much about school. I never learnt how to read and write. I didn’t learn much at all. When I got grown, I wanted to have a job. I wanted to have a good life. But it’s hard to find a job when you can’t read and write.

My caseworker was a nice lady, she knew it would be hard for me to get a job so she helped me get a check. I get $700 every month. Mama gets the check, and mama’s got to pay the bills so we don’t have much left.

I don’t want to live with mama anymore. I don’t want them mens around me all the time so I don’t want to live with mama. But I don’t know where else to go. I don’t have no family. I don’t have no friends.

So, I stay on the streets.

On the streets I can hide from the bad mens.

On the streets the bad mens don’t touch me anymore.

On the streets I’m happy.

I like the streets.

Schizophrenia Is Scary

I don’t like to talk about “it” a lot. My life was going really good before I realized I had a mental illness. I grew up near the ocean and spent most of my life at the beach with my siblings. I’m the oldest of three, one brother and one sister. We are very close.

My senior year of high school, I started struggling with depression when my dad was deported and sent back to Jamaica. My grades dropped from straight A’s to my first C. My mom was so upset, bad grades were not acceptable if you were going to be a doctor.

Pressure. Constant pressure. Nothing I ever did was good enough. I was always pushed to do more.

I managed to snap out of the depression and get back on track in school and even got a pretty hefty scholarship to a great University.

College came pretty easy for me, I was always good in school and prided myself on my intelligence. My parents wanted me to be a doctor so I started college with the intention of going to medical school. I loved college. I had great friends, was doing really well in school and had options. About 2 years in to school, I decided to switch my major and started studying biochemical engineering.

It fascinated me and challenged me in a way that made me want to learn more .

And then “it” happened…

I started forgetting things.

I couldn’t concentrate in school.

My mind was roaming and I couldn’t keep my thoughts together. I thought it was just the pressures of school until the voices started.

Oh. My. God… the voices.

It’s like a room full of people talking directly in your ear when you are trying to concentrate or read. It’s impossible to focus when you’ve got multiple conversations going on in your head.

My grades started to drop, I didn’t understand what was going on and my life as I knew it was falling apart.

I didn’t understand schizophrenia, my family didn’t understand schizophrenia and no one knew how to help me. The pressure was too much to bear and after 3 suicide attempts to end my life, I thought change was the answer. My mom asked my Aunt if it was okay if I came to stay with her for a while and she agreed. So, I bought a bus ticket and headed to Texas.

Remember when I told you I was forgetting things and couldn’t concentrate? Well, I knew my family lived in Texas, but I couldn’t remember where or who, or their phone numbers. I got to Texas but didn’t know where to go. I was in a foreign place, with no family support and no idea how to utilize the resources.

That was July of last year. It’s been 10 months now and I’ve been homeless since I got here.

I can’t remember my mom’s phone number and I don’t have any money to get back home to her.

I don’t know what else to do.

I don’t know where to go.

I’m scared.

Can you help me?

Please help me.

The Resilience of the Homeless

The summer after I graduated college, I interviewed for a job with a company that would play an instrumental role in my professional career. Fresh out of college, with no clue how to actually do the job of a Social Worker, I was given a job as a Liaison at the Psychiatric Emergency Room. It was my first intimate exposure to the homeless population, my first glimpse into the truth of their world instead of the perception I had formed in my own head. 
 
For many people, when they hear the word “homeless,” their mind wanders to the man or women standing on the corner of the street asking for money. To most of us, that’s our only exposure to the homeless population and it gives us little insight into the story behind the people we encounter. If you’ve never taken the time to get to know someone who lives a life of homelessness, I’d encourage you to do so. For each person standing on the corner, sitting under a bridge, or squatting in an abandoned building, there lies a series of events that lead them to this place.  
 
My time working with the homeless has taught me many things, but recently I’ve seen my clients with a new set of eyes. In addition to seeing what I can be doing to serve them and help them, I’ve been reminded of their strength, courage, determination, perseverance, and fearlessness. 
 
The men and women living on the street have a resilience that makes me so honored to work along side such wonderful people. It is an incredible thing to witness. 
 
I’d like to share some things with you that will give you a sneak peak into their world and hopefully help you see beyond just the cardboard sign they are holding as they vulnerably put themselves out there to ask for your help.   
 
The homeless population continually face rejection. 
There are several homeless shelters throughout the city of Dallas, each with their own rules. Some with an age requirement, others with a 7 day maximum, some who kick you out each morning make you wait in line again the next day. Many of the clients I work with always have a back up plan. They know that if they aren’t able to stay in “shelter A” for the night, they are fully prepared to walk to “shelter B” hoping to obtain a bed/mat for the night. They know there is always a chance they will get turned away, and they still push through to find a place to rest their head each night. 
 
The homeless population uses what is available to them.
There are resources in the community that provide meals for the homeless community but if they miss the opportunity to eat, it could be hours before their next meal. Recently a client I work with told me if the weather is bad and he’s unable to panhandle to get enough money for food, he’s had to resort to digging through the trash cans just to find any piece of edible food to satisfy his hunger. 
 
The homeless population does not become attached to “stuff,” they are minimalist.
To live on the streets, “stuff” is not your friend. Everything you own, you carry. You quickly begin to learn to rely only on necessities. Your backpack/duffle bag is the most important thing you own because without it, carrying everything becomes quite difficult. Just this week, I picked up a client from the hospital to find that the two bags he had the last time I saw him are now gone. I asked what happened and he explained his belongings were discarded by the shelter because he was admitted to the hospital. This man has only the shirt, pants and shoes he is wearing but smiled with joy as his face was met with the beaming light of the sunshine from the sky. 
“Stuff” doesn’t matter to him. 
 
The homeless population are gifted in the art of trade and barter.
I once had a client tell me about a 7-eleven clerk who was kind enough to make a deal with him. My client shared that sometimes churches and other organizations would provide water bottles, clothing, shoes, or miscellaneous items when they came through the shelter. My client explained that if he had everything he needed and couldn’t find anyone else who could use what he was given for free, the store clerk would allow him to trade a pair of pants or shoes for food/snacks for the week. As I listened to him speak, I was impressed with his creative ability to be resourceful with what he had. Having an extra pair of pants was a great thing, but ensuring he had nutrients for the week was far more important. 
 
Never knowing when their next meal will be, the homeless use what is available to them to keep themselves alive. Unable to find shelter, they are creative in coming up with ways to keep themselves warm in the cold and dry in the rain. Without a car or money for a bus pass, they will walk for miles just to get a meal or use the computer to look for a job. 
 
As I think about these men and women, I can’t help but be so proud of them. I can tell you without a doubt in my mind, I’m not sure how long I could be strong under those circumstances.