Treacherous and traumatic: this is the experience of homelessness. With homelessness come the dissonant conditions of humility, hope, and demoralization. There is stigma, strength, grief, loss, and a need for escape. And, thankfully, there is the compassionate help of providers in the field.
Devon* is a tall man who smiles with confidence as he speaks about the lessons he has learned from his life’s experiences. He is easygoing and has a proud and courageous demeanor. He is one of 75 men served by the Metropolitan Homelessness Project’s (MHP) shelter, spending his nights at The Albuquerque Opportunity Center (AOC). David Sisneros, the Program Director at AOC, describes the program as comprehensive. It provides respite care, benefits assistance, hygiene products, and food. AOC also has other programs designed for specific needs.
Devon was born and raised in Ohio in what he describes as a middle class family. After graduating high school, he entered the Navy with his uncle’s encouragement. “He told me it was the most important thing a young man can do because it teaches organization, discipline, structure, and the ability to follow instructions,” he remembers. It was in the Navy that he earned a two-year degree in data processing and administration management. Through the G.I. Bill, he went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in economics.
He was eventually hired by a hospital in Albuquerque, earning a significant salary as a contractor. Then, the contract ended. This marked the beginning of Devon’s slow walk towards homelessness. He initially believed that, with his work experience, it would be easy to find another job—but it was not easy.
Devon describes his first experience of homelessness as “a slow progression. I saw that my finances were decreasing each month. I lost my car, and I was not used to the bus,” he says. Eventually, he was evicted from his apartment and found himself homeless.
It was during his second experience of homelessness that Devon began using alcohol and drugs. He had smoked crack cocaine recreationally for years, but Devon says that the family morals he grew up with were like a trampoline that sent him bouncing back.
When he thinks about how he managed to get clean, he says simply, “You cannot serve two masters.” He chose a spiritual master over a master that some would call addiction. He began to serve the church and managed to find some stability again.
But he found himself slipping back into homelessness, this time due to financial loss. “If you don’t manage your money correctly every month, you can end up without a place to live,” he says. Devon is now in his third and longest period of homelessness. It has lasted six months.
He came to AOC and has been able to access services from the Respite Program, which David says offers time-unlimited care for men like Devon with acute medical conditions. Devon spends his nights in the respite care unit, recovering from surgery he recently had to treat his cancer.
David says the men in the Respite Program are provided with three meals per day, as well as transportation to medical appointments at local hospitals. Generally, the clinic serves men with a range of health problems, including hepatitis C, broken limbs from street assaults, pneumonia from exposure, and surgeries. They also see rare cases of men with severe mental health needs who have stopped taking their medications and need to re-stabilize.
As a veteran, Devon also qualifies for the services offered through the Veterans Transitional Housing program at MHP. This program has served 235 men, and 61 percent of program participants have moved into stable housing since 2008. David says the immediate goal is to provide expedited connections to Veteran’s Affairs (VA) benefits, services, and treatments. But MHP also wants to realize a more long-term goal —that of helping veterans exit homelessness and enter permanent and stable housing. On-site MHP case managers and social workers who are familiar with VA and community homeless services and programs provide this assistance to veterans.
Because Devon must leave the shelter early every morning and cannot return until five in the afternoon, he and the other men often wander during the day. “I go out and about like a rat,” he says. “It is the worst part about living homeless.” While most people go to the library, Devon’s favorite place to go is Noonday Ministries, which provides food and spiritual sustenance. He attends Noonday every Thursday to preach for forty minutes.
Devon considers himself something of a lone wolf and does not interact much with other people in the community, and he does not feel that he is understood. But he holds out hope for his future. He would like to go to community college to earn an Associate’s degree in social work and to combine those skills with his ministry efforts. He recently met a woman with a beautiful smile, who has become his friend. And he wants to give back and work at a shelter, to provide for others the same compassionate care he has received.
*Not his real name. His name has been changed to protect his identity.
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