Someone asked me recently why I do the work I do — why this work, why homelessness, and why mental health? Some of you know a little bit about me, about my history of trauma and my family’s history with alcoholism, depression and suicide. And you know about my passion for trying to help people who are struggling. I could have dedicated my career to any number of helping professions. I could have studied and practiced medicine, or became a therapist, or a substance abuse counselor– why homelessness and mental health?
My undergraduate degree from Lewis and Clark College is in International Relations. I grew up, and was most comfortable, overseas. Right after college, I joined the Peace Corps and spent four years in West Africa, first doing gardening and small animal husbandry projects, and then construction including wells and an elementary school. When I got back to the states, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do next, but I definitely thought I would find a job that would take me overseas again.
I was broke and needed to work as soon as anyone would hire me. The first offer I got was from the Pine Street Inn, a large 300 bed shelter in Boston. I worked on an outreach team that would go out in the middle of the night and give out food and blankets to people sleeping on the streets.
Peter and Eddie worked with me. Peter was an older man with a fluffy white beard and a heart of gold. On winter nights, all bundled up in layers, Peter looked like Santa Claus. Eddie spent time at the gym and had well defined, bulging muscles. He also had a completely bald head. He reminded me of Mr. Clean. And I was a bit of a Pippi Longstocking look-alike, with long braids and freckles.
So, if you can imagine it — there was Santa Claus, Mr. Clean and Pippi driving around Boston in a dark red Dodge van all night, looking for folks sleeping outside. Most people living outside would gravitate towards shelter from the elements at night: a doorway, an ATM room, a bus stop, a nook in an alley, or grates behind large buildings that released periodic streams of warm, moist air. Each spot had its challenges. The ATMs were more likely to get police attention, allies were rat infested, and the grates’ warm air would shut off and the moisture that collected on clothing or blankets could freeze when the temperature dropped.
One night we pulled up behind the public library where there was one of the grates. It was a particularly cold night; well below zero. We spotted a person wrapped up in what looked to be a down sleeping bag and a couple of green army blankets. The three of us got out of the outreach van and walked over towards the grate.
At this point, in my memory, everything starts to go in slow motion. I remember walking up and noticing how the person’s eyelashes were encrusted with snowflakes that sparkled under the street light. I remember the color of their skin: grey, like concrete. And most of all, I remember how my breath fogged up in white puffs in stark contrast to their stillness.
I kept asking myself, over and over: How does something like this happen? How do we let this happen? And how does it happen in the United States of America, the richest country in the world?
I don’t know if everyone has a distinct moment they recall that defines and drives a passion. I do. For me it was that moment. That night, under the glow of that street light. I decided I would do whatever I could to end homelessness, particularly for those living on the streets. Along the way, I learned that the story of homelessness is intrinsically intertwined with a mental health system that was, and still is, failing to meet the needs of so many.
The good news is that while the epidemic of people experiencing homelessness continues to exist in the United States, we have the solutions to end the crisis. Providing a place to call home, without preconditions, is the solution. Housing First. And having access to supportive, flexible, community mental health services ensures that people will thrive in their community. Furthermore, this model of moving people into permanent housing with ongoing supports costs taxpayers far less money than it does to keep them homeless.
Since the day Pathways Vermont opened our doors almost seven years ago, we have housed almost 600 households. And we have built an array of services and supports to help people live successfully in the community. Yes, there is still more work to do. But I believe we can, and will, end homelessness in Vermont. Permanently.
Until then, the person who froze to death that bitter cold night so many years ago, will stay with me, fueling my dedication to ensuring that all people have a place to call home.