[Hpn] I'm not one of 'these' people!: By Mike Brennan, Case manager, COTS; Burlington Free Press; Living section; 11/28/2004; 1st of 6 week series
Morgan W. Brown
Morgan W. Brown" <email@example.com
Sun, 28 Nov 2004 20:57:05 -0500
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Sunday, November 28, 2004
Burlington Free Press http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com
I'm not one of 'these' people!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Brennan is a case manager at the Committee on
Temporary Shelter in Burlington. He was introduced to COTS in 2000
when he was out of work, out of money and homeless. This is the first
installment of a six-week series of journals. (Subsequent journals
will run on Saturdays.) Where Mike refers to the homeless, no names
are used and details are left out to ensure that the COTS clients
cannot be identified and to maintain the confidentiality of his
position. This first journal is Mike's story about how he fell down
and became homeless.
By Mike Brennan
Case manager, COTS
My parent's generation came home from World War II and created
suburbia. My father took his GI Bill home loan, plunked down about
$150 and moved in while the streets were still mud. That's where I was
raised and took for granted the safety, security and foundation of a
home. A place to live.
People without homes were an abstraction. Bums. Hobos. As kids on
Halloween, if you were stuck for a last-minute costume, you became a
bum. A little charcoal or burnt cork on your face, some old,
ill-fitting clothes, and you were good to go.
There was always the expectation, here in America's middle class, that
there would always be a roof over your head. The streets were clean,
the schools good; there was little crime, Little League and ... a
Life is what happens when you're waiting for the future to arrive.
RISE AND FALL
In the mid-'70s, after high school, the only way to go to college,
which was what my parents wanted for us all, was loans, scholarships
or the military. It wasn't a popular time to put on a uniform, but the
military offered a chance to get away from home and see the world. So
I joined the Navy and spent a lot of the time underwater on a
submarine fighting the Cold War.
After discharge, the last place I wanted to be was in the confines of
where I grew up. My parents couldn't wait to flee the city for the
suburbs, but I couldn't wait to emigrate in the other direction.
College and the bright lights of the big city beckoned.
I did well in school and graduated with honors. I opted for a career
in journalism, and it did not disappoint. Next to being a cop, it was
a ticket to the best show in the world. I eventually wound up working
for The New York Post covering general assignment news and crime. If
you're going to do something like that, New York City is the World
Series for it. But it was also a corrosive lifestyle -- for me -- that
was fueled and lubricated with alcohol. I had learned to "work hard,
play hard" in the service. The city was ripe with extremes -- in work
and in play. Over time there was a failed marriage, several job
changes -- and losses -- and the eventual end of a career. There's a
price to pay for such sublime seduction.
I managed to stay housed in the city and drifted from freelance jobs
in the media to working for a private investigator to bartending, a
long-standing, fall-back gig. A friend who had relocated to Vermont
eventually offered me an out -- to come work for him and live rent
free. I saw an opportunity for relief and escape and made the move. In
less than a year, my drinking and denial caught up with me and, out of
a job again, I finally "hit bottom." It was like someone pulled a
stopper out of me and all my juices just ran out.
But through it all, I always had a place to live.
The VA not only helped me through college, but they were there for me
when I needed to be put back together. Other veterans pitched in and
helped me come to Burlington where I finally ran out of places to
stay. I had no place to live.
The first night I was dropped off at the COTS Waystation I stood apart
from everyone else and wondered how much worse things could get. The
woman next to me leaned against the wall sobbing, and all I could
think of was: "How the hell did this happen to me? I'm not one of
"These people" being the homeless.
They were obstacles I used to step around, over and look through in my
busy life on the streets of New York City. They were local color for
work or an annoyance or, eventually, just another part of the city
Now, technically, I was one of them!
But in my mind, I was still separate. This was an anomaly, just
temporary. I mean, I had an education, a career, talent, a sense of
humor, a keen eye for detail and ... alcoholism. It felt like I'd
finally come to rest, and there seemed no way out. As war
correspondent Ernie Pyle once put it: "The velvet is all gone from
There was no velvet at the Waystation, but there was a bed, clean
sheets, soap, towels, showers and staff who, if not exactly friendly,
treated everybody the same without any hint of judgment. Anybody who's
ever been in the service would recognize the Waystation as a kind of
third-rate barracks and, like a barracks, it had rules.
My intake worker that first night was a Bronx native named Lucia who
was alternately gruff and soothing and who was one of the first to
show a bright spark of believing in me when I didn't. The rules
included zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, and I had to sign up to
work with a "Case Manager" -- something that sounded suspiciously like
a social worker with an ominous hint of authority.
I was a case all right, but I thought I had no other options. I knew
where I'd been and I didn't want to go back. Although I really didn't
want to be homeless, I had to accept the fact and make some hard
choices as to where I was headed.
People talk about the reasons for homelessness and a lot of them can
be pretty abstract. Staying in the Waystation strips any kind of fancy
veneer over those reasons. Alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, bad
luck -- pick a reason -- but behind every one of them was a person:
The guy who snored so loud and continuously they made him sleep in the
basement (and he still kept us awake); the heroin addict who was one
of the most intelligent, funny and hopeless guys I've ever met; the
Marine who brought Vietnam home locked in his head; the young girl
with the rotten teeth who continued to pay for horrendous abuse
suffered as a child.
These were some of my new neighbors, and they were as diverse as any
community I'd ever lived in. Some of them I'll never forget; some of
them I don't want to think about; and some of them are dead or just
gone (even though you can see them on the street even today, not
knowing or caring to remember what an option is.)
Well, I actually did have some options. I could go back or go forward.
Several options were to work on my recovery, to use VA counseling and
to accept this case management thing. These were tools I had to pick
up if I wanted to change the way things were. My Case Manager
explained this to me from across her desk at the COTS Daystation.
There was a lot of help at hand, but the choice was mine. COTS would
help with a safe, secure place to stay and someone who would help
shine a light on the path out.
Everyone has to leave the Waystation by 7 a.m., and the Daystation is
open from 9 to 5. It's where the real business of COTS takes place.
There's a phone, chairs, couches, meals and a support staff that
provide everything from a shoulder to cry on to coffee, encouragement
and ... case management.
It's a place to rest and recoup and, in some cases, to give up.
I looked around and saw some people for whom hope was a stranger. I
wasn't there yet, and COTS was a crack in the door that I had to open
if I wanted to move on. Over time, as the numbness wore off, I began
picking up the tools. I finally accepted what was going on and chose
to take the help that was offered. It wasn't easy, but I slowly made
progress -- sobriety one day at a time, a job that provided structure
to the day and an all-important paycheck.
A team of people from COTS and its now closed Rental Opportunity
Center, the VA, the Burlington Community Land Trust and the Burlington
Housing Authority helped me rebuild my life. There was counseling and
direction, apartment listings and direction, applications for housing
assistance and more direction, advocacy and encouragement -- and I ran
Little victories led to an apartment: My own place to live.
MY TURN TO GIVE
For three years, I worked a regular retail job in Burlington and,
since it's such a small city, I kept running into COTS people --
Lucia, the Bronx "Love Bunny" who was my intake worker, and Tim
Coleman, who runs the Waystation and Daystation. They seemed always
happy to see me, a "graduate of the class of 2000."
I learned of a part-time position opening up at the Waystation for a
sub working nights and overnights. I left my retail job and walked
back into the shelter as a staffer. It was strange working with the
people who used to sit across the desk from me. They welcomed me but
almost as if they had expected me back -- on their side.
On one of my first overnights, I sat in the office smelling the smells
and hearing the snores and murmurs and the whine of the ventilation
fan. I had what you call a sense memory: Chasing sleep curled up in a
ball with the pillow wrapped around my head to drown out the snoring,
the smells and that damn fan. Here I was, three years later almost to
the day, sitting in an office about 20-feet away but having covered so
much greater a distance.
The job was unlike any I had ever had. I did intakes of people, some
from my time as a client; gave out sheets and blankets; made sure
chores got done; held hands; meted out justice; called Crisis, cabs
and cops; and talked somebody out of lunging across the desk at me in
anger, frustration and violence. In the want ads, they call that job
an awake overnight position.
As the time went on, I came to a realization: It was my turn to give
something back. So in the fall of last year, Tim Coleman told me they
were looking for a case manager. He suggested I apply.
I got the job.
Now I really am on the other end of the pipeline, the other side of the desk.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DESK
As a case manager, I went from dealing with about 40 people in a
shelter setting to talking to one person at a time. The array of
services available was, at first, dizzying to comprehend. The case
management team was a tight one and smoothed my transition. They had
some additional incentive: They were understaffed.
Dealing with individuals with diverse needs and challenges is
sometimes like trying to juggle plates, bowling balls, crystal
glassware and gravel at the same time -- and you're afraid you'll drop
something. Their common denominator is housing -- the lack of it or
anticipated loss of it.
There's a waiting list for everything: Section 8 housing vouchers,
BCLT apartments, food at the Salvation Army and Food Shelf and a
myriad other services. There is no waiting list to be homeless.
The goal of case management here is to help the individual help
themselves to become independent. For some it's easier than for
others. Some people need a longer runway than others. Some crash and
burn, and others bounce a few times before takeoff.
The job is the job. You see a lot of pain, suffering, frustration,
loneliness, fear and heartbreak. You also get to see moments of sheer,
bright, genuine joy and humanity.
This isn't like some TV drama that's resolved in an hour. This is
often a job without any neat resolutions. I hold onto something I call
"little victories." They come with a bed, gloves, clean socks, a hot
meal, a night's sleep, lunch, a job, medical care, counseling or
long-awaited veteran's benefits. They can come with a roof and a
Coming Saturday: Mike Brennan writes about some of the situations he
and his fellow workers at COTS deal with day-in, day-out. To comment
on this story, contact Managing Editor Geoffrey Gevalt at 660-1840 or
e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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