People think homelessness is like a disease. “Don’t go near them – they’re homeless. But we’re not so different. We might be in a shelter and they live in a house. But in this economy, a lot of them, they’re just a paycheck away from homelessness.“
Dawn did not have an easy life. She grew up, an only child, with her mother and grandparents in Ansonia. Her mother and her grandmother both suffered from mental illness. Her grandfather was blind and was an alcoholic.
“My grandfather would take me to the bar when I was a kid. The bartender would give me a Shirley Temple and some quarters to play the video games. I must have been 5 or 6 years old. I’d say, Papa let’s go to the bar.”
Despite some learning disabilities, she liked school and was good at sports, playing basketball and softball in high school until she broke her leg. She quit school in 11th grade and got a job at Friendly’s. When she was about 17, she started drinking but it did not become a serious problem until she was in her 20's.
“All my life I felt like something was missing. I tried to fill that void with drugs and alcohol. Whiskey. Crack. Cocaine. It was awful. I wasn’t meant to live like that. I lost myself for a few years “
In 2006, Dawn tried to break her drug and alcohol addictions in a sober house in Terryville. But most of the people who lived there were still “using,” and it wasn’t long before she relapsed. She was homeless. She was despondent.
“I wanted to hurt myself. A friend dropped me off at Waterbury Hospital. They got me stable. They said, Do you really want to die? I said, no I just have a drug and alcohol problem that I want to get rid of. They kept me overnight and in the morning they suggested I go to Columbus House. I took the bus from Waterbury to New Haven and it let me off right at Columbus House. There were a bunch of people lining up at the door so I got in line. I was scared to death.”
Dawn was in the New Haven Shelter for a few months, working on her problems with a case manager. Eventually, she moved to Sojourner’s Place on Howard Avenue, one of Columbus House’s transitional housing sites for women (Sojourner's Place is now a Permanent Supportive Housing site). There she and other homeless single women received supervised, temporary housing and help with substance abuse problems, mental health issues and life skills training. For the first time in years, she was even able to hold a job, working at a local McDonald’s.
“I was also taking mentorship training classes at Columbus House. I learned a lot about having mentors and being a mentor. I became a mentor at Village of Power on Dixwell Avenue, helping other women with substance abuse problems. I got involved with Fellowship Place. I go there a lot and it’s been a big help.”
In 2010, Dawn moved into her own apartment – permanent supportive housing at Cedar Hill on State Street; another housing site managed by Columbus House. Although she had gotten her life together, she was involved in an unhealthy relationship. Her partner lured her back to the world of drugs and alcohol. She gave up her apartment at Cedar Hill and moved in with her partner. Dawn had been sober for four years; her partner for six years. They both relapsed.
“My partner would take me back, then throw me out. I went back to Columbus House a couple of times. I would pick myself up and start all over again. But I never gave up on myself. And Columbus House never gave up on me. They saw something in me that I didn’t. It took me long enough, but I think I’m there now.”
In July 2011, Dawn’s mother died, and she went back to using drugs and alcohol. Once again, she turned to Columbus House. Once again, they took her back.
“I’ve learned lessons from my life. Like when Columbus House said, 'That’s it – we’re not helping you no more.' That’s when I turned my life around. Columbus House got me the help I needed and finally I was ready.“
Now Dawn is back at Cedar Hill in her own apartment. It is furnished simply, a crucifix of her mother’s on the wall. Tea towels in the kitchen read, Faith, Hope, Love.
“Every morning this woodpecker wakes me up at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. I pull my kitchen chair over to the window and look out at the day. I say good morning to the woodpecker. I have my coffee and I watch the trains. I talk to God. It’s nice to have a home. But I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for Columbus House.“
Dawn is still fragile. She has had more than one second chance. But she is determined that this time she will succeed.
“I’m trying to fill my life with positive energy. If I could reach one person with my message, I’d be very happy. I’d say, Don’t go down that road. Reach out. Talk. Get yourself help. But you’ve got to want to change yourself.”