Debra’s mother begged her not to leave South Carolina, but the move to Connecticut with her husband and young children in 1997 was inevitable. When Debra’s mother passed away one year later, at just 51-years-old, Debra was devastated. “I thought I had more time with her.” She started drinking the day she came home from her mother’s funeral. “I guess I just tried to suffocate it, tried not to feel it.”
Debra and her husband continued with their lives, raising their three children and operating a very successful business. They were drinking a lot. Eventually, an acquaintance offered Debra cocaine, and, as she puts it, “we were off and running.” Debra says that being an addict and making a lot of money don’t mix. This proved true for her. Whether using alcohol, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, or pain pills, she became lost in addiction.
Debra’s life had fallen apart. Her marriage ended, she was evicted from her house, she lost custody of her youngest child to her ex-husband’s family, and she was arrested four times in three months. Debra tried rehab, short-term stays at shelters, longer term support programs, living with a boyfriend’s parents, living in an illegal apartment without heat or hot water, and staying on friends’ couches. She tried to find work, and even held some temporary jobs, but could not get back on her feet. “It seemed like I had so much stacked against me.”
Debra first stood in line to get a bed at Columbus House’s New Haven Shelter in 2012. (At that time, before the creation of the state-wide Coordinated Access Network, the referral process for finding shelter was not as streamlined as it is today. Getting in line at the shelter each afternoon at 4pm was the only way to ensure your bed.) Debra says she was scared, timid, and shy. She was surrounded by people from all walks of life — some whom she worried might influence her to make bad choices. The rooms felt crowded. She often asked to sleep in the dining room where women were allowed to stay if the rooms were at capacity. Luckily, the staff allowed her to do this, even when the women’s bedrooms were not full.
Debra says, while at Columbus House, her case manager worked diligently to connect her to every available housing opportunity. She was put on a waiting list for supportive housing and told to call each week. She did not have a steady phone number to be reached at. Debra called every week, and finally, a year later, she got the good news. She would be getting a room at Sojourners Place, a Columbus House supportive housing program with an on-site case manager for women suffering from both addiction and mental illness. Debra explains, “I was extremely grateful as my case manager gave me my keys. I knew that I could stay here. This was my room and I did not have to leave.”
Debra has lived at Sojourners Place for over three years. Her life is getting back on track. “Finally, after I got here, my life seemed to even out. People are giving me the right resources.” Debra meets often with her case manager, and with her doctors. She’s working on getting her health back after years of neglecting herself. She contracted Hepatitis C during that time and has to take medicine that sometimes makes her sick. “It’s good to know I have a place to come back and lay down when I don’t feel good.”
Debra does not plan to live at Sojourners forever. Her case manager thinks she is very close to being ready for her own apartment. Debra still has some health issues to address, and continues to work on her future goals, which include staying healthy and looking for employment. She is reconnected with her adult daughters and enjoys spending holidays, and even going on vacation with them. Debra is very proud of her children, and likewise, she says, “My kids are proud of me.” Debra still thinks about her mother every day. She keeps a picture of her in her room at Sojourners Place. She says her daughters look just like her mother.
Debra continues to be grateful for the services she receives. She is amazed at how compassionate her case worker is, always asking how Columbus House can better serve her and her housemates. She says she will miss Sojourners when she leaves. “It’s a privilege to live in this house. It’s not just a room, it’s a lot of things. It’s a community, it’s a family, it’s us learning how to live a lot better.”