Gwen’s world came crashing down after she lost her job in 2010. For eight years, she had been living in Stamford and working in Greenwich as a housekeeper. She spent a lot of time at Laurel House, a private, non-profit social service center that helps people with mental illness. But after she lost her job, she lost her apartment. Then she lost her pocketbook with all her identification.
“It was like identity theft. It was like I didn’t exist anymore. I had no birth certificate, no license, no social security card. I turned to drugs and alcohol and that made everything worse. I bounced around from place to place, including a shelter in Stamford. I finally decided to come home.“
Gwen had grown up in New Haven. After she graduated from high school, she joined the Army Reserves, and was stationed at Fort McClellan in Alabama for 18 months. It was a good experience. She was discharged in 1979, and had her first child in 1982. She has three children, two sons and a daughter.
“My kids, they didn't want to see their mother intoxicated or messing with drugs. It's embarrassing to them, to their friends and to me. I knew I needed help. I came to Columbus House last November. I’d always been aware of it but it’s different than I thought it would be.
I didn't know how the program worked until I got here. Really I imagined it would be like a flophouse. But I was amazed and surprised. It's not a flophouse at all. It's like a retreat. I didn't know they really cared.”
Columbus House’s New Haven Shelter cares for over 80 women and men, 365 nights a year, and provides housing, health services, entitlement and employment assistance and case management services, including referrals to mental health and substance abuse programs. Initially, Gwen struggled with her commitment to change. She spoke with one of Columbus House’s outreach workers.
“I had known my case manager for many years. He told me that I had good credentials but I needed to decide what I wanted. I gave it about three days and went back to him and said I wanted to go to a recovery program in Stonington and get my act together.”
Gwen did just that and returned to Columbus House in July, finally ready to work hard at changing her life. She has a case manager, applied for and is receiving entitlements such as food stamps, medical care, and medication for her bipolar disorder. She’s replacing her lost identification documents and looking for a housekeeping job. Supportive housing is her next goal.
“Things are starting to fall into place. Columbus House gives me structure. When I have structure in my life, I do better. I do well when I don't have idle time, when I'm working or with my family, or attending meetings. I go to church on Sundays when I can. I do whatever I’m told – help with a meal, clean the bathroom. I know that it's time to give back.”
Gwen is close to her kids again. She sees a lot of her 6-year-old grandson, who loves to go to McDonalds with her. She has another grandchild on the way. She attributes her success to the staff at Columbus House.
“I didn't think I had the will to survive this but they showed me that no matter what I'm going through, they're here for me. That means a lot.”
Gwen’s long-term goals are to get a place, get a job, maybe go back to school, and save some money. She tends to keep to herself, especially, when it comes to what she calls “matters of the heart.” Still she agreed to share her story for Columbus House.
“I'm telling my story even though I'm shaking inside because I thought it would be good for people who don't understand what we go through and how hard it is to get back on your feet. The average person sometimes gets sidetracked, lost. Life throws a curve ball and sometimes you don't know how to jump over that hurdle or crawl under that barbed wire fence, so you get hung up on it.
People may wonder what it's like to be homeless. We're not bad. Some of us have been beaten or had bad luck or problems. But we don't want people to feel sorry for us. We want to be part of society again, working, having a place to live. Some of us need a little extra support, that's all.”