A home of his own and a smile on his face
Joe is a person who was deemed chronically homeless because of his history of being without “a place to call home” for so long and his disabling bouts with depression and anxiety. Joe wanted to share his story because he felt it would help others experiencing homelessness find hope. He proudly invited us to conduct an interview in his new apartment.
This is his story.
Joe grew up in Danbury with his mother, stepfather, brother and sister in an unstable household. Joe’s mom was in and out of the hospital, struggling with her own mental health issues. Joe still remembers the nightmares after visiting her. But even during that chaotic time, Joe made every attempt to lead a normal life. Joe fondly remembers his first job, at age 14, when he worked at a Community Action camp with young children. He remembers the excitement of his first $78 paycheck and of having money in his pocket. The experience fueled Joe’s determination and dreams for the future. Joe also enjoyed his days at Danbury High School. His goal was to become a State Trooper or Police Officer.
However, life at home continued to be difficult and confusing. Joe’s stepfather was hard on him and often told Joe to leave. At the age of 17, Joe became homeless after his stepfather kicked him out of the house for good.
Homeless at 17
Joe’s options were limited to staying with friends, living on the streets or in abandoned buildings. Joe secured a job that would pay enough for him to find a place to stay. He was able to pay friends to let him sleep on the couch or find other temporary arrangements. Even with full-time work, he could not afford his own apartment.
By the time Joe turned 18, he had a girlfriend and a baby girl to support. A full-time job and family responsibilities prevented him from returning to school. He desperately tried to support his small family, but without a stable home, his daughter was eventually taken away by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Joe deeply regrets missing out on those years of his daughter’s life. Joe and his girlfriend continued to live together and had two more daughters. The relationship ultimately ended and Joe found himself on the streets once again.
Joe had resisted doing drugs to this point, but the stress of losing his family, dropping out of school, trying to hold down a job, and being homeless finally got to him. He decided to just try the drugs his friends were using, hoping for a bit of relief, and maybe a little fun. “That night taking crack left me with a string through my life that from time to time ended me up being homeless, not being able to keep a job, not being able to go in the next day because you’re drained, tired, exhausted. It seemed all good at first, it seemed like you could manage everything, like you could make it, but eventually it takes a toll on you, and somewhere along the way you give up, and you begin to sink.”
Joe moved to another town, stayed with his sister for a while and worked odd jobs, but his drug use continued. When his sister asked him to leave, he stayed wherever he could – in shelters, with friends or on the streets. He got his meals at area soup kitchens.
Joe witnessed a lot of suffering and abuse while living on the streets. He knew the streets were dangerous, but he managed to avoid being a victim. “I get along with everybody. When I do have stuff, I share.” The worst part of being on the streets for Joe was being estranged from his family. “When a person is on the street, homeless, others don’t know what they’re going through, what they are acting on.”
The spring of 2011 marked a turning point in Joe’s life. He wanted to end the drug use, and he yearned to find a place to call home. He entered a residential recovery program in New Haven where he received temporary housing and support. Joe finally stopped using drugs.
Joe was in the program for 3 years and said he found his strength in God. “God was the one that helped me to get off drugs and open my eyes and see that there is no one really around to help you and you have to take the resources that you do get and use them wisely.”
Although the drug use ended, his struggles continued. After successfully completing the program, Joe still had no place to call home. He was hospitalized for depression several times and ended up once again sleeping on a bench on the New Haven Green most nights.
In the summer of 2014, Joe entered Columbus House’s New Haven Emergency Shelter at the suggestion of a friend. That fall, Joe was one of 12 men selected to participate in Abraham’s Tent, an interfaith program where area religious organizations provide shelter, meals and fellowship for 12 Columbus House clients, for one week each, with support from Columbus House staff and hundreds of dedicated volunteers during the winter months. “Abe’s Tent encouraged my faith more, reminded me to grab hold of God again, to not give up hope. I knew that God wanted to give me hope and a future.”
When Abraham’s Tent ended in March, Joe moved back to the Columbus House shelter where he continued working with his case manager to secure income and housing. Joe praises the case managers that helped him, Tasha, Donna, and Christine. “Case managers are great… They walked with me each step of the way, keeping me encouraged. At times I felt like giving up, at times I felt like it wasn’t going to happen, and they told me keep my head up, keep pressing forward. And before I knew it, they were like – you’re next on the list for housing, and I was so excited.”
A Place to Call Home
Since Joe got his apartment, his life has changed dramatically. Most days, Joe wakes up as early as 4 am to read his Bible and sing hymns. He says it lifts his spirits and gets him through the rest of the day. He likes to read, write poetry, and has ideas to write stories.
Joe’s apartment is sparsely furnished and he wants to keep it simple. With Columbus House Welcome Kit funds, he went on a shopping spree with his case manager. He bought what he needed to make his new apartment feel like home – pots and pans, a few dishes, bath towels, bed linens and other necessities. Joe is so thankful to be in his own, affordable apartment. With his housing settled, he now finds it easier to manage his health issues and is able to keep his doctors’ appointments.
He would like to get a bicycle and check out some of the different trails around town. He is also interested in sewing, and one day, he wants to buy a machine of his own. “I have less stress, I smile more, and I’m able to go where I want to go. Life is so much more enjoyable, and my life has changed also because the daughter that wouldn’t talk to me for so long… so one day a knock comes at the door, and I open up the door and I say… ‘Oh my God!’ It was my daughter. I was so excited, so happy… It was just so great!” That smile was exceedingly evident as he talked about his daughters and his two grandsons.
Yes, Joe can smile again, and he does so quite often. His smile radiates across the room. With his infectious positive attitude, he is making new friends at the church he recently joined. He has kept in touch with friends he made at Columbus House. During our visit, his neighbor phoned to see if he was free yet. She comes over for coffee every day. Joe explains that she supplies the coffee and Joe has the coffee pot. They enjoy each other's company.
Joe has a sign in his living room that you can’t miss. It says “Pray for the Homeless.” Joe says, “I love the homeless people. I know what it is to be there. I don’t want to forget where I came from.” Joe’s message to others who are homeless: “You can make it. You will make it!”
Joe's story was featured in our 2015 Annual Report with more photos, a poem, "The Life of a Homeless Man," written by Joe, and a letter from Joe to Columbus House staff.
Learn more about Joe's story in HAVEN Documentary
Update: On June 13, 2019, Partnership for Strong Communities honored Joe with a Carol Walter Housing Tenant Award at their annual Reaching Home Celebration & Housing Awards. Joe attended with his three daughters by his side. Read more here.