Do you remember the intense feelings of pride and ownership when you received the keys to your first car? When you were out and about, did you keep them in your hand, instead of your pocket? Just to know you weren’t really dreaming? This may be the closest approximation to the exuberance someone who has experienced homelessness feels when they receive keys to a new apartment. As Angel puts it, he is overjoyed when he walks and hears the jingle of the keys to his apartment in his pocket.
Angel was born in Manhattan 44 years ago. At the age of 5 he was sent to live with his grandmother in Puerto Rico. Growing up between two housing projects was difficult and he soon fell in with the wrong crowd. “My grandmother didn’t raise me that way…I made the wrong decisions.”
At the age of 17, Angel began a 15 year prison sentence. When he came out of jail he had nothing. He was not in touch with his family. He was homeless. “I felt like I was 90 years old.”
Angel found his way back to the United States, but things were very difficult. He was an addict living on the streets with no family. He did not speak English. He found himself making the wrong decisions again. He ended up in prison multiple times. When he was not in prison, he was on the streets or in a shelter.
During a stay at Columbus House, Angel was identified as a F.U.S.E. (Frequent Users Systems Engagement) client. F.U.S.E. is a ground breaking initiative supported by the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) that provides men and women moving in and out of shelter and incarceration with case management services and supportive housing. It was explained to Angel that if he worked with his case manager to provide the necessary documents to obtain a housing voucher, he would soon have an apartment of his own. Angel seized the opportunity and the documents were submitted.
According to Angel, the first time he listened to somebody was during his time at Columbus House. “As soon as I say ‘I need help’ everyone is working with me.” He began working with Columbus House case managers. They suggested he take English classes at the library and he did. “People really want to work with you and help you when you let them know you really want to do something with your life.”
While Angel waited to hear that his housing application was approved, he worked closely with his case managers, overcame his addiction, and learned English very quickly. He claims that watching his favorite movies in English was a huge help.
In March 2012 Angel received news from his case manager that he was going to be housed. “It’s a big change!”
Angel now has a place to call home, and is beginning to rebuild his life. He is going to church every Sunday. “I went to church to find out why the people there were always happy. I wanted to be like them.” Much like the staff at Columbus House, “the pastor gives you tools.” The people at church “don’t care about where you come from.”
Today, Angel has started to “fix bridges” with his family. He has realized that he “can’t blame anyone for his decisions.” He talks to his brother on the phone and his brother tells him, “Man, you sound good on the phone!” This is the best part of his recovery, he says, “to see and be close to my family. I can’t find the words for explaining.”
“I say thank you every day to my counselors.” When he has the opportunity, he says he talks to other clients at Columbus House, “When are you going to make the decision? I know it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. I live the life.”
Angel has plans for his future. He began drawing in prison as a way to cope. Now he’s working on putting together an art show and plans to go to art school. He says that his artwork is his way of saying “thank you.” His plans don’t stop there. He hopes to continue school and become a nurse’s assistant.
Angel’s life is much different today than a few years ago. “I’ve got a lot of people worried about me.” When asked what is the best part of having a home he beams and says, “When I walk I can hear the sound from my keys.”
Update – September 2014
Even after the devastating loss of his brother (mentioned above), Angel is still housed in his apartment and continues to meet regularly with his Columbus House case manager. Because of his hard work, his probation ended early. He has been sober for 5 years now.
Update – November 2018
Angel has remained drug-free for nine years but still suffers from depression. “I deal with that day by day, with professional help,” he said. He works hard at improving his relationships and is actively involved in his church. He was asked to work with youth, relaying his story for their benefit. According to Stacey, Angel’s case manager, “Angel’s determination to remain housed is indelible and admirable. He pursues his dreams, regardless of the obstacles that come before him. He knows he can rely on our support and he frequently reaches out. He has learned to advocate for himself and is making his life as fulfilling as possible.”