by Jeremy Reynalds, Ph. D.
Founder and CEO
Joy Junction Inc
A building wall with a dark stain on it appeared to have been used quite recently for a bathroom. An unpleasant stench permeated the air.
In addition, a porta potty with a half open door was, I figured, contributing significantly to the smell. I held my breath, went closer and looked inside. I was right. The small unit stank. The floor was wet and fecal matter smeared throughout.
This ugly scene could describe any of a number of places in Albuquerque or main street USA, where some of the homeless congregate to get a meal from kind hearted volunteers, or even end up sleeping.
Perhaps not surprisingly, scenarios like this often result with the homeless not being welcome in many neighborhoods. After all, who wants to live anywhere close to a scene even remotely similar to the one I’ve just described?
And if you own a business in such an area, the prospects are just as dismal. Your customers will probably end up staying away in droves.
Despite some homeless advocates’ ongoing attempts to describe the homeless as being just like you and I, the stark reality is some are not. You don’t use building walls as a bathroom, and don’t throw the remains of your meal on the sidewalk. Neither, I suspect, do you eat out of a dumpster.
However, some homeless people do, and just saying that “they” should get a job isn’t working. There’s a clear disconnect between our expectations and the realities of life for some of the unhoused homeless, a number of whom suffer from mental health challenges and others who for a variety of reasons are unable to cope with the often cruel realities of life.
What is it that makes us pay our bills, go to work and behave in a socially acceptable way while some of these troubled and usually very highly visible homeless do the exact opposite?
I wondered if it could be they had experienced lives so awful and beyond our comprehension that they no longer cared and had emotionally just given up.
To see if I was on target, one of my staff asked a handful of people at Joy Junction about their lives prior to entering the shelter.
My thinking was pretty close, so as you read this post, remember that it is written with a clear purpose in mind. It’s to show you why some of the homeless community behave in the (socially unacceptable) way they do by giving an inside glimpse into their often emotionally shattered lives.
My prayer is that it will generate some sympathy, and you will ask God how you can be involved in helping make their traumatic existence at least a little better. Someone has to help, so why not you?
One woman said her journey to alcoholism started over forty years ago.
She recalled, “I lived a horrible childhood. I was mentally, physically and sexually abused as a child into my teens. When I was no longer wanted, I started drinking and doing drugs as a way to squelch the feelings of emptiness, depression and not being wanted.”
This woman said that she ran with the wrong crowd, and as her life continued to spiral downward, she found that drinking, doing drugs and sex led to being accepted.
“I felt that I was no good sober, but as long as I was intoxicated I was everyone’s favorite. I’ve been so intoxicated that I would go behind dumpsters to defecate and urinate. I would drive drunk with my kids in the car, hit curbs and blow out two tires at once.”
She recounted one alcohol laced stupor. “I was so drunk that I fell and broke both my knee caps, a foot, both wrists and broke out teeth. I blackened my eyes at family gatherings and at bars.”
It seemed that nothing could loosen alcohol’s deadly grip on her. Confronted by her sister, the woman ended up hitting her. While it looked like her life was continuing to fall apart, her sister didn’t give up on her and thought that Joy Junction would be the place for a fresh start.
The woman said, “Was she ever right!”
Now ready for change, Joy Junction was there for her.
“I found a place where I was wanted, and didn’t have to be drunk or high to be accepted. I regrouped and get sober. I joined the nine month Christ in Power Life Recovery Program,” she said.
This woman has now been sober for 17 months, and has a job, her own apartment, a vehicle as well as getting her dog back.
She reflectively added, “Living sober at my age is a heck of a lot easier then the life of ‘non-existence’ I was living when I was always drunk and/or high.”
Another guest began her life of drug addiction in her pre teen years.
She said she was too young to make the right choices, very poignantly adding that it was an era “If you told someone you were sad and hurting, you were labeled a ‘problem child.’ I think that everyone who does drugs or drinks (heavily) wants to feel better about things and fit in … No child wants to feel pain, so meth entered my life.”
From being a hard worker and “functioning,” this woman morphed almost three decades later to a self described nobody with nothing. She said she was unable to go even one day without drugs or drinking. It had become her entire world.
She continued, “I spent a lot of time living out of dumpsters. That included eating, sleeping and doing my ‘business.’ We do what we have to, right? Every day that I lived like an unwanted pet, I lost more and more of myself until I became a throwaway.”
Then that time came-and it’s different for all of us-when this woman was ready for change. She didn’t want to live life like that any more.
What made the change? Her kids.
She said, “I was sick and tired of people using me, and everyone’s back stabbing. I wanted to change my life and get clean, so that even if I never saw my kids again I wouldn’t die a statistic on the streets. I wanted to be someone they could be proud of.”
She asked a friend for help. He drove her to Joy Junction. Her first reaction was terror.
She said, “I started to freak out. I told him, ‘Please don’t throw me away. You can take me back into town; drop me off anywhere. I will never bug you again.’ My friend asked to try it, and I gave my word that I would.”
It wasn’t easy. Her first week was rough, as she had only been off drugs for about two weeks.
The woman said, “I was depressed, sad, and so full of anxiety that I thought I would actually explode. The nightmares were horrible. The staff called emergency for me, and little did I know that it was for my own good. Joy Junction sent someone with me to the hospital. I got the medication I needed, and came back and joined the Christ in Power Program.”
Nine years later, this woman is still drug free and grateful for her second chance at life.
She concluded, “I am proof that if someone is treated like a person they can turn it all around and do pretty great things.”
Another woman to whom we talked became addicted to meth and alcohol after what she called some bad decisions. Ending up in jail, she lost her kids to her a former spouse.
She said, “I didn’t know how to deal with the pain I was feeling and did not want to not feel anything at all, so I began using.”
While addicted, she began panhandling. She said, “I would steal, and ate food out of dumpsters to survive. I didn’t really want to and was always ashamed, but back then I didn’t know any different.”
Addiction landed her in hospital, and a realization that she really needed a change in her life. While there, she saw a TV commercial for Joy Junction.
After that, the woman said, “I was so anxious to go there and get the help I needed.”
Now ready for change, things began to take an upward turn when she came to Joy Junction. She said, “I am clean now and happy. I do hope and pray I am able to see my kids again, but for now I have made improvements in my life and that is what counts.”
So while I don’t expect you to be happy about living or working close to a fecal laden or urine stained piece of Albuquerque real estate, remember that all those “responsible” have a story. Maybe you could be the one who makes that story have a happy ending.