After 30 long years on the streets, “Josh,” the veteran I wrote about last month, got housing. He is struggling to acclimate to life inside. Small in stature he shuffles as he walks. Years of wearing wrong-sized donated shoes have deformed his feet. Because of limited education his quick temper often comes out through a stream of obscenities. He is short with his case manager and VA staff who try to offer him help. I get calls from staff telling me he is hard to handle because of his bad attitude. A lightbulb went off in my head a week ago as I spoke with yet another staffer from the VA who Josh had raised his voice to: Josh had been disconnected from community and it would take community surrounding him, not just a roof, to restore him.
Josh sometimes acts like a child in his apartment. Many basic daily things that come easy to you or me aren’t normal to him. Cable television is new to him and he called me in a panic unsure of what to watch. He called another day certain he had ruined his cell phone because it no longer rang; I taught him how to turn the ringer back on. He is no longer in survival mode, but doesn’t know how to cope with new technology.
On one of those calls he reminded me of a promise I made to him. I had promised when we finally got him indoors, and not before, that I would throw him a housewarming party. Over the past few years I have chronicled his struggle on social media as we tried and failed to get him housed. Followers watched and cheered the day he got the keys to his new place. Who better to invite than the people who celebrated with us?
It was a Friday after work. He said, “When are you all coming over? Are you still coming?”
I watched as volunteers showed up and helped him decorate his new place with patriotic-themed decorations. All night new friends stopped by bringing house-warming gifts; they joined us as we ate and listened to music. Josh made a toast to all of us and his success, which I shared on social media.
Daily calls with questions about how to do basic things, from shopping for clothes to scheduling a dentist appointment, have lessened. I know now when he calls me with a giggle it is no longer for my help. He is either calling to share that he encountered yet another social media fan who stopped to encourage him or that one of his new friends came by for a visit. I saw a sparkle in Josh’s eye the night of the party. His confidence is being slowly restored as he continues to feel an outpouring of love from new friends who he can now call and rely on.
In an effort to support Josh and others like him, Caridad is working on a companion program. We will be personality-matching volunteers to clients. Volunteers will be asked to adopt someone and spend up to four hours a month over six months with them. The United Way will provide training, and agency case managers will support the client. The model, done successfully in Los Angeles, will be only the second of its kind in the country. L.A. reported great success, as companions encouraged clients in their sobriety and helped others complete their GED.
Agencies can house clients and do case management, but what clients like Josh need is for the community to welcome them back and support them with open arms. In January the companion program will begin. Make sure to sign up for the Caridad newsletter at www.caridadcharity.com for more details.
Formerly homeless, Merideth Spriggs is the founder and chief kindness officer of Caridad, a homeless-service provider based in downtown Las Vegas. She can be reached at email@example.com