He's in his thirties. Spent a vast majority of his adult life in 'the lock-up'. Four years out he knows where he never wants to go again. "But I don't know where I want to go now," he told me yesterday during a course I teach on Self-esteem that is part of the Career Training Initiative (CTI) here at the DI.
"Anywhere but here," piped up a good-looking younger man who was part of the course. "All I want is to get my tickets, get a job and get out of here."
The older man responded quickly. "But I like it here. I've been institutionalized most of my life. This place makes me feel safe. I've got a community here. People who understand me. I ain't got nothing out there." And he motioned with his left arm to the verdant green river valley and tree-covered hillside beyond the windows of the sixth floor CTI training room where we were meeting.
The man beside me joined in the conversation. In his twenties, he's been 'in and out' since 'juvie'. He's on parole, out since March. He too knows where he never, ever wants to go back.
"I need this place," he said. "I need to do something different 'cause getting angry, going to jail is not working for me anymore. And 'out there', I risk getting angry." In front of him sat a worn and tattered copy of Don Miguel Ruiz', The Four Agreements. Slid between the pages were his hand-written notes, proof of his laborious efforts to transcribe the agreements and their definitions. "No one ever taught me this stuff," he told the class, after reading his notes out loud. "My mom said she knew I was gonna be bad right from the moment I was born. I don't wanna be bad."
Stories of the street. Of lives in disarray. Lives on the mend. Stories of men for whom the only break they ever had was with the law. Bustin' it. Breakin' it. They end up broken down. Broken up. Living lives of broken promises. Broken families. Broken dreams. No where else to go. They end up here. At a homeless shelter. Struggling to put back together something they'd never had before. Their lives free of the past.
The perspectives were vast. Cultural differences diverse. Ethiopia, South Africa. The former Czech Republic. Belarus. 'Hardened criminals'. Youth.
Vast differences. Similar stories. Gotta get going. Gotta get real. Gotta quit what I'm doing and find something better. Gotta find a way out of this place to somewhere else.
"I don't dream," said one man. "Dreamers are fools. God doesn't like dreamers."
"I gotta dream," said another. "If I don't got dreams, I may as well just pack it in right here."
"Yeah," chimed in another. "Dreams are free. No one ever put you in jail for dreaming."
Sometimes the dream is as simple as never having to panhandle again.
"I've done it a few times," said the man who'd spent a lot of time doing time. "I hate it. It's embarrassing."
He looked at me. Smiled. His face lit up. Boyish. A child with no front teeth, the gap where once his used to be was wide.
"It would have been easier to hold someone at knife point and tell them to give me the money. But I don't wanna do that. That way's a ticket back to jail."
The exigencies of the street. Pan-handling to stay out of jail. Pan-handling for bus fare because the employer refused you the job. Worn out shoes. Worn down spirit.
At the end of the class I asked each participant to write themselves a letter. "Make it a love letter," I told them. "Make it something that will support you. Give you strength when you're down. Write what you'd like to hear from your mom, or dad, grandmother that maybe you've never ever heard."
They hesitated. Joked. Laughed. Love letter? To myself? Never wrote one to no girl. Why would I write one to myself?
"Because you deserve it," I said. "Because you need to put on paper the words you need to hear about how amazing you are, not the ones your mind keeps repeating about what a loser you've become."
Still they hesitated. Slowly, one by one, they began to write.
The quiet in the room was profound. Concentration. Fear. Hope.
"Can I read my letter to the group?" asked the man who was on parole.
"That is your choice," I told him. "Do you want to?"
"Yes," he replied.
I asked the group, "Are you willing to listen with open hearts and minds?"
Everyone nodded their heads.
The man smiled. Haltingly he began to read. I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes. My heart soften.
I watched his face as he read. Focused. His brow furrowed. One finger following the words he'd written on the page.
I could see him swallow. Clench his teeth and keep on reading.
Words he needs to hear. A story he wants to tell. A dream he wants to live.
We were silent when he finished. Silent. And in awe.
Real lives finding themselves in a place where no one ever wants to end up. Homeless. Lost. Frightened. Alone.
Real lives coming together to find a common goal of moving on. Moving forward. Moving out in spite of the fear. Out from a place where courage is born. Where dreams unfold.