We are sitting in his studio apartment. I am on the sofa, and David is in his recliner, clearly his favorite place to sit. He’s angled slightly so that he can glance in my direction during the interview without having to completely take his eyes off of his television. An older model, but one of his prized possessions Renee tells me, the service coordinator from his team who has volunteered to accompany me to his home.
When we first walked in, we’d had to turn it down so that I could hear him. David likes the volume turned all the way up. Otherwise, he says, “it’s just too quiet in here.”
It is a small space, but uncluttered. Besides the armchair and sofa, there is a bed and a couple of end tables. “I need to get some stuff to hang on the walls,” he says, “make it look nice in here.”
David grew up on foster care, in Parkesburg, PA, a small town outside Coatesville. He either doesn’t remember his parents, or doesn’t want to. He just knows he wasn’t allowed to stay with them. The foster home in Coatesville wasn’t a nice place, so when he was transferred to Ms. Hallman’s foster home, in Philadelphia this time, he was relieved.
David struggled in school. He wasn’t a bad kid, he insists, just “wasn’t good at school. Got bad grades and didn’t want to go,” so the court sent him to the State Correctional Institution at 16. At 21, when he was finally released, he went back to Ms. Hallman’s in Philly. “I had nowhere else to go,” he says.
As a kid in Philly, David had earned spending money working in a mom and pop corner store. After his release from the correctional institution, he went back to work helping at corner stores, and helping deliver groceries. He took odd jobs when he could - handyman type jobs like cleaning out a storage warehouse or painting a fence, anything to earn some extra money and keep busy. He had to spend a lot of time out of the house. He’d started drinking, and Ms. Hallman didn’t approve. David described her as “a good woman, a church going woman from Georgia. We had a falling out.”
When I ask, he says he doesn’t really know why he started drinking, except that there didn’t seem to be anything else to do. There wasn’t much for someone like him in the world.
Ms. Hallman died at home on her sofa when David was in his late twenties. She was sick, but didn’t want to spend her last bit of time in the hospital. When her daughter passed, soon after, David had no one else and nowhere to go.
For years, David stayed in shelters. He describes that time as repetition – the same routine every day. He’d have to make his way to a rendezvous point, to get picked up along with the other people who needed somewhere safe and warm to sleep. Then the bus would take them to the shelter for the night. Sometimes they’d be able to shower, all together in a group, but you had to be careful. If you lost sight of your things they could disappear pretty quickly. He took to sleeping in his shoes. He says he still does, even now in his own place. It’s just one of those habits that’s hard to break.
In the morning, without fail and no matter the weather, they had to leave the shelter. Most of the time he spent the days wandering, just trying to find food, somewhere to sit, to rest. Some nights he slept in churches, when he found one that was open. When the shelters were full, or he failed to make it to the pick up on time, he would sleep on sidewalk grates, trying to soak in the warmth from below.
The first time someone from Pathways found him, he was in the park by the Franklin Institute, sitting on a bench and drinking. They talked to him, told him about the program and Housing First. They even gave him tokens, but he didn’t come. He didn’t believe them. There are a lot of people that will take advantage of you out there, he says.
He remembers it was late autumn, and getting colder. One night he was outside, trying to sleep on the ground. The ground was frozen underneath him – it was a code blue in the city, but he had missed the bus to the shelter. Someone from Project Home found him, and they picked him up and brought him to Pathways. That was five years ago, 2014. And he hasn’t spent a night outside since.
He told me that his team at Pathways helps him with taking care of his money, with doctors’ appointments – with remembering how to live in society. He likes to go for long walks now, and Renee often takes him shopping for new clothes. He loves to show up to the team appointments wearing new shirts and sneakers. He says he likes to look put together “after so long of just not taking care of myself.”
We sit for a few minutes in silence and, as I am about to stand up to leave, David pulls out a special pair of sneakers. He hasn’t worn these, yet. “Next week,” he says, “that’s my last treatment. I’m gonna wear these when I go. I’m gonna wear these new ones to my last radiation.”
Six months ago, David was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment was aggressive, radiation early every morning, five days a week, for three months. The appointments were so early they were before Pathways employees start their day, and his team worried about his ability to make it on his own. Five days of radiation every single week for months is a heavy burden for anyone. For someone like David, it is more often than not insurmountable. But he did it. He did not miss even one appointment. Somehow, every single day, he did it, with his team loudly cheering him on.
Sitting in the hospital, the tube of medicine hooked into his arm, he would sometimes hear the bell ringing down the hall. It was a signal that someone had just won their fight – beaten cancer into remission. It was his signal of hope. “I got one more week,” he says, looking down at the sneakers in his hands, “then I’m gonna ring that bell.”
One week later, David finally got to ring that bell:
David being interviewed by KYW and ABC about his accomplishments for the #ItsThatSimple installation:
Blog Credit: Rebecca Owen-Fontenot, Marketing Coordinator