by John MacDonald
Harrington Hall is Rhode Island’s largest shelter, with 112 beds available for single men each night. Just over a year ago, Crossroads Rhode Island took over management of the shelter and began operating using our Housing First approach to service delivery.
In May and June of 2016, a small but vocal group of Harrington Hall shelter guests expressed concern about the state’s decision to have Crossroads manage shelter operations beginning July 1st, 2016. Just prior to that date, Crossroads staff met with a group of 40 men to address their concerns. They had a three page long list of concerns about possible changes in shelter rules and operations, including questions about limiting access for those who struggled with substance abuse or mental health issues.
As each question was answered, one gentleman consistently asked for further clarification, or additional details. Time and again, he probed and pushed to receive a fuller explanation, and on a few occasions he accepted a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
In the weeks that followed, this gentleman greeted me and other staff with additional questions as we came and went throughout the day. As those weeks went by, I came to a deeper understanding and appreciation of his questioning. I learned that his name was Jake*, and that he had been homeless for quite some time. Little by little, as his trust in the staff grew, his questions lessened.
Because he had been homeless for a number of years and because he is a veteran, Jake was assigned to a case manager to work on housing right away. The trust he had begun to develop quickly deepened in his work with his case manager. If nothing else, Jake held a keen awareness and sense of shame of the many barriers his chronic drinking, mental health issues, and history of incarceration placed in the way of being housed.
The honesty, candor, empathy, and passion that his case manager exhibited completely won him over. When the first apartment fell through because the offer was rescinded by the landlord, Jake’s belief in his case manager did not wane. He had gained something lost long ago: a sense of hope.
Hope sustained him through the few more months that it took to place him into his own apartment - a permanent home.
As I look back at the year, there are many visual cues of Crossroads’ presence at Harrington Hall. A hanging flower basket and flower boxes along the entrance, a bustling kitchen filled with staff and trainees from our partner organization Amos House, and faces that once filled the shelter every night, long gone and moved into housing. It is not a lack of income that keeps someone homeless. It is simply the lack of a home. Many of the men I have come to know at Harrington Hall are fiercely independent. Because of their use of shelter or need of other social supports, many people experiencing homelessness are seen as dependent. Often, the reality is quite the contrary, and many are incredibly self-reliant.
With Jake, it was regaining a sense of trust in others that allowed him to work with his case manager to find a permanent home. For Jake and dozens of others now housed, some of the fierce self-reliance is being replaced by friendships, family, and community supports. These things are the foundation of community, mutual interdependence that we who have not experienced homelessness take for granted. A home is so much more than a door with a key. For Jake, it is very much about a future that is optimistic holds possibilities that just a few months ago were beyond his dreams.