By: Holly Lyon
It is early December in Cleveland. A few snowflakes are falling but the ground is still bare, it is quite cold. I am in great discomfort as I walk the brief distance from my office to my car. I think about this as I speak to a middle aged man who has been experiencing homelessness for over a year. He tells me his homelessness is “purely economic.” Although “Leonard” has experienced homelessness before, it has been brief episodes. He has struggled with addiction in the past but he has been sober for over five years. He commends himself for remaining sober through the loss of his job, housing and his current state of homelessness.
September 4, 2008 was the last time he received a paycheck. Prior to this two year period of unemployment, his longest stretch of unemployment was six months. His current unemployment was the result of a merger between two companies in Florida. “I’m like everybody else, one of the many that lost their job through no fault of my own.” He speaks with obvious fondness of his job at a logistics company in Jacksonville. His face warms and his hands become animated, his head turns towards the window next to us. He describes his 8x8 office with the view of a river and the stevedores working on ships. He smiles as he stares out of the restaurant window, and I can tell he is not seeing Superior Avenue, in the grey beginnings of winter.
I ask what his childhood was like. “Leonard” grew up in the Baltimore, Maryland area. His father was a doctor, his mother a minister, and he has one sister. His mother was originally from Cleveland, but now both parents are deceased. He glances to the corner of the room and shakes his head a little as he tells me how much he misses his parents, even though they passed away years ago. He has one daughter, 20, whom he speaks of with great warmth; she is a college student at Vassar College in upstate New York.
What was your fist experience with shelter like, I ask. “Leonard” said it was “scary,” that level of communal space sharing. He had never been in the military or in jail, so sleeping in an open room with strangers was an adjustment.
A previous resident of Cleveland, he took classes at both Cleveland State and Kent State. “Leonard” wanted to study architecture. He worked several years in Cleveland with the developmentally disabled. He returned to Cleveland shortly after the loss of his job in Jacksonville, with the hope of getting involved with a friend’s business. He has not found work since he moved. He has stayed with both friends and family until a little over six months ago when he entered the shelter system. “Leonard” came to the realization that he has no other place to go right now and that he is thankful he has a place to stay, but at the same times he talks about how hard it is to be homeless.
“Leonard” explains “people think if you’re homeless you’re stupid or an addict, that you did something you should not have done, and that’s why you’re homeless--you deserve it.” He holds back emotion as he tells me that it is hard to know that prejudice exists, but worse to see homeless people believe that they do deserve to be homeless.
The transitional shelter he lives at houses residents for up to six months. His six months are almost up and he is hoping for a three month extension. If that does not happen, he will have to go back to the entry shelter and start the process of finding housing all over again. On the job front he is optimistic about an upcoming opportunity, but admits his mind is preoccupied with the pending three month extension. “Leonard” has a great deal of work and life experience to offer and he holds out hope to use these skills with an upcoming opportunity in a green job project.