I had breakfast with my friend Nora this morning. At the restaurant, Nora told our server that we needed some “girl time.” I hadn’t seen Nora for a few weeks since school let out. I met Nora two years ago when she was a student in my college composition class. She was so talented with English skills, I asked her to be my work study and peer tutor, which she has been for two semesters. She has been my friend from the beginning.
Nora has accomplished much in those two years. She maintains a 4.0 GPA, took 19 credit hours last semester, serves on a college library board, held an office in the Non-Traditional Student Organization, and was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society. Many students aspire and achieve these successes, but not all students have experienced the struggles Nora has.
Only three years ago, Nora was in her tenth year of homelessness. The deciding factor that led Nora out of homelessness was her six-minute death due to alcohol-related health issues.
It was this death that caused Nora to make changes and choose life. Her doctors in Boulder told her that if she did not stop drinking, they would not likely bring her back again. This was the second occasion her heart stopped due to her alcoholism. Nora moved to the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas, Colorado (which opened in September of 2013), and began her recovery.
I teach college composition classes for Otero Junior College (OJC) at Fort Lyon. Residents may opt to take college courses while they recover and live at the Fort for up to two years. Nora is not the only one who has succeeded in school. At the end of April, twelve students who were currently or had been residents at Fort Lyon graduated with their associates’ degrees from OJC. All graduated with honors. One student, Israel Harris, delivered a powerful message at commencement. Three years ago, Israel was in his fifth year of homelessness in Denver where he lived in a camp beside the South Platte River.
From the beginning, I wanted to teach at Fort Lyon. The program offers hope and a new chance at life through long-term recovery. A few years ago, I had some life struggles of my own but overcame them. Maybe I wanted to offer a little bit of hope, too.
Others in the community and even some coworkers did not share my enthusiasm about Fort Lyon. I heard comments such as, “Do they even take baths?” “I’m for helping people, but why do they have to be in my backyard?” “They’re nothing but a bunch of bums!” Many people do not acknowledge that homeless people are just people—just like the rest of us. Sometimes they’re homeless because they’ve made bad choices, but sometimes life was just hard, and they turned to drugs or alcohol. Many younger homeless people have graduated out of the foster care system and into homelessness. Many are veterans, and many have mental illnesses. Almost without exception, homeless women experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse in their young lives, and certainly experienced abuse while on the streets. Most homeless men experienced similar traumatic events.
After I began listening to and reading my students’ heart wrenching stories, I looked at homeless people differently. I always had empathy for homeless people, but I didn’t really understand the multifaceted causes and long-term effects of homelessness, and I certainly didn’t understand that homeless people once had rich and rewarding and ordinary lives.
In my students’ stories, one message became resoundingly clear. When they were homeless, one of the worst treatments they received was to be overlooked and ignored. Being ignored made them feel like they were non-human or non-existent. It was even worse, many told me, than to be yelled at to “Get a job,” to have expletives shouted at them, or to be called names. Now when I see someone “flying a sign” by the exit or on-ramps or outside the local WalMart, I look beyond the exterior and see a human with a story. And whenever I can, I simply say hello.
For the people who have made changes in their lives through rehabilitation facilities like Fort Lyon and are working to get beyond the grasp of homelessness, one of the greatest gifts formerly homeless people say they have received has been to be given a chance—a chance to recover, a chance to be educated, and a chance to be heard. If they’re given a chance, the possibilities of life, work, and friendship are endless.
Kimi Kelley- Instructor, Otero Junior College