Learning to Love People Where They Are

Drug addiction, love others, drug abuse, drug recovery St. peteIt was one of those eerily quiet Sunday mornings. The sun had barely risen over the brick buildings that formed Hyde Park Village, but the air already hung in a thick haze. The world stood still. I wandered down the street with my coffee in hand, immersed in my phone as I so often am.

Waiting to cross the street, I heard a voice behind me. It startled me back to reality. I turned around to see a woman that I hadn’t noticed before. She was leaning back against a building that so starkly contrasted her own appearance. Her green floral shirt was laced with dirt, her hair was slicked back from sweat, her feet were bare, her weathered hands lifted a cigarette to her mouth.

“What is this neighborhood called?” she repeated.

“Hyde Park,” I replied with a smile.

As I turned to walk away, she said something that struck my heart.

“It’s so quiet here,” she said. “It’s almost as if time is standing still. Time is man-made, you know. We create these schedules.”

I stared intently into her eyes and saw a person for the first time.  Not a homeless person, or a crazy person, just a person.  Not knowing what to say, I just stood there. It opened up the door for her story to be told.

“I’m homeless again by choice,” she said with tears in her eyes.

“Why?” I inquired.

The answer? A gap in the system. She had graduated from DACCO, a city-run drug rehabilitation program, but was left with nowhere to go. It’s a program designed to keep drug offenders out of jail.

The idea is that they recover, graduate from the program, and become productive members of society. If only it were that simple.

What the program fails to address is what happens once these people “graduate”. What happens when someone has nowhere to go? Sometimes they’ll ask for help, sometimes they’ll have family and friends willing to step in, sometimes they’ll go to a halfway house.

Other times they end up like Maria, on the streets. Maria has no family willing to stand by her. A series of bad choices left her utterly alone, except for the friends she found at DACCO. Now, she sat on the streets of Hyde Park lost and afraid.

Those nine months, she told me, were some of the best in her life. She had hope and happiness, and now she once again had nothing. Aside from required follow-up visits, the gap in the system left her in the same place she was nine months before: hopeless.

I sat there and drank coffee with her as she told her story. Abandon, heartbreak, abuse, addiction, denial, self-hatred. To her, the world seemed a cold and lonely place destined to bring her nothing but heartache and agony. The church had turned its back on her, too. She saw it as a place of judgment and free food.

I wanted so badly to tell her that everything would be okay, but where was she supposed to go? Her meager belongs sat scattered on the sidewalk, she had no education, a criminal record and minimal experience. She had no money for somewhere to stay, and no way to get a job. Google her name and you’re told a story before you ever look into her dark brown eyes. The system had failed.

From religion to government, this woman had been left without hope or recourse. Society washed its hands of her, labeled her a criminal, an addict, a drain to the economy. Now she had a new label: homeless.

What I saw was a woman whom society had failed. Our court systems, our drug rehabs, our churches and our community had let another good person fall through the cracks. I did not look at her labels, I looked into her eyes. She came from a broken home, a broken life and a broken system. Every disadvantage was placed at her feet, and when she tried to pick up the pieces, she was left with a dead end.

This woman asked me for nothing. She didn’t want money, all she wanted was to be okay.

[My non-profit, Recovery Epicenter, works to reduce gaps in the system like this one. Please visit online to learn how you can get involved.]


Metropolitan Ministries fights a growing homeless population in Tampa, Florida


Metropolitan Ministries is a well-known name to homeless on the streets of Tampa. Outside children are at play, a man is asleep on a bench and a few people puff idly on cigarettes. Masses of people waiting inside tell a sad story about our economy.

9,566 homelessness men, women and children were counted in the 2009 Hillsborough county census. Orange-vested panhandlers are the only ‘truth’ most people ever learn about the homeless.

The reality is many of those people are not homeless, Jay Molina, director of compassion and action said. In fact, Molina said, the median age of the homeless in Tampa is nine.

Why are nine-year-olds homeless? Because their parents are.

“There aren’t enough shelters out there to house families. There are shelters out there to house single individuals, but there are few that house families,” Karl Celestine, director of outreach & prevention services said.” That’s because it’s not typical for families to be homeless, but that’s happening more every day.”

Tonight, Metropolitan Ministries said approximately 8,000 people in Tampa won’t be able to find shelters. On any given day, Celestine said, Metropolitan Ministries can have 40-50 families on their waiting list for housing.

AnaMaria Mendez, director of community relations said, “We had one case where a single mom and her child had been sleeping in a parking lot because it was well lit.”

Cases like these are not uncommon. The faces of the homeless, however, are often lost amongst ideas and generalities. Organizations like Metropolitan Ministries work to correct the problem.

“In our programs we train them through educational classes, so they will have a different perspective on how to live,” Celestine said. “We teach them how to fish as opposed to giving them the fish.”

Metropolitan Ministries offer services such as GED classes, an employment lab, counseling, money management, childcare and educational opportunities for children.

The homeless and needy often find out about these programs in a unique way. Rather than through commercials, radio programs and advertisements, the success of others speaks volumes.

“People often find out through word-of-mouth. We’ve been in the community for close to 40 years. We are pretty well established,” Mendez said. “People know this is where you come to find these services. “

As shelters struggle against a growing homeless population, the community can do their part and they are.

The job and housing market may be declining, but good will is increasing. People are becoming more empathic as reality hits home, literally. They feel the pull of the economy on their finances.

“There has been an increase in volunteers,” Mendez said.  “People want to give back, they want to feel like they are part of the solution in helping their fellow neighbor.”