Cindy, a victim of domestic violence, escaped her abuser with her three children and $50 to her name. She used it to pay the cab fare to a safe house.
After being beaten by his stepfather and losing his mother to suicide, James saw his crack addiction spiral wildly out of control, sending him out on the streets.
Challenged with a learning disability and mental illness, Lisa tried to piece together a life for herself and got her own apartment. After a couple of weeks, she came home and found her belongings on the curb. Her landlord kicked her out after discovering her medication for bipolar disorder because he didn’t want “crazy people” living in his house.
These are among 13 stories of homelessness in the new book Sacred Shelter: Thirteen Journeys of Homelessness and Healing, published by Fordham University Press and edited by Fordham University English Professor Susan Celia Greenfield, who conducted hours of interviews with each contributor to help distill their stories.
Describing their life experiences in raw and vivid detail, each storyteller talks about their journey to homelessness and how they healed with the help of faith and community found in a life skills empowerment program for homeless and formerly homeless people. Many of the memoirists graduated from Education Outreach Program (EOP), founded in 1989 by New York Catholic Charities and the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing (IAHH). Today, there are several similar programs in the New York area.
“Telling my story is freeing,” said EOP alumnus Dennis Barton to an audience of nearly 250— including 12 of the 13 contributors—at the book launch at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on December 3.
“I’ve touched base with all of my secrets,” Barton said. “Now this book is out there and can help the sick and suffering.” The Bronx native talked about years of using and selling drugs, being incarcerated, and getting severely beaten by a group of teenagers while asleep on a park bench.
But Barton, who had taken college classes while incarcerated, sought help; in 2002, he graduated from the EOP, something he views as a real accomplishment. “Until that moment, I had never finished anything in my life,” he said.
Barton has since reunited with his family and became an ordained deacon at Middle Collegiate Church. He is a member of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing Speakers Bureau and has been a peer facilitator at the Panim el Panim life skills empowerment program. (Panim el Panim is Hebrew for “face to face.”) He now works as a workshop facilitator at Planned Parenthood of New York City.
“I give back because you can’t keep it if you don’t give it away,” he said, referring to the love and support he received throughout his journey that he now wishes to pass along to others who are struggling.
Sacred Shelter memoirist Michelle Riddle, who graduated from the EOP one year after Barton, told the standing-room-only crowd that she recently celebrated 20 years in recovery. She also volunteers as a life skills empowerment program mentor to give back what was “freely given” to her. “I was strung out and embarrassed, and slowly committing suicide,” she said about her drug addiction. “God rescued me from myself.”
All of the stories chronicled in Sacred Shelter are about serious traumas and crises—mental illness, addiction, and domestic violence. A few storytellers spoke of child abuse and molestation—one was chained to a pole in a filthy basement, another was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, and another was routinely beaten by his alcoholic stepfather.
“The most shocking thing to me was the consistency of the trauma,” says editor Greenfield about the interviews she conducted for the book. “It was story after story of gender violence, abuse … and the preponderance of that kind of suffering.”
Another common thread Greenfield sees among the stories is the love and generosity the storytellers showed others even in their darkest moments. She pointed to Riddle, who once gave all of her money to a mother she met on the street with a hungry child, and Barton, who often helped the elderly in his neighborhood carry groceries and clean up.
“It’s so beautiful that even in the thick of it, they were thinking of other people,” said Greenfield, adding that their compassion for others continues in their volunteer work today. “They took the suffering and turned it into an engine of love.”
Also sharing his experience with homelessness at the book launch was James Addison. Despite the horrors of living on the streets and in the Fort Washington Shelter—nicknamed the “House of Pain” among New York City’s homeless—Addison was the recipient of many acts of kindness.
“I was on 34th Street one morning standing in front of a donut shop,” he recalled. “I was so hungry, I hadn’t eaten for days. An employee from the shop came out and handed me a bag of donuts. Those were the best damn donuts I ever ate in my life.”
Barton was also the recipient of kind acts. “People in the neighborhood helped me, gave me food and clothing,” he said. And it wasn’t only strangers; when he reached out to his daughter while in treatment after being estranged for years, she drove from South Carolina with her children to pick him up so they could spend Christmas together—another moment when Barton says that “God showed up for him.”
In their opening remarks, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham; Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky; and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, talked about the importance of helping others.
They also pointed to the power of the life skills programs for the homeless that run in different churches, temples, and organizations throughout the city, and of the 13 people who shared their stories for Sacred Shelter, who are living examples that change is possible.
“To the 13 very brave men and women who chose to tell their stories: … We are in your debt for reminding us about the dignity of human beings,” said Father McShane.
Added Monsignor Sullivan: “Homelessness is not hopelessness.”
Hear Professor Greenfield with memoirists James Addison and Dennis Barton on the Brian Lehrer Show and on Fordham Conversations on WFUV, parts 1 and 2.