The Same Set of Cards:
Exploring Homelessness

by Luciano, Class of 2020

What card are you?

Everything has a value, even playing cards. If you had to pick a card—any card from the deck to describe a homeless person, what would it be? You’re thinking of a two. A three? Certainly not a king, queen or ace. The face cards denote high value, and the people, the stationary ones on bustling sidewalks holding up cardboard signs, asking for money do not strike most of us as high value. Those going through homelessness experience a drop in value.

There’s a social stigma surrounding homelessness and the low value assigned to it. The moment someone becomes homeless his or her original card doesn’t matter. All that matters is what others see, and they see the lowest card. Others see a card that won’t win any games because its value is half that of the queen and a third of the ace. They see someone who can’t make a meld or win a hand. Most people have trouble seeing the duality of the ace—the highest card also has the potential to be the lowest. “Last year we had a guy with a PhD come in. Well educated, well dressed and he was crushed,” announces Mike, one of the shelter’s staff. Life is fickle and everyone privy to its whims, even the aces. Sometimes it only takes one bad card to ruin the perfect hand.

Not everybody is dealt a good hand, but they want one.

Hot water rushes out of the rusty faucet and I scrub my hands with dish soap, up to the elbow. Clear latex gloves encase the hands of the lunchtime volunteers and hairnets prevent rebellious strands of hair from wandering into the hungry residents’ meals. It’s a quarter to 12:00 and the residents of 2100 are eager for a hot meal.

In the lunchroom, the tables push against each other in a line to form five rows, and they stretch to the back of the rectangular lunchroom. To their left, four trashcans wait for their meals as well. After the residents eat, their grease stained lids come up and they’re fed the scraps and meals of more than 100 men. At each stretch of tables, fifteen men stare in the direction of the kitchen, wondering when they will get their food.

Moments later, the kitchen opens. Two hands hold two trays for two men. Each man is different, in his attitude, reception of his food or body expression but they all want decent food. Some wrinkle their nose at the sight of the food and say, “this ain’t jambalaya” and refuse to eat it. Others do the same and after one look and whiff, pass the grey lump of rice and chicken to someone next to them, even if that person already has food.

Some men look at me eagerly. Not because they need me but because they need what I am carrying. They give me their attention and wave me down the moment they get a chance. They are kind and say “thank you,” but the moment their hands clasp the beige rim of the tray, their body does a 180 back toward the table. Other men hunch over their phones, books or stare at the table and wait patiently for their hot meal. As if their name is assigned to the tray, their torso twists in its direction when the kitchen doors swing open. The men’s faces have developed deep wrinkles and from those wrinkles, smiles emerge followed by a curt nod of the head and gruff voices saying, “Thank you young man.”

Some men ask for more than the minimum, and in the lunchroom that’s never well received. “That’s discrimination, cries a short stout man. Becky, a regular volunteer laughs off the man’s accusation. “I just want a fruit cup,” he says looking down in disappointment at the bruised pear on his tray. Becky refuses to give him one and he walks away in a huff—lunch continues. Outside of providing basic needs such as food and shelter, 2100 provides residents with enrichment activities such as portrait classes, board games, political discussions and poetry classes.

On the second floor the computer lab serves as communication to “the outside world” as well as job research and application help. Residents form genuine relationships with the staff rather than hostile and volatile ones such as the prisoner-warden dynamic. Two beloved figures within the community are Lydia and Austin; when residents interact with the two, there are often smiles as deep as canyons and explosive fist bumps.

However, when it comes to food, the lunchroom is unforgiving. The shelter doesn’t receive the same amount of hot food every day. Letsky, the kitchen manager, swears under his breath occasionally but deals with it. Given the opportunity, he would serve everyone seconds and thirds of whatever they wanted, but he settles with what the truck sends in. On days when the food is scarce and the men hungry, he paces around and says, “We can’t afford to keep giving the guys everything they want.” Those days, the 6 oz. spoons are filled halfway, the rice spread out to give the illusion of a full serving.

Not every player is experienced or enhances the quality of the game.

“It didn’t always used to be like this” observes Kenny with a halfhearted smile. He’s looking at the floppy disks called “fried” eggs and red mush that is supposedly breakfast sausage. Both are lunch today. Kenny is a retired teacher and for seven consecutive years, has spent his Monday afternoons at 2100 serving lunch.

The first thing you notice about him is the gold chain that rests in a field of white hair sprouting from the unrestricted portion of his plain white button down shirt. Pouring Kool-Aid into beige 8 oz. cups he recalls, “Years ago the food was made by the volunteers.” People like himself, and it was “good.” “Now the shelter’s got this program where the guys make the food and the quality’s just deteriorated.”

What he’s referring to is the Workforce Development Program. Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry participates in “providing an avenue for employment by empowering individuals who are oppressed, forgotten and hurting.”[1] Low-income individuals have the opportunity to become certified in culinary arts if they take a six-month class. It consists of over 250 hours of hands-on experience, as well as 48 hours of job-readiness training. LMM believes teaching men employable skills through programs such as their Culinary Arts Program will put men back in control of their lives.[2]

In 2017, 132 low-income individuals underwent vocational training. Of these 132 participants, 82 secured jobs and 100% remained out of the criminal justice system. Ninety-five percent retained their jobs (post 6 months) and 45% earned higher wages. [3] Is the tradeoff worth it? To the men in the program…sure. They gain job experience and a certificate denoting their hard work, but the men here who have to eat meals, the quality suffers to the extent that some cannot stomach them, no matter how hungry they are.

It’s not all luck. You gotta know how to play your hand.

The front doors are red and waxy—another reminder of the upcoming yuletide holiday. Passages is quiet. Most men sleep after the half heaping of heavy carb loaded lunches. Passages is the community inside 2100 for those struggling with substance abuse and addiction. The community houses 38 men that are required to attend a rehab seminar once a week.[4] To the right of the entrance is the Admins office. They are in charge of the community. Inside sit two men.

On the left, behind an oak stained desk, Mitch sits in a typical reclining office chair. In front of him are piles of documents, and to their left and right are more piles, covering every square inch the desk offers. The other man, Michael sits cross-legged with his arms resting on his chin at a table laden with trash bags. Two baseball bats sit in the corner of the room, just out of Mitch’s reach… Both men are in charge of communities at 2100, Mitch Passages, Michael Gateway and both are familiar with homelessness.

“I could never keep a job. I would quit because of the smallest things like if I felt my boss gave me the wrong look or I felt disrespected in any way,” reflects Mitch. Seven years ago he got a job at 2100 after working as a security guard, and last year he was offered the position of admin for Passages.

Michael leans forward clearly eager to present his thoughts, “Look you understand we are here to facilitate and guide their rehabilitation as well as provide them what they need to get back on their feet. Well that’s just that.” Michael pauses to lick his lips. The arid winter air punishes his delicate skin for forgetting lip balm. He continues with the popular proverb “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. That applies to all the men here. It applied to me! Yes, homelessness is a vicious cycle but so is the mentality. I guarantee if you gave all the guys here a million dollars, 70 percent would be back in a matter of 6 months.”

There is some truth to Michael’s statement, especially within the Passages community. Addiction is described as “the repeated involvement with a substance or activity despite negative consequences.”[5] The men in Passages lack a degree of control over their actions. It’s a natural, part of addiction.[6] Drugs over-activate the brain’s “reward circuit” which is responsible for positive forms of motivation and pleasurable effects such as eating, socializing and sex. With repeated use, the circuit adapts to the drug’s presence and diminishes in sensitivity, making it difficult to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.[7]

Some might buy houses and resume a life outside of the shelter, but until they break the cycle of substance abuse, chances are, they will remain in the shelter. Michael wets his lips before continuing and crosses his legs, revealing his red and green Christmas themed plaid socks in the process. “You have to want to change. I wanted to change and Mitch wanted to change, and it isn’t easy but it’s possible. You have to want it though.”

It’s possible to draw a good hand after a bad one.

Nakeem’s not one of them—one of the faces you see on the side of the local metropolitan buses. One of the pale angels that fall victim to opioids. He is not your son. He is not your daughter. He is the other. He is a criminal; he is a failure, on more than one occasion he recalls others describing him as a “dope fiend.” Nakeem is twenty-five years old and became homeless last year—the year after discovering heroin.

“Look, I had some friends and we got together sometimes to smoke and it was like a steady incline. One thing led to another and I was hooked,” he recalls. Ohio has an opioid crisis; in 2015 alone providers wrote over, 9.96 million prescriptions to a population of 11.61 million.[8] That is nearly enough to give each Ohioan one bottle of addictive opioids. In total, Ohio officials believe that “anywhere between 92,000 and 170,000 of the state’s residents struggle with heroin and opioid abuse or dependency.”[9] Of those abusing or dependent on opioids and heroin, 5,232 overdosed in 2017, a significant increase from 2016 in which 3,613 opioid related deaths occurred.[10]

Of those 5,232 deaths, 1,444 resulted from heroin overdoses. “One day I shot up with my pals and one of ‘em didn’t make it back, you know what I mean? But I was so bent on getting fixed I just kept going and I look now and see that’s why I lost my stuff That’s why I lost my girl, my job, my little apartment, all my money. It was that fix. I HAD to get IT, “says Nakeem, never breaking eye contact from his white sneakers.

Today, Nakeem dances through the west wing on his way to the laundromat. His arms sway perpendicular to his chest, his shoulders spontaneously raise above his neck as if shrugging off a question that does not concern him and his knees bend in harmony. He resembles a nonconforming gymnast doing step squats to a music video. Everything about his body language says, “This shit’s good, I’m enjoying the hell out of myself and this world still has plenty to offer.”

Only a few inches away from each other, he stops and plants his feet on the soot covered floor. His head bobs up and down, approving of each beat and lyric of the song. He has a villainous smile except it’s not malicious, just real big in the same way. Nakeem lifts his left hand. It’s still smooth on the outside but his fingertips are charred and callused from substance abuse and smoking. He points to his phone—more specifically, the men singing just below its surface. In a cheerful voice he asks, “Man you remember this?”

I don’t, but rather than walk away in annoyance or accost me for my lack of musical knowledge, Nakeem is patient. He wants to share his happiness. He lifts his index finger to point at the man in the middle of the screen wearing purple robes standing on an altar. He asks if I recognize the man his finger hovers above. I apologize and say no but Nakeem doesn’t mind, he still boasts his ear to ear grin; after all, he’s trying to get me hooked on his new drug. He doesn’t have to talk to me, and he doesn’t have to be patient, but he is. Nakeem stops anyone who is willing to talk about music, something he holds dear. In a while, we part from each other’s company and he opens the green door to the laundromat, just steps from where we were moments ago.

He looks back at me with a smile that assures a smile in return and finishes the conversation with, “Man it’s alright. I bet you know Eminem, he kills!”

Understanding the game

At 2100, the cards don’t matter; they’re all the same. Some men have lived as aces. Successful lives with PhDs, but that didn’t keep them from ending up in the shelter. Others lived in poverty and made a mistake that cost them their job or house. It’s easy to judge based on appearances. Most of the men at 2100, if you saw them on the sidewalks, your instincts would tell you to clutch your wallet or check for your keys after a safe passing distance.

The volunteers who come to serve lunch occasionally stop—as in take off their gloves, smocks and hairnets, walk out of the kitchen, down the hall and pop their heads outside of the building to check if their cars are still there and then… just to triple check, lock them again. It’s important to take the time and talk to the men. Talk to Nakeem, he turned his jumbled hand into three of a kind and he is on the path to sobriety and a home. Sadly, though some were dealt bad cards and maybe others discarded poorly. Regardless it’s necessary to keep them at the table and deal them in anyway.

Bibliography

Addiction Campuses. “The Heroin and Opioid Epidemic in Ohio.” The Bluffs. Last modified June 22, 2018. https://www.bluffsrehab.com/blog/heroin-opioid-epidemic-ohio/.

Horvath, Tom, Kaushik Misra, Amy K. Epner, and Galen Morgan Cooper. “Why Don’t They Just Stop? Addiction and the Loss of Control.” Mental Help. Last modified NA. https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/why-don-t-they-just-stop-addiction-and-the-loss-of-control/.

Ludlow, Randy. “Ohio Drug Overdose Deaths up 39% — Nearly Triple US Average.” The Columbus Dispatch. Last modified February 12, 2018. https://www.dispatch.com/news/20180212/ohio-drug-overdose-deaths-up-39—-nearly-triple-us-average.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. “Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside.” Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. Last modified 2017. https://www.lutheranmetro.org/home-page/housing-and-shelter/mens-shelter-at-2100-lakeside/.

———. “What-We-Do-Workforce-Development.” Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. Last modified 2017. Accessed December 5, 2018. https://www.lutheranmetro.org/home-page/what-we-do/workforce-development/.

National Alliance to End Homelessness. “State of Homelessness.” National Alliance to End Homelessness. Last modified 2018. https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-report/.

National Coalition For the Homeless. “Mental Illness and Homelessness.” National Homelessness Coalition. Last modified July 2009. https://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf.

National Institutes of Health. “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Last modified July 20, 2018. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain.

———. “Ohio Opioid Summary.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Last modified NA. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-summaries-by-state/ohio-opioid-summary.

2017 Year End Impact Report. 2017. Illustration. https://www.lutheranmetro.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2017-Year-End-Impact-Report-WFD-8.5×11.pdf.

[1] Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, “What-We-Do-Workforce-Development,” Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, last modified 2017, accessed December 5, 2018, https://www.lutheranmetro.org/home-page/what-we-do/workforce-development/.
[2] Ibid.
[3] 2017 Year End Impact Report, 2017, illustration, https://www.lutheranmetro.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2017-Year-End-Impact-Report-WFD-8.5×11.pdf.
[4] Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, “Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside,” Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, last modified 2017, https://www.lutheranmetro.org/home-page/housing-and-shelter/mens-shelter-at-2100-lakeside/.
[5] National Coalition For the Homeless, “Mental Illness and Homelessness,” National Homelessness Coalition, last modified July 2009, https://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf.
[6] Tom Horvath et al., “Why Don’t They Just Stop? Addiction and the Loss of Control,” Mental Help, last modified NA, https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/why-don-t-they-just-stop-addiction-and-the-loss-of-control/.
[7] National Institutes of Health, “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, last modified July 20, 2018,https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain.
[8] National Institutes of Health, “Ohio Opioid Summary,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, last modified NA, https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-summaries-by-state/ohio-opioid-summary.
[9] Addiction Campuses, “The Heroin and Opioid Epidemic in Ohio,” The Bluffs, last modified June 22, 2018, https://www.bluffsrehab.com/blog/heroin-opioid-epidemic-ohio/.
[10] Randy Ludlow, “Ohio Drug Overdose Deaths up 39% — Nearly Triple US Average,” The Columbus Dispatch, last modified February 12, 2018, https://www.dispatch.com/news/20180212/ohio-drug-overdose-deaths-up-39—-nearly-triple-us-average.

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