Hope turns formerly homeless man’s life around

Nov. 20, 2013  *  Florida Keys Keynoter

“All I need is 38 cents.”

As I was leaving the grocery store the other day, I saw what is surely a familiar sight to many Key West citizens: A bearded, unkempt man, apparently homeless, sitting in a wheelchair and panhandling for change. As I drew near him, I saw his bloodshot eyes and smelled the aroma of booze. When he asked me for that odd sum of money, I suddenly found myself at an impasse: Help him or not?

Not so long ago, I was in the same situation this man was.

That incident, along with the fact that Nov. 16-24 is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, has given me pause to reflect upon how I changed my life and how someone can avoid the same predicament.

An active alcoholic for most of my adulthood, I came to Key West in January 2012 because one of the few friends I had left lives here. It wasn’t long before my friend realized what sad shape I was in, so he told me I could no longer live with him.

So I, with my proper upbringing, college degree and extensive employment history, suddenly found myself homeless. At that point I knew I needed some help, but with the absence of any type of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility here, I wasn’t sure where to turn.

Fortunately, I found out about the men’s program at the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, a local nonprofit organization that provides lodging and assistance to homeless people suffering from addiction, at minimal cost to the client. The program has three phases, and clients can receive its services for up to two years.

I entered the program in early April 2012, and my life has since turned around completely. I’m now living in the third phase, and was recently named its monitor. I oversee the completion of chores, administer random drug and alcohol tests and serve as the liaison between the coalition staff and clients.

One reason for my personal transformation is that the coalition requires its clients to attend 12-step meetings daily. So I quickly immersed myself in the meetings, and have since become a familiar face at the Anchors Aweigh Club on Virginia Street, a facility that hosts a variety of such group gatherings.

In addition to the moral overhaul with which the 12-step programs have blessed me, I am once more part of the community. I’m a member of a large, loving fellowship, and now have scores of friends and acquaintances, filling a decades-old void in my personal life.

And the most important lesson that the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition and the 12-step programs have taught me is how to take personal responsibility for my own existence.

Because my alcoholism had warped my values, I’d just assumed (often incorrectly) that other people would take care of me. And I found myself part of a vicious cycle: The fewer people wanted to help me, the more I drank to forget about my problems.

But because of the coalition, that cycle was broken. I’ve been clean and sober for 19 months now. I’m employed, I again have an outstanding relationship with my family, and my values have taken a 180-degree turn.

And the homeless man I mentioned earlier who asked me for 38 cents? I gave him a five-dollar bill.

As an alcoholic myself, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he wheeled himself to the nearest liquor store to buy a bottle. But you know what? Maybe he didn’t. There’s a chance he used the money to buy food or clothes, so that slim possibility is what I focused on. In any case, the huge smile on the man’s face when I gave him the money told me I’d just made his day.

I used to scoff at homeless people, thinking they were just too stupid or lazy to change. But because of the life lessons I’ve learned in the past two years, there’s one value I now possess that’s as important to me as any other: Hope.

Key West is a town whose motto is One Human Family. To me, that means that before someone is rich or poor, gay or straight, handicapped or able-bodied, homeless or a property owner, they’re human. And I hope that whatever problems they encounter, they will somehow find a solution to.

These days, when someone asks me for 38 cents, I try to remember that.