I met Joey a while back and like most people I’ve met at the CEC, it took a while before he would say more than two words at a time to me. The other day I apparently crossed some threshold of trust and he opened up and shared quite a bit of his story. He gave me permission to share this with you (with his name changed of course) in the hope that knowing people’s stories helps us have compassion on them and others in similar circumstances. Like Joey, everyone I’ve met who is experiencing homelessness has a story that breaks your heart once you know it.
Joey lived with his mom and dad until he was 14. From the age of 5 until the state intervened, Joey spent a lot of his childhood locked in a dark closet by his dad. Joey doesn’t know exactly what changed when he was 5, but it seems like alcohol (and possibly drug) abuse was involved. Joey’s dad didn’t beat him but he did have to listen through that locked closet door as his mom was repeatedly abused by his dad. Sometimes Joey would sneak a book and a flashlight into the closet ahead of time, anticipating the confinement that was surely coming. More than once he got caught when the light betrayed him through the crack of the door but he learned to read with a finger on the switch and an ear perked for the sound of approaching footsteps. The distraction helped as he spent hours upon hours trying to ignore hunger, thirst, the need to go to the bathroom, and fear for his mom.
That was Joey’s existence for nearly 10 years – perhaps the most critical years of childhood development. He never went to school with visible marks of abuse (he learned that resisting going into the closet or banging on the door made things much worse for his mom) and he almost never went with any homework done. The school system managed to keep passing him up to the next grade but it did not graduate him or send him forth in any way prepared to succeed. Things changed a bit once the state took him away from his parents but he bounced from foster home to foster home (7 in all with gaps in between). At least he wasn’t locked in a closet anymore. Once he turned 18, Joey was on his own with no family, no support, no education, and a deep mistrust for pretty much everyone and especially for dark or confined spaces.
Joey didn’t choose to tell me what he did to wind up in prison and I didn’t press my luck on this new found trust. However he wound up there, prison was not a good experience for him. Not long into his sentence, Joey was raped by another inmate. He reported the assault to a guard who in turn called the police. Joey told me two police officers came all the way into his cell and escorted him all the way out – past many of his fellow inmates – into a room to take his statement. Afterward, the guards decided Joey wasn’t safe to leave with the rest of the inmates, so he spent the rest of his sentence in “protective custody,” which practically amounts to the same thing as solitary confinement – 23 hours a day alone in a 10×10 cell, with one hour per day to walk alone around a small courtyard. After nearly 10 years being locked in a closet, Joey was back in essentially the same situation again.
Joey told me all this to explain why he wanted a sleeping bag but not a tent and why he only stays at the CEC for short periods of time. He literally cannot stand to be inside. I think he suffers from extreme PTSD. He seems quite anxious all the time, furtively looking over his shoulder every few seconds. After hearing all this, it amazed me that he felt safe enough with me and at the CEC to share his story. I can’t image trusting anyone or anywhere after all he’s been through.
But that is the core of our mission here and the fullest expression of what we mean to be: a safe place to be. For many of our folks, a genuinely safe place is a rare find.