Julian came in first thing in the morning with his cheeks red, breathing a trail of fog that dissipated on the doorstep of the drop-in center. It had snowed the night before and frost shimmered on the rooftops. When I saw him my first thought was, Oh, no, did he sleep outside again last night? I was so relieved when he told me he’d stayed at the shelter. Less so when I realized how cold he was simply from the bike ride to get here.
Make no mistake about it–even though Julian slept somewhere warm last night, many did not.
November 18th is National Housing Day and this awareness could not come at a more urgent time. With many people feeling chilly as they toggle with the heating systems inside their homes, it is important to remember that there are still plenty who sleep in tents outside at this time of year. Julian might be one of them when his stay at the shelter ends in a few days. He is still waiting to hear back about a housing program he applied for this autumn. Such programs are competitive and have a dismal housing supply stacked against them, but Julian has some friends here at Stepping Stones who give him hope.
Youth like Ashley who have acquired housing are still active at Stepping Stones and can spread their success story to those who are still waiting. One of the most outspoken members of H.E.A.L, Ashley is a firm believer in the community aspect of housing. In the video below she discusses the importance of her peers in climbing out of the emotional valley brought on by her homelessness. She is housed with other women who have gone through similar experiences; many she knew from Stepping Stones. “I know a lot of people feel alone when they are in a situation like that, but finding support groups is very important in my opinion.” For, her housing is not just a place, but an extension of a support system that is integral to her continued growth.
Others are still joining the housed community. Last month, Stella and Jack both got their own apartments after spending much of this past year homeless. Since coming to us shortly after concluding his time in foster care, Jack developed a reputation for making everyone at the drop-in center smile. On his way in, he’d look every person in the eye and say their name before asking how their day was going. On his way out, he’d always say “Have a beautiful day.” His smile was infectious, and every time I saw him I’d think how does this kid stay so happy all of the time? But then I saw his move-in day photo and I realized I’d never actually seen him so happy before. Every night before that, Jack had a place to sleep and he could put a smile on in the morning. But on move-in day he finally had a home to go back to and the difference was visible.
Stella’s move-in day was monumental. Because she’d been adopted from outside of the U.S, she encountered additional hurdles in proving her citizenship. By the time she learned that her move-in day was coming soon, she’d been with us nearly six months. For months, she’d wanted a new job so badly, but she was so drained by this life in limbo that she struggled to even begin looking. But as she moved into her new place, she saw things differently; with each street they passed on her first drive to the apartment, she found a new place that made her say, “Hey, I can work there!” Just having this big change meant Stella started seeing opportunities everywhere.
Before finding housing, Jack and Stella slept in cars, on friend’s couches, in shelters, and even outside. Though these circumstances were preferable to the environments they came from prior to becoming homeless, they never felt that they had a place to call their own. For them, housing is about more than having a place to rest their heads; it’s about feeling like they are home.
When I first interviewed at Stepping Stones, Kathy took me on a tour. Her enthusiasm was infectious. From the lockers to the craft room, it was clear that every single corner of the drop-in center filled her with pride. Even so, when we got to the last door, she said, “I’ve saved my favorite room for last.”
Behind that door waited the apartment room. Floor to ceiling shelves filled with everything from toasters to blankets, bath mats to silverware sets, pillows to table lamps. The room is truly like magic, a perfect place to satisfy the needs of someone stuck thinking, “I have almost nothing to my name and yet I’m moving into an apartment today.” Looking around at the stacks of microwaves and bedframes, the coffee makers and tea kettles, the rows of vacuum cleaners, I imagined the relief that someone who had become used to living on the streets must feel to have earned this rite of passage.
“It’s always a good day when we get to come in here,” Kathy grinned. “Move in day.”
On a pillar in the center of the apartment room is a checklist that is the envy of every person who visits. “I wish I had this when I got my first apartment!” a visitor once told us as he ran his thumb down a categorized list of items–bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, etc. For the kids of Stepping Stones, the list is a shocking reminder that they are not just getting shelter after they leave this room, but space.
Amazingly, almost everything in the apartment room is donated by fantastic supporters in the community. Some of the larger essentials, such as beds, mattresses, and dressers, cannot be stored, but we coordinate with the Congregational Church of Amherst’s Homestarter program to connect youth moving into housing with those final major items on their list. Youth don’t pay a dime to receive items from Stepping Stones or Homestarter, which helps ensure that every dollar they have saved goes towards their other essentials. We are very grateful to the Homestarter program, and the many people who have donated to them. You can learn more about donating gently used furniture by visiting their website. Know that when you do there is a very good chance that what you pass on will be well loved by one of the Stepping Stones’ youth on a day long-desired: move-in day.