Houses call to me. I drew them as a child and dreamed of becoming an architect. I photograph them wherever I travel. In my neighborhood are some of the most graceful, historic homes in the city. I wander the streets just to admire their porches or roof lines, the overall forms and surprising details. I have lived in many sorts of houses, from a renovated chicken coop to a house that had once had a beauty salon in the basement to a unique A-frame situated on an acre of rolling Tennessee land. Houses are magnetic to me with their stone, wood and glass and all the innards that make them work right, their mysterious stories, and their deep value as social center and family refuge. We create a life in our habitations and they help shape who we are. The mark we make on them is indelible–until the next person comes and creates a life there.
But so many people don’t have even modest houses or apartments to call their own. They live in the elements and work hard to survive. Many strive to find a place other than a makeshift or crowded shelter, a spot where they can feel secure and make their mark upon: home.
One such person is Caralynn.
She was panting from hurrying from the bus to my office. Hank, her companion dog, limped along beside her. She removed her backpack and then took out a well-used rawhide chew for Hank. He lowered himself carefully at her feet. He was a mix of breeds, black with a couple splashes of white, medium build, his dark eyes sad and watchful. “We’re both street mutts, so that works out,” she’d once told me.
Hank looked at me and then away, disinterested. He didn’t distrust me but he only ever favored Caralynn. He had her back, she had his.
“I think I got a place. A studio at Creighton Place. It will cost me a lot of money, about three hundred, but it looks pretty good.”
Her lined face was transformed with a gap-toothed smile; her eyes were clear and radiant. The new weight added softness, and her hands didn’t shake that day. The anxiety that reared up when the alcohol and heroin were left behind was a constant reminder of what she had lived and how she had endured. The depression threatened her peace of mind so often that she felt like she walked a tightrope. But she found her balance again and again.
Caralynn had come to treatment months ago with a will to hew out a new life from the remainders of the old one. She had lived on the street most of her life; her car had been her mobile home for years at a time. But today she announced a major step in the journey with pride.
“You did the work. Now you can enjoy the results,” I said, smiling back.
“But,” she frowned, “you probably know this: I’m scared. I have some money now, a place and I am taking Hank, of course, or I wouldn’t be moving in. But I’m worried. It’s a lot to have after having nothing. It’s a lot to learn. How to spend money–I want a microwave and maybe a little TV. A bed. I have to figure out how to be a permanent neighbor! How to get used to those walls. I wonder if I will be lonely. ”
“On the street, it isn’t lonely to me. I know people everywhere I go. We meet and share smokes and coffee, food if we have any. There’s a freedom. There’s good and bad like everywhere. Hard to sleep under the bridge or overpass, in the woods, in a doorway. Hard to stay warm, and dry, find bathrooms. Dangerous at times, okay? Bad times might outweigh the better ones. I was thinking I could have trouble keeping some people away. I might want to live with just myself for once. And Hank. You know I wouldn’t make it wthout him.” She smoothed his ears back, gave him a good rub.
“You have other friends now.”
Caralynn tilted her head at me. “You’re right. I got the AA meetings. I come here every week. I met a couple women at the shelter who are nice, I guess, if I decide to trust them.”
I waited as she thought about these things. Everyone had made it priority to help her find housing, but it wasn’t that simple. It was leaving one life, and entering another. There were no clear instructions for this one. She didn’t know many of the new rules.
“I might not make it,” she said, her head hanging low. “I could screw it up. Spend too much money, make enemies I can’t get away from, get crazy-bored in a tiny room. I might give up. Even take a drink. ” She sighed and for a moment it sounded as though she was going to cry. Hank stood up and nudged her hand with his nose. “But all those mights or might nots just make it hard to let go and move on. So I have to love myself and my higher power enough to hang on to a little more faith.”
Caralynn sat back and looked at me hard. Her eyes were dewy. She swiped at her nose with the back of her hand.
“You gonna be here if I screw up?”
“Have you ever been homeless?’
The question startles me. I am overtaken with images from the past. There was the college year when I was between goals and choices and had to couch-surf for a few weeks. Another year in Texas when there was little furniture and less food and cockroaches that greeted me in the bathroom in the middle of the night. There was a time I was locked out of an apt. by a vindictive roommate and I wandered and hid all night until a restaurant opened. Or when I moved back into my parents’ house for six months with two children and a husband because he could find no work.
“Well, not exactly.”
“No, probably not,” Caralynn concluded. “It’s okay. The important thing is, we both know what counts.”
“Well, I told you a long time ago that the only way I could really love myself was to forgive others, forgive the whole past. I thought that might go a long way toward keeping me sober and clean. You agreed. That changed my life. And here we are celebrating my first home.” She looked at her new quartz ten-dollar watch. “Time to go to group.” She tugged at Hank and he stood up tall.
“That’s my very first brand-new, working watch,” Caralynn said. “I might even get a clock radio to put by a futon if I can afford it or a used bed if I can’t.” She laughed. “I can’t believe it!”
I opened the door. “You’ll figure it out. Just stay clean and sober.”
“I will. See you next week with more updates.”
Caralynn hurried down the hall and Hank trotted off-kilter beside her. She was talking to him, as usual, making sure he understood what was next.
Note: The names and identifying features of the persons and dog in this post have been changed to protect their privacy. They are composites based on real persons and experiences.