Painting A Brighter Picture

From Homeless to our Board of Directors

 

Jeff became homeless in 2013. Friends who had helped him before when times were tough weren’t opening their doors. Years of on-again, off-again crack use had severed many ties. Jeff spent a few nights living in an abandoned building using crack with his fellow addicts. Then a pill overdose landed him in the hospital. When it was time to leave, Jeff had nowhere to go.

Still, fortunately for Jeff, one friend threw him a lifeline. The friend recommended that Jeff check out Peter & Paul Community Services and gave him the homeless helpline phone number. Jeff called repeatedly, and on the third day, we had a bed available at our Soulard Shelter. The original program of PPCS, the shelter has been housed in the basement of Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church since 1981. “Everyone was friendly when I got here,” said Jeff. “The staff at the shelter was positive. If you asked for anything reasonable, they would do anything for you to make it happen.”

Jeff was sober when he arrived. “I had just gotten out of the hospital, so I hadn’t touched anything in over a week,” he said. During Jeff’s first days adjusting to shelter life, his sobriety and employment helped him make the transition. He had managed to hang onto his part-time job during the turbulent months leading up to his homelessness. “I worked for a big box hardware store,” said Jeff. “I always called in advance if I knew I was going to miss my shift. I didn’t want to lose that job.”

Ironically, that job caused his biggest doubt about remaining with us. One of the shelter rules was that clients be inside by 9 p.m. when the doors were locked for safety. “When I heard that, I was worried I might lose my bed because I had to work until 11 p.m. sometimes. I shouldn’t have worried,” said Jeff. “The staff simply asked for a copy of my schedule, and then they accommodated me.”

Shortly after arriving at the shelter, Jeff was told about our transitional housing program, also located in the church building. If accepted in the program, a client received more privacy and sleeping space than in the communal shelter filled with bunk beds. Jeff knew he wanted in, and he was a great fit. “In a word, Jeff was persistent,” said Dan Hill, who was Shelter Services Assistant Director at the time. “Jeff set a goal and didn’t stop until he reached it. When faced with an obstacle, he calmly and diligently worked until he had overcome that challenge.”

Tom Burnham, former Shelter Services Director, spent significant time with Jeff. “Jeff was a model for the other clients, not in any pushy kind of way so much as by example,” said Tom. “It was my job and Dan’s job to ask people to account for themselves. Some of the guys instinctively disliked being asked about their progress. Jeff was different. We never had to go find him and ask him if he did what he was supposed to do. He always found us and let us know, and the other guys saw that.”

For 13 months, Jeff lived with PPCS. He excelled at his job and attended AA meetings. When his shifts at the hardware store made him miss a meal at the shelter, he would get himself over to our Community Meals program to eat across the street.

Another key piece of how Jeff reclaimed his life was by actively participating each week in our Community CollabARTive, a program focused on creation through working together from coming up with ideas to project completion.

As the weeks turned into months, Jeff practiced budgeting skills and discussed matters of finance regularly with Dan. Paycheck after paycheck, Jeff saved money to move out on his own. The time finally came. He found a great apartment that fit his budget.

Through the highs and lows life has brought Jeff since then, he has sustained his housing and his sobriety.

The First 18 Years

Jeff’s adult life was a far cry from his childhood growing up on a farm in rural Bourbon, Missouri. His family made a living selling corn and hay crops as well as cows and pigs. Dad was an alcoholic and mom was very religious. Fighting was the norm. Jeff knew his sexual orientation at a young age. He didn’t discuss it with anyone. At age 18 he made friends with a young man named Michael who helped him be his authentic self as a young, homosexual man.

When Jeff chose to come out to his parents, it did not go well. So, in 1985, at the age of 19, Jeff moved with Michael to St. Louis. “I’d like to think Michael would be proud of me now, of how I’m living, and I wish I could thank him for being there when I really needed someone.” Michael died of AIDS in 1992.

The High Cost of Drugs

In the late 80s and into the 90s in St. Louis, Jeff lived a devil-may-care lifestyle as a single young man. “It was pretty wild. I was out almost every night. Drugs were everywhere. I had a lot of friends who died of AIDs,” said Jeff. “I was lucky I didn’t.”

In 1992, Jeff met and fell in love with Mark, his first long-term romantic partner. Jeff began a seven-year stretch of sobriety. Together, Jeff and Mark moved to Columbia, Mo and then Phoenix for jobs. These were mainly happy years with good work for Jeff selling furniture in Phoenix. Then the drug use started again. First, it was just for fun. Soon, the fun was over. The drug usage played into the couple losing their house in Phoenix, moving back to St. Louis, and breaking up.

For the next decade plus, Jeff worked a variety of jobs, mainly selling furniture. He did a six-month stint working as a manager at the high-profile Rothschild’s Antiques in the Central West End. He owned a house cleaning business for a while. He worked as an activity coordinator at a nursing home.  Every two-three years, he would relapse into drug use. The jobs, mirroring his sobriety, did not last. “I attended many AA meetings, but eventually, I’d relapse again,” said Jeff.

Finding the Balance

For Jeff, creating art as part of his lifestyle and getting drugs out of his life for good has made all the difference. He hasn’t used since 2013. “You have to step outside yourself and see yourself as you are,” Jeff said. “You have to ask, ‘Is this really who I want to be?’ I regret ever doing crack. I had to stop. I’d tell others to stop.”

Jeff moved into his apartment in 2014. The CollabARTive remained a ritual in his life for eight years until the pandemic. “Once a week, I’d still go to art class on Cherokee Street,” said Jeff. “Our class coordinators Con and Tali were always creative. They came up with so many meaningful things for us to do.”

Enjoying and appreciating art like Jeff does, it seems natural that he met his husband while at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The couple married six years ago. They live a quiet life now in a house they rent together. Jeff works full-time in retail. He keeps his medical appointments and follow’s the doctors orders to stay fit in mind and body.

“I don’t do anything to impact anyone else’s life negatively,” Jeff said. “I’m proud of that.”

When PPCS staff began looking for a former client to serve on the Board of Directors, Tom immediately thought of Jeff. Jeff accepted the invitation and is now a proud member of the PPCS Board of Directors.

Thank you, Jeff, for sharing your story and serving the cause!