Of the more than 600,000 Americans who currently don't have a bed or warm meal to come home to this holiday season, about 1 in 6 of them are like Thomas David Coleman, chronically homeless. The 70-year-old came to New York City decades ago to pursue a career as a clothing designer, but ended up among the men, women and children who are repeatedly homeless over an extended period of time, due to factors such as disability, illness, substance abuse or long-term unemployment.
Chronic homelessness is largely viewed as a huge societal ill. That's because chronically homeless individuals like Coleman, without proper assistance, will most likely continue to remain homeless for the rest of their lives -- at a huge cost to society and themselves. Homeless shelters such as NYC Rescue (pictured above) where Coleman now sleeps temporarily, weren't designed to house the long-term homeless population or address their sometimes complex needs. Furthermore, the chronically homeless continue to consume millions of dollars in services annually.
Thankfully, the historical route of providing supportive permanent housing only to individuals deemed "housing ready" (generally drug- and alcohol-free individuals) has been swapped for a "housing first" approach -- the view that permanent and stable housing is, in fact, the first thing that chronically homeless people need to move up in their lives. Programs such as the 100,000 Homes Campaign (which aims to place 100,000 chronically homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing by July 2013) have helped to curb the further growth of chronic homelessness.
But many, like Coleman, are still waiting. And though they might spend their lives living temporarily from shelter to shelter, waiting in lines for their next hot next meal, with experiences seemingly so far removed from our own, the reality is that their lives began not much different from ours did: with dreams for a great future.
Thomas' Story: 'I'm Very Grateful'
"I moved to New York from Ohio when I was much younger, not old and grey like I am now," Coleman (pictured left) told AOL Real Estate during an interview at NYC Rescue. "I moved to to New York to make and design clothes. I wanted to be a designer. I was really good at designing clothes!"
Like his friend Christopher David Toilber, also homeless, Coleman said that he never imagined that he'd end up alone with no job or home. But the harsh realities of New York City living -- so different from the shiny, glamorous portrayal in fashion magazines, movies and television shows -- and his inability to find steady employment (like 830,600 other currently jobless New Yorkers) forced him out on the streets. Quite literally.
Coleman said that he spent "many years" homeless in New York's Tompkins Square Park -- historically known for being the Lower East Side's homelessness "hub" -- often sleeping on the ground with only the clothes on his back and under a blanket of discarded newspapers. One particularly chilly fall day, he said, he was approached by a guard who warned that the oncoming winter would be especially harsh. He learned that he could get a free hot meal and temporary boarding at the McCauley Mission (since renamed NYC Rescue). There, on the corner of Lafayette and White Street, Coleman said that he found not only food and shelter, but companionship, acceptance, and a renewed sense of spirituality. And he's been a "fixture" ever since, Coleman jokes.
Related: Should Homeowners Open Their Doors to the Needy? While Coleman's demeanor throughout the interview remained upbeat and high-spirited, he expressed a continuous yearning for his own home. Despite his age, he said, he still wanted the opportunity to express creativity in the craft he'd always aspired to.
"I have a case worker who is helping me to find my own place," Coleman told AOL Real Estate. "It's a waiting game. But once I get housing, hopefully I can get myself a sewing machine, and then I can make myself some clothes. I'm 70 years old, but I still know how to make myself clothes!"
And though one might assume that a 70-year-old homeless man with no family and no job might have little to be thankful for this holiday season, Coleman says:
"I'm thankful for everything. Just everything. Life itself.
"I might look like I have nothing, but I have food and shelter and spirituality. I will [be able to] see this Christmas. Yes, I'm very grateful."
Also in this series:
'Just Grateful for a New Day'
'Thankful I Overcame'
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