From Homelessness to Independence
From Homelessness to Independence
Part 3- Stable Housing
Part 3- Stable Housing
This is the third in a series about how people navigate poverty, i.e. how they get their daily needs met, particularly when they spend most of their time on the street, and how they move towards independence if they have the will and can find opportunities. The goal is to educate the public through the words of people who live with poverty.
“Part 1- Living on the Street:” I spoke with people on the street in Philadelphia who appeared to be homeless. Most were chronically homeless and seemed to accept their situations. They have become adept at navigating this way of life.
“Part 2-Transition:” The second photo essay focused on people who, having been at the bottom, have come to that moment where they can’t live that way anymore. Their commitments are inspiring.
“Part 3-Stable Housing:” This photo essay is about people who are ready to convert their commitments into the responsibility of housing- something they have not had to shoulder in their lives of homelessness. This is a big step and it’s hard.
Just as homelessness has as many stories as there are homeless people, the step into housing is equally varied. There is free housing, subsidized housing where people pay a set percentage of their income, and some people are able to afford rooms and apartments. Every housing situation has both pros and cons that people have to navigate in their quest to move forward and not fall back.
This photo essay is presented through the words and wisdom of one person. He represents people who have come to homelessness from trauma such as abandonment, loss of a loved one, illness, physical abuse, addiction, incarceration, and more. They often face greater challenges than do people who come to homelessness situationally such as job loss. For people coming from trauma, successfully navigating from homelessness to independence often requires fighting the weight of their past and often continuing trauma.
Richard Lonnie Ramson, aka “Ram,” has sustained himself for eight years by selling the One Step Away magazine, formerly a newspaper, on the streets of Philadelphia. I first interviewed him in 2016 for the photo essay: “Homeless Narrative.” His introspection and wisdom have stayed with me. When I heard he had been chosen for a one year rent free apartment, I knew he would be perfect for this story.
Hope & Door Program
Ram’s selection for housing was the combination of ongoing support and encouragement from One Step Away and a wonderful new program offered by Berger Rental Communities called “Hope & Door.”
Berger’s commitment: “Across America, 34% of the homeless population are families. At Berger Rental Communities we have raised our hands to offer hope for families by opening doors to those in need. We are committed to providing a home, resources, and support so that homeless families can rebuild.” Specifically Berger will offer one year rent free apartments to four families each year. In launching Hope & Door in 2019, Berger formed a partnership with One Step Away. For ten years One Step Away (a program of Resources for Human Development) has been helping people experiencing joblessness and homelessness in Philadelphia by offering a means to making a living. I spoke with Emily Taylor, director of One Step Away.
Why is it so hard to obtain stable housing: “It’s very hard for people to get housing on their own; while many of our vendors earn enough to cover rent, to get housing they need first and last month’s rent, security deposit and maybe a credit check and background check and all of that is a big challenge… When Berger approached us about partnering on Hope & Door, I saw this as an important opportunity for some of our vendors to take their lives to the next level because having your own place makes a huge difference… Most people take everyday things for granted like: ‘Where do I keep my things; when and where will I shower; when and where will I eat; how do I stay safe?’ All of these things have to be handled before a person can apply for a job or go to work; when people experiencing poverty get safe secure housing it reduces their struggle.”
How was Ram selected to receive an apartment under the Hope & Door program: “A lot of our vendors could benefit from the program however the population we serve usually is not families with children; I’ve known Ram for years- he’s consistent with selling the magazine and is focused on his life; he wanted more and needed a chance particularly because he has a new daughter; Berger was impressed that Ram had a plan for his life and was clear about how housing would help; so Ram was the first person chosen for the new program; he and his daughter Symphony moved into their new home in June, 2019.”
Ram has been in his home for six months- how has the program impacted him: “I see him thinking more about his future, that he can’t be on the streets anymore now he has to take care of his daughter- he wants her to have a better life than he has had… He was getting there but hit a huge realization that he had to step up his game because he is in charge of his daughter’s life.”
Richard Lonnie Ramson
I interviewed Ram in his Philadelphia suburb apartment. It’s a spacious unit with two bedrooms, one which shows the telltale signs of twenty two month old Symphony who splits time between her mother and father. From what I would learn about Ram’s 41 years, he has never known a home like this.
Ram is a person who thinks deeply about his life.
What causes homelessness: “A lot of homeless people are dealing with mental health issues- they don’t know how to figure things out- I could be just like them, but I sought out prayer… In 2001 I wrote a morning prayer and an evening prayer; I started saying these and it gave me something to focus on besides my reality… Now I’m spiritually minded and mindful of my own soul.”
Ram read his prayers from a book of his writings.
Morning Prayer: “Lord, I thank you for allowing me to wake this morning; I thank you for giving me the ability to help and better all living that surrounds me… I ask you to keep my family and friends strong so they can see me turn into the man I was sent here to be: a faithful, intelligent, powerful, working, successful, multitalented, determined, wise, intellectual, spiritual, humble, righteous, articulate poet, lyricist, healthy, wealthy rich man… in God’s name I pray- Amen.”
Evening Prayer: “God, now you lay me down to sleep; forgive me for any sins I have commit; I will stay focused on my future and never quit… Linda Joyce Houston, my mother, I honor you, I will always love you and I’m praying for you… Richard Lonnie Ramson, Sr., my father, I honor you, I will always love you and I’m praying for you… To all my family and friends, I love you and I’m praying for you… To all living, existing, breathing, I love you and I’m praying for you… in God’s name I pray- Amen.”
The evening prayer reveals so much about Ram’s character because the source of his trauma was childhood abandonment by his mother and father.
What caused your homelessness: “My father was never there and my mother was getting into drugs at a young age- your family can abandon you… At about six I started living with my aunt; it was OK for a year or two till she became a crack addict… Being neglected I started running the streets and doing bad things- when children are doing bad things it’s not because that’s what they want to do, they’re just seeking love and attention in any form they can get it, so I got in trouble and was locked up when I was ten for breaking into a car… These are the roots to homelessness later on- it’s about being broken emotionally.”
“I was put away in the system (DHS) which was traumatizing.”
"I was sent to group home where I felt abandoned- I was just snatched up and put away where I didn’t know anybody- I just felt lost at ten years old- where’s my family; I starting acting out like ringing fire alarms… I see the DHS system as no different from jail when you are taken away; but there were activities and eventually you shift into what it is- you get used to it but it’s still a traumatizing experience.”
Ram’s path took him from one school to another, typically focused on behavioral health: “Looking back having to adjust at all these placements I wasn’t grounded in anything… So to the homelessness- look at how I was living, moving from one place to the next, that’s like living on the streets, that’s the base of how homelessness starts… I think my mother visited me once while I was in the system and she passed when I was eighteen, and my father visited me once; I didn’t go on home visits like other children, so a lot of things play on you mentally: ‘Why aren’t I going home?’… It’s heavy on a child!”
What are your living conditions since you became an adult: “After I left the DHS system I was put in foster care; after that I went in and out of shelters and at one point was on the street for twenty days till one of my friends helped me out by letting me stay with her for a month.”
How did these situations make you feel- deep inside: “You feel alienated, depressed; most kids have friends from childhood, but I don’t have any childhood friends- my childhood was disrupted… So there are a lot of mental things that can play on you; it keeps you stuck trying to figure out why; it can keep you stuck in your past; it can traumatize you so much that you never move on; I was stuck trying to figure out why my family wasn’t there- crying… It causes depression.”
“Playing sports was the only thing that kept me from sinking.”
“Because I was tall, I played sports- that was a form of therapy for me and I always got attention that I lacked as a child; at school I was treated like junior staff- I was always like an old soul- always treated different because people saw potential in me; I was always creating things back then like woodwork and art… So as much as I went through, my saving grace was who I am outside of that trauma.”
As you reached adulthood, were you able to be motivated to create a life for yourself, or did what happened take your motivation away: “When I went to jail in 2003 I shifted from playing sports to writing which has done a great deal to help me; I write poetry, songs, lyrics- so it really saved me… As much as I look at the trauma, I also have to look at creativity and how it can play a role- some people say that I’m the artist I am because of what I’ve been through… But if you don’t take care of those traumatic experiences you had as a child, it will catch up to you; I did see therapists and I want to get back into it- you have to talk to someone to get it out of you; if you don’t deal with things, it turns into substance abuse or abusing people- it’s going to turn into something like homelessness.”
How did you get into your current housing: “Emily Taylor played a role- she fights to give One Step Away vendors housing opportunities… It was around March or April this year when the Hope & Door program for families came around and Emily asked me if I would be interested in housing; the only reason I qualified was that I had a family- my daughter… I had been going back and forth between living in a shelter and living with my daughter’s mother, but that was toxic with so much arguing… So when Emily asked me I said yes- it was luck that I was in the right place at the right time.”
“For me this home is a miracle!”
Have you ever been in a home like this where you get up every morning and see all these rooms; how does it make you feel- deep inside: “It’s phenomenal to be stable, not having to worry about a roof over your head; when you’re stable and you have a home to come home to, you can live your life; when you’re stable you don’t have to be around people you don’t want to be around- you have the room to thrive… When you’re in a shelter you have all sorts of people around you- drugs and sickness- it’s disturbing… I don’t care who you are, an environment like that can change you- you become your environment; this home feeds my soul- it’s my personal refuge.”
It’s hard to imagine how a person can have self esteem if they don’t have a place of their own: “But even if you do have a home, if the home is broken and unstable, the child in that home will be broken and unstable.”
“Keeping this apartment will mean staying with something- I’ve never had a job for more than a year except for One Step Away.”
What’s your arrangement with this apartment: “It’s rent free for a year, I just have to pay for utilities; at the end of the year I can either stay here, go into another Berger property, or move on; if I stay I would have to pay the $1200 rent; at the same time, one of the things that hit me is that my share of my daughter’s daycare tuition is $700… I can do it as long as I do what I have to on my end with the magazine and my jewelry business.”
So you have stable housing for a period of time, but it is not really stable yet: “Right, you could say that, yeah; I was offered a job for $15 an hour but it just hit me recently, damn, it doesn’t add up to what I need; I could look at the saving aspect since I could save a lot of money this year, but when I have to pay rent the savings will go away fast… I have to figure out how much I need to generate to take care of my needs.”
It goes back to what you told me three years ago about people on the street; they’re not fighting the system- they can get money and food to survive; in a sense, you’ve taken a step up but it’s way harder: “I have my jewelry business which I can turn into something; selling the One Step Away magazine is great and I make a decent amount… A lot of things that cause homelessness are about structure- if you weren’t raised in a certain structure where they teach you, bad habits will follow; learning how to save money and how to manage my time are things I have to work on.”
Does having your own home help you to move forward: “It’s a wonderful thing and I’m not trying to take away from it, but damn, it’s a situation that can take you back… I have my jewelry business, but I have to put time into it like ten to twenty hours a week; if I get my vendor license I could make a great deal of money, but again I have to do that- whatever you spend your time on is what you are; I don’t spend a lot of time on my jewelry but I know moving forward I have to; so if I really get engaged then I can make money.”
What’s keeping you from getting engaged- what’s the barrier: “It’s a choice but again you are dealing with issues, mental things, depression- things I have to work on; for the most part we get in our own way- we are our own worst enemy… And for me there’s the seasons- in the summer I was rockin’ and rollin’, but Christmas (this interview was in December 2019) can be a depressing time for people and I get depressed… If I put in the time, I could be successful and keep this place after June- it’s all up to me.”
You are helping readers of this story understand just how hard it is going from being homeless to becoming truly independent; you have this great housing opportunity but it's not yet secure; to keep it you have to put pedal to the metal, but the trauma of your life is like an anchor: “Yeah, everything is your mental state, you have to be stable mentally in order to function.”
“I do see myself being successful in maintaining
the opportunity given to me by Hope & Door.”
Where do you see yourself one year from now: “I see myself being successful in my jewelry business and I see myself growing as a person; I have to be optimistic- my jewelry will open up more things in my life- people love my work- I just have to follow through… Then there’s fear of rejection; One Step Away taught me that some people are going to say no to my jewelry, but I have enough people who support me and that keeps me going.”
Navigating from homelessness to independence is far from a smooth process. There is so much to overcome and slipping back is a constant risk. Ram’s life challenges are shared by so many who suffer from homelessness.
Homelessness, whether it’s living on the street, living in a shelter, or couch surfing (living temporarily with others), is by no means a pretty life. It’s dirty, smelly, hungry, sickly, unsafe and even life threatening. But this life carries little responsibility. Money and food are relatively easy to get. Healthcare is available and there is typically a place to sleep if people want it. There is no rent or utilities to pay and no job to run to every day. For many, homelessness is a preferable life, particularly where mental illness and addiction are present. Leaving homelessness behind as Ram is trying to do means entering the endless and unforgiving grind that most people face. The motivation we saw in the previous photo essay about people in transition can get sorely tested once people take on societal responsibilities such as housing. Success is far from guaranteed.
Through the support of One Step Away and the generocity of Berger Rental Communities, Ram has been lifted from chronic homelessness and housing insecurity. But he now finds himself in the struggle of earning enough to cover his rent and other needs. Ram has so many talents, but every step will be a fight against the trauma that brought him into homelessness in the first place. Reaching true housing security requires much more than the availability of apartments. Whenever you see a homeless person and wonder why they don’t get a better life, remember they were a child once and they’re stuck in something that was never part of the plan.
But Ram does have a special advantage: as much love, security, and life training that he missed as a child, he now gets all that and more from his daughter Symphony- she’s music to his ears.
This story barely scratches the surface about the challenges of secure housing- sufficient number of homes available and people being able to live up to the responsibility. Many organizations, along with the City of Philadelphia, are doing their best to provide housing for people who want it and who have the wherewithal to keep it. Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services' signature program “Roadmap To Homes” needs and welcomes community members to get involved: http://philadelphiaofficeofhomelessservices.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/ohs-2018-road-map-strategic-plan.pdf
One More Thing
Ram does beautiful work- keep an eye out for his jewlery. I bought a coral necklace for my wife and she loves it!!
Published January 2, 2020
Published January 2, 2020