By Janinne Brunyee
“This program is amazing. It’s a sanctuary. It is peace and hope. It is safe.” This is the experience of Nicole, one of the 15 women currently living at Compass at First Presbyterian, Compass Housing Alliance’s first 24-hour shelter.
I was at Compass at First Presbyterian to interview two guests for a video we are producing, to be featured at Compass Housing Alliance’s annual luncheon. On my way out, Nicole approached me to ask what we were filming. She immediately told me how much she loved the program.
“I came here and fell in love. You can leave your stuff and don’t have to worry about it. You can shower when you want to. You don’t have to leave at the crack of dawn,” she explained.
I was so struck by her enthusiasm that I asked if she would be willing to share her story. She agreed, heated up a burrito in the microwave, gathered her belongings and led me to a picnic table where she started to talk.
With her long strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes and abundant freckles, Nicole looks younger than her 35 years despite the hell she has lived through over the past nine years. Nicole shares a familiar story. She wanted to leave Utah and escape a turbulent relationship with her father. She met a man who lived in Seattle, so she moved. The relationship didn’t work out, but Nicole decided to stay because she got a job at CenturyLink field.
“I was stressed out one day and the friend I was living with offered me a line of meth and I felt all my worries melt away,” she said. For Nicole, it was a very short path to a powerful addiction. “I snorted for about six months and then got hooked on the needle. It was over after that.”
From Addiction to Homelessness
For the next two years, Nicole did “anything and everything” to get high. “It was hell. If I wasn’t high, I couldn’t function. I would ache and physically crave the high and the numbness,” she explained.
She ended up on the streets when her friend kicked her out. He was ready to get clean, but she wasn’t. “I started to live in tents and in alleys, anywhere but inside,” she said.
Then there was a turning point. Nicole watched her best friend overdose. “Seeing him foaming at the mouth, beyond the help of the EMTs was a reality check. It was my wake-up call.” For the first time, Nicole understood that she could kill herself and she didn’t want that.
The Process of Recovery
It took more than one attempt at rehab for Nicole to start her process of recovery. “I did a one-year stint and relapsed a week after I got out. Then, two years at another in-patient treatment center worked and I have been clean ever since.”
Nicole biggest motivator was her unborn daughter. She was pregnant when she entered rehab for the second time. “I got clean and sober so I could not hurt the baby who went to live with my sister in New York after she was born.”
Beating addiction did not immediately resolve Nicole’s homelessness. It would take another five years before she was ready to “come inside.”
“I had to break the habit of being outside where I actually felt safe,” she explained, adding that being homeless had become almost like a routine for her, one that was driven by her desire to stay clean and avoid the people and places that were triggers.
But the realities of sleeping in a tent or spending nights in shelters had begun to wear on Nicole.
“I got tired of being tired, of going to bed feeling dirty. Dragging a suitcase around all day had gotten old. And I was tired of people beating on the door, shouting that there was five minutes left on the floor, and 10 minutes in the shower,” Nicole recalled about shelter living.
Richard, an outreach worker from Union Gospel Mission, had been trying to help Nicole find shelter and put her on the path to Compass at First Presbyterian. Here she has a support system and her team is helping her re-establish her identity, tracking down a copy of her birth certificate and driver’s license so she can get back in the system.
Looking to the Future
“It’s time to start being a woman again. Working, paying bills, finding housing and taking on responsibilities. I am beyond ready,” she declared as she considered employment options. “My dad used to work with wood all the time and I either want to work with wood, or learn landscaping or go back to Farestart.”
Nicole recognizes addiction came at a high cost to her life and her family. But as we looked to her future, I realized I am rooting for this woman. To find her footing. To become everything she has ever dreamed of. To be able to have a real relationship with her daughter. And, with stability and support at Compass at First Presbyterian, I understood that for the first time she has a chance of achieving that.