On the fast track: Dion and Brillian transition out of homelessness

By Brett Renville, documentary filmmaker and guest blogger for Compass Housing Alliance

“I want my own food truck,” Dion told me, “and then one truck will turn into two, and two to three and eventually I have my own restaurant.”

24-year-old Dion was not short on confidence and he spoke like someone who would make short work of any obstacle that got in his way. What about being homeless? Well, that was just one more, seemingly insignificant, barrier to his aspirations. To hear him talk, it wouldn’t be long before he’d kick it down too. He was fighting with all his might to live the American dream. I have to admit, while I believed Dion would do it, there were considerable barriers. It might take some time.

I first met Dion and his brother Brillian at a shelter. But then again, it wasn’t a shelter like most I’ve seen in the city. Compass at First Presbyterian, is a newly opened shelter that is based on the 24/7, enhanced shelter model. This meant that they could stay the night, and the next day. They could also keep their stuff and stay together. This alone makes a huge difference. It gives them the time they need to access resources, stabilize and start afresh.

Dion and Brillian had just arrived and were settling in at the same time I was producing a documentary video for Compass Housing Alliance. A housing navigator, Elizabeth, was working with them to land an apartment they could afford. It’s not an easy thing to do these days in Seattle. Moreover, the brothers were caught in the typical Catch-22 of the traditional shelter system. They were working the night shift, which doesn’t align with most shelter setups. Shelters generally close their doors by 9 p.m. and empty out in in the early hours of the morning. This meant Dion and Brillian were trying to snag a few Zs wherever they could, be it at the library or any other quasi-horizontal spot that afforded rest.

“I didn’t want to sleep on the ground, so I slept in a truck bed so I wouldn’t be seen,” Brillian told me. “You try to be invisible.”

Dang. Brillian went to great lengths to preserve his sense of dignity. As the brothers described it, they were mostly working on very little sleep. At the same time, they were caught in a trap, where they could never stretch a 2-week paycheck far enough to meet a security deposit and rent.

“I could say nothing negative about my journey, my journey is not homelessness,” Dion reflected, noting he’d lost everything, his home, his car and he’d left his family and daughter behind in the hopes of getting new start. “I had to hit rock bottom.”

Working while Others Sleep

So when I went to Denny’s at 2 a.m. to check out what the brothers’ journey looked like, I was in for a bit of a surprise. Brillian and Dion weren’t just working the graveyard shift. They were running it. Just the two of them, the entire restaurant. Dion cooking the meals and Brillian serving them.  They were accountable to no one but themselves and the customers—which, let’s be honest, can be an eclectic mixture on the graveyard shift. If Dion hit rock bottom, then he—and his brother—demonstrated unbridled ambition to climb their way back to where they wanted to be. Firing on all cylinders, Brillian and Dion were on the fast track, working hard and transitioning out of homelessness.

They didn’t just have jobs, but they also had a place that gave them stability, allowed them grow and find community.

“On the first day when we didn’t have to leave, I shed a tear,” Brillian said, citing the benefits of Compass’ enhanced shelter, where he could return each morning after work. “It was stability, consistency, it would be here… still be here, it was really comforting.”

Transitioning to Home

I spent time with the brothers at Compass at First Presbyterian and at Denny’s. I was wrapping up the shoot when I went back to CFP to check in on them. They were days away from securing a place and moving in thanks to their housing navigator, Elizabeth.

“We look forward to having a key to our apartment, to just close the door and be in a place we call home,” Brillian said. “It’s like you are back in society and that’s a good place to be.”

About Brett Renville:
Brett Renville is a documentary and commercial Cinematographer and Director, based in Seattle, WA. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Brett developed a love for the natural world, and in his work, transferring the essence of a subject – be it human, of the animal variety, the environment, or a simple moment in time – is Brett’s passion and craft; drawing meaningful stories into focus through the lens of the camera. For more info about Brett please visit: brettrenville.com