Getting sober – part 1

It was late one Saturday evening in the fall when a police car dropped Larry off at the church where we were serving dinner. We were already cleaning up as most of our guests had eaten and left by that point, but Larry looked bedraggled and said he was starving, so we invited him to take a seat while we heated something up for him. He immediately started shoveling food into his mouth, and I gave him a few minutes to eat before sitting down next to him to chat.

He was a small man in his 60s, much shorter and thinner than myself, with strawberry blond hair and bright blue eyes. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and looked a little ragged, but there was something likeable about him and his southern accent as he started speaking.

It turned out he had just been released from an addiction recovery facility. He had been through a rough couple of days of detox from alcohol, and now he was sober and wanted desperately to stay that way. He had told the folks at the detox center as much and begged for them to get him into a program for a month or two so he could get stable, but they weren’t able to accommodate him, and they put him on a bus back to homeless life.

When he got off the bus, he flagged down a police car and asked for a ride to our meal so that he would eat instead of drinking. The officer drove him to us and dropped him off.

As he finished up his meal, Larry said that he knew he wouldn’t drink tonight since his stomach was full of food, but that in the morning he was sure he would be finding a bottle again.

“I don’t understand this system,” he said, “they take you to dry out and then they dump you right back in the same environment again.”

His point was a good one and I told him I didn’t understand, either. But I was sure there was an answer; surely there was help for a person like him who was motivated to change and ready to move forward. I asked him if he would mind waiting while I made some phone calls.

He replied that he had nothing but time, but he was sure there wasn’t anything we could do.

There was nothing available to someone like him, he said.

“I am going to die out there if something doesn’t change,” he told me, his piercing blue eyes ringed with red and brimming with tears.

Pacing back and forth in the empty church, I called the detox facility from which he had just been released. An organization specializing in addiction recovery seemed like the best bet to have knowledge about a situation like this. However, they were not able to help.

They said that if Larry had insurance other than the federally provided Medicaid, there would be plenty of immediate options, but that they had a long waiting list for their Medicaid beds, and most other places did as well. They gave me a list of agencies that we could try calling on Monday for help.

They mentioned that if he were intoxicated, he could come back there for detox.

“So you’re telling me that there is nowhere for him to go because he’s sober, but if he just gets drunk, then suddenly he could get help?”

I was losing my cool and my hands were starting to shake with anger. I decided it was time to get off the phone.

I tried to arrange my face neutrally as I returned to tell Larry what I had found out. I asked him if he would like any of those numbers or information about an AA meeting.  He declined, sure that he would be unable to remain sober for long enough to use any of those resources. Everything I had learned in school in my classes about addiction and recovery told me that he was right.

With addiction, having access to help when you are ready for it is absolutely crucial.

“Honey, you know as well as I do what will happen tomorrow morning,” Larry told me as he turned to leave, clutching a blanket we gave him to keep him warm that night.

“That’s just the way it is,” he concluded.

I searched high and low for Larry the next day and asked our street outreach teams to let me know if they saw him throughout the next few days, but he didn’t turn up.

People who experience homelessness can be quite good at being invisible when they want to. Often, their safety and ability to exist without being bothered depends on it. They need to be able to blend into the landscape so they aren’t moved along by police or harmed by people who have ill wishes for them.

And though our city isn’t that big, there are a lot of little places that someone can hide if they don’t want to be found.

(Thanks for reading Part 1 of this story. Part two will be posted tomorrow.)

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