Shawn pulls his car into the driveway of a small apartment complex in Pasadena. The youthful-looking 51-year-old jumps out to tell his client Mary that he’s there to take her to her dentist appointment. On this day, Mary will be the lucky recipient of a new set of dentures provided by a local dentist who volunteers her services. Mary, who used to be chronically homeless, has not had any teeth at all for the past 6 years, and when she comes out of the dentist’s office wearing her new set, she can’t remember how one smiles so that their teeth show.
A second stop in South Los Angeles finds Shawn delivering payment funds to a client at a rehab clinic. If not for Shawn and his team, Joe would have ended up evicted from his apartment and back in prison. But thanks to the negotiating skills, money lending and fund management services provided by Shawn and his team, Joe is instead in a residential rehabilitation treatment program and still has an apartment to go home to.
As a Harm Reduction Specialist for a local non-profit agency, Shawn spends his week managing a team of case workers who help formerly homeless clients such as Mary and Joe find homes and navigate the many hurdles to staying housed. Shawn has spent the past 10 years working on the front lines of the homeless services industry. Before his current job, he worked at Union Station Homeless Services for four years as a case manager, bringing Pasadena’s most down-and-out in out of the cold. But what his current clients may not realize is that 12 years ago, Shawn stood in their shoes.
Shawn remembers the exact day he arrived at the door of Union Station Homeless Services. It was just a week before Christmas 2002, and he was homeless, broke and in withdrawal from heroin. “I was so done and shot out. There was nothing left,” he says. “I had never been sober before. I had been using from the time I was 12.”
But a friend convinced him to seek help at Union Station. “They put me into detox immediately, and then into rehab,” he says. “Without their help, I’d probably be dead by now.”
He’s been sober ever since.
“In Pasadena, Union Station stands as this beacon of hope and help,” Shawn says. “I found a home in Pasadena because of Union Station. Union Station plays a big role in promoting the idea that homeless folks aren’t just homeless people, they’re our homeless neighbors, and it’s our responsibility to take care of our homeless neighbors just like it’s our responsibility to take care of our other neighbors.”
It’s a responsibility Shawn takes seriously as he continues his work as a direct service provider who regularly goes out into the streets to conduct outreach. As he knows first-hand, for those who are battling addictions, it takes more than just a pledge to take the 12 steps. In his case, it took what he likes to call a conversion experience. “What I do know is that this conversion experience I had was a complete rearrangement of my thoughts and ideas,” he says. “Up until then, for nearly 40 years, I had been obsessed with drugs. It was the only thing that made me feel OK, and my whole life was about getting more of it. And then my obsession went away for the first time ever.”
Ever the care-taker, Shawn’s current obsession includes trying to figure out how he can make a difference on a policy level by helping to bring about meaningful change in the way our government treats those currently known as “drug offenders,” as well as looking after his mother.
“Union Station was the first place that allowed me to be somewhere long enough that I was able to tap into my own value,” he says. “Without their help, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now. They gave me the springboard from which I was able to get well enough that I could begin to find myself and tap into the idea that I can take my experience and bring it to others and make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Angry and feeling inadequate, John’s early bad judgments and bouts with drugs and alcohol found him at age 33 living in his car.
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