After 8 months of being an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Damiano Center, I’ve been able to sit down in the Community Kitchen countless times, and each time is different from the last. When I grab a tray of food, fill up a mug of coffee and sit down, I always find myself engaging in conversation with somebody. Whether I know them or not, it’s usually full of laughter or stories. And after that one conversation, we’ll greet each other with smiling faces when we pass each other in the hall. Ben was the first guest that I made this connection with. One day, he just sat down at the same table as me and started to talk. While I do sit with other guests as well, Ben and I eat lunch together whenever we’re in the kitchen at the same time.
When I tell people where I work, I often hear comments that reinforce stereotypes about people experiencing poverty and homelessness. A lot of these comments revolve around drugs and alcohol being the gateway to these situations. While there is a major problem with these, people like my friend Ben are advocates for making better decisions about staying clean.
Ben grew up in Duluth not far from the Damiano Center. His parents and seven brothers and sisters originally lived on the Fond du Lac Reservation before they moved to a house near the Damiano Center. He was fascinated by politics and enjoyed swimming at the YMCA or skiing on Spirit Mountain. Ben even attended UMD to pursue a degree in Political Science. However, during his junior year, his mom passed away, followed by his dad eight months later. Two siblings died of accidents and another from cancer. Traumatic events in his life transitioned from an emotional to a financial burden.
Things hit rock bottom when he found himself living in his van for seven months with his dog, Tank. Like so many people, Ben was new to being homeless and did not know what to do or how to get help. He struggled to get food, water and other basic needs. Scared, he sought out help. His brother connected him to Deb Holman, who brought him to CHUM for a place to sleep and gave him resources for basic needs. He was so grateful to be somewhere safe, especially since it was a place he never imagined being when he was growing up and going to college.
All throughout this entire situation, Ben was very conscious about one thing: resisting addiction to drugs and alcohol. He knew how bad the opioid problem was around Duluth. “I really want people to know the effects of meth. Skinny and damaged skin from picking at it. It’s really weird,” commented Ben. Although peer-pressure was present at some points, his greatest challenge was overcoming the effects of the second-hand smoke in his basement.
After his stay with CHUM, he was able to secure a place at an apartment building nearby which he described as “basically survival” to live in. There were a lot of issues with other tenants and the police were around his neighborhood responding to calls fairly often. The scariest night, however, came when Ben began to feel very sick. “My stomach and head were feeling really weird and I noticed my dog was acting strangely. I took him to my friend’s house and told him about what was going on. He told me that I had been inhaling meth smoke coming up from people smoking in the basement. I went to the hospital right away because I was scared.” Luckily, Ben and Tank recovered quickly from the incident, but Ben was wary about the possibility of it happening again. With the amount of affordable housing in Duluth, finding another place is a difficult task. He is still thankful that he has his own place to sleep at night.
The effort to educate people on how bad the effects of meth are became a big priority for him. He’s not alone in this effort. A large percentage of people experiencing poverty and homelessness are strongly against drugs and alcohol and advocate for people to get clean or never start using. Ben thinks his life and living situation could be better, but every day he’s thankful for not having the personal troubles of dealing with addiction or alcoholism. The support he gets is from the people he surrounds himself with. “If you’re around people who are negative, they bring you down. If you’re around positive people, they bring you up. And life can be pretty good no matter what then.”