for Homeless America
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Stories

Trespassing on the American Dream

This story is based on an interview with a formerly homeless man.

The moment was surreal. Luis paused in front of an apartment door in an affordable housing complex. He had done his time in jail. Done his time living hand-to-mouth on the streets of Providence. Now he was about to occupy his first home in 6 years. He should have felt elated…but something didn’t feel right.

That feeling had triggered when he first walked into the lobby. His new neighbors, mostly elderly, had glanced and quickly looked away, leaving the sting of their judgement: Hispanic male = not one of us = threat. Their silent recriminations followed him up the stairs.

Now, standing on the threshold of a new life, Luis’ hand shook, his inner heckling went viral. Bolting down the stairs, he raced out of the building. Tears stung his eyes. My god…I feel like I’m trespassing!

The story might have ended there. But Luis was from the street, and the street’s primal lesson is tenacity. Fighting through his ghosts, he forced himself back up those stairs to claim his living space.

But ever since I heard about Luis, those ghosts have haunted me, particularly his tag line: “I feel like I’m trespassing.”

Trespassing literally means unlawful entry. It can be a criminal offense. And Luis had uttered this self-condemnation in the face of good fortune. On many levels, the implications were profoundly disturbing.

For those who inherit the American margins, KEEP OUT signs are ubiquitous, posted on almost every road to acceptance and success. Luis’ story is a case in point. From Day One he found himself surrounded by concentric rings of threat and violence: a family with an abusive father; a neighborhood infested with gangs, crime and drugs; more pervasively, a country riddled with prejudice against his ethnicity. For a smart and sensitive kid, the signs became internalized. Keep out. The American Dream is not for you. Tragically, in a land founded on freedom and equality, we have created a class of Trespassers. Not because of criminal activity, but because some view America as an exclusive club, intent on barring “people of difference,” from entry.

The American dream is the blueprint around which we entwine our own dreams: the hope for a better life, the yearning for higher ground. And when one is deemed unworthy of this “prize,” the sense of cultural rejection has searing, life-altering consequences. This loss becomes contagious, giving birth to other losses. Soon job, family and health are in jeopardy. Sometimes, it culminates in living on the streets. But the most devastating loss is invisible, sometimes indelible: the loss of Human dignity.

The roots of the problem are complex and systemic, tethered to a conflicted national identity. But Luis’ case offers a template for a homegrown success.

Since securing his apartment, through fits and starts, his trajectory has been upward. Working with Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, he now spends his days educating and inspiring others to help the disadvantaged. Having his own home has made a huge difference.

He is not alone. Statistics show that having a place of one’s own helps stabilize a life. Accompanied by an effective network of care and support it can also help reduce crime, addiction and mental health issues – making it cost effective. Although it is not a silver bullet, it can be a centerpiece in the puzzle of survival, around which other parts can be fitted.

With this in mind, please consider taking up a cause that can affect countless lives: become active in the campaign for affordable housing. For some homeless people it means hope, a chance to start again. For others, it is a matter of survival.

For me, this becomes Luis’ legacy. Settled in his new home, he no longer considers himself a trespasser. He is now a stakeholder, playing an active role in the journey we call the American Dream.