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While doing the interviews for a story about the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization and the Hospitality Center, I couldn’t help thinking about my own frustration in trying to get help for my daughter’s friend, CJ Back.

When I think of CJ, I think of how important places like HALO and the Hospitality Center are even though he wasn’t able to use either of them; he didn’t qualify for HALO’s services, and the Hospitality Center wasn’t offering overnight emergency shelter at that time.

They are two very different places: the Hospitality Center. an emergency drop-in center, helps people survive by offering food, shelter and fellowship. HALO, a long-term solution to homelessness, helps people get out of survival mode through education and social programming.

But, both of these programs are meaningless without accessibility. Three years ago, when CJ sat in the back seat of my car cold, tired, depressed, and off his bi-polar medication, I knew I couldn’t take him home with me, and I knew I didn’t want him walking the streets in the middle of a snow storm.

By the time he was 19 years old, CJ had been taken into custody by the police on a mental health commitment 19 times. In December 2011, the day of his 19th mental health arrest, he sat down on Highway 31 in front of his mother’s house to commit suicide, and I ended up writing about him unknowingly because I didn’t know his real name was Christopher.

“Me and my step dad were having major problems,” he explained. “I was manic and all over the place. I was on drugs, and on and off my medications. I felt overloaded with all of the Prozac that I was on and I wasn’t taking them responsibly.”

Still, CJ had a job at a manufacturing company doing CNC work and had been living with friends. He stopped taking his medication, ruined a machine at work, and was fired from his job. His friends booted him out of their apartment because he couldn’t pay his rent.

The day before, his mom had taken him to HALO, but staff there told him he needed an eviction notice to prove that he was homeless, which is a requirement because the shelter receives federal funding.  But since CJ had never had his name on the lease and his friends were still upset with him, he had no way of getting the eviction notice.

“I think they thought my mom was just trying to dump me off, but she was really trying to get me help and we left there feeling pretty hopeless and kind of degraded,” CJ said.

Sitting in the back of my car the next day, CJ told me he had been walking around town all day in the snowstorm and he didn’t know what to do.

“They (the staff at HALO) kept telling me that I would be staying in a room with about five to seven other people and it made me uncomfortable… me being in my situation and having a social anxiety disorder,” he said.

CJ obsessed about the people he’d be sharing space with at the shelter and the negative thoughts kept spinning and spinning, until he grew paranoid about the people he might be staying with and what would happen if he went back. I too called HALO to find out what we could do to help CJ, but I was told that since he didn’t have an eviction notice he couldn’t stay there.

So I tried getting him into Safe Passage, a social services program that helps young adults, but halfway through the intake process, I could see his anxiety was getting the best of him and he told me that he didn’t feel comfortable going back there.

“It’s hard, a lot harder than people realize to be homeless,” CJ said. “At least for me, being bipolar made it a million times harder.”

Eventually, CJ found more friends’ couches to sleep on and I would occasionally get a phone call from him for a ride somewhere. One day he told me he couldn’t lie to me, that if someone offered him drugs he would do them. He didn’t want to do drugs, but he didn’t see that there was any point to not doing them.

About a year ago though, CJ stopped couch surfing, quit taking drugs, stopped taking all medications (even prescribed ones), cut way back on his drinking, and he got a job. He’s moving into a mobile home he’s renting with his girlfriend.

“Things started getting better when I stopped bouncing from house to house and I made myself more stable,” he said. “I had a chance to work my way to being more responsible and I feel like I’m doing a lot better. I’m more willing to be more and I’m pushing myself to do the things I have to do.

“I still have my problems and shortcomings — don’t get me wrong — but I’m working through them a lot better,” he said.

This experience underscored what I had heard for years about homelessness; that often there isn’t just one reason why someone becomes homeless but there are often many reasons. And these problems are rarely fixed just by getting someone a place to live. The key is learning how to live life independently even if those problems – mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and lack of coping skills – don’t get fixed in the time the rest of us deem acceptable.

Programs and services like HALO and the Hospitality Center aren’t meant to fill the real gap in mental health and addiction services that exists. HALO and the Hospitality Center are merely entry points into a system that has had its shortcomings for many years, a reality CJ acknowledges. He understands that resources are limited and the rules needed to be followed. But at the same time, the bureaucracy of the mental health system needs to be addressed.

Still, the key to CJ’s success has been his support system, his mother, his sister, his girlfriend, his band, his boss — all of that helps him still feel connected to the world.

“Not a lot of people are open minded,” CJ said. “Some people want to push you off to the side and some don’t even want to try to help. There’s this big gap in services for those who have a mental illness and people who don’t have one. But people have gone on to live their lives, I’m living proof of that. Still, people look down on people with mental illness, but I don’t function too much differently than those who are around me.”

I’ll be writing a story this week about both HALO and the Hospitality Center, introducing you to people that seem like older versions of CJ, and hoping these stories spur a real community conversation.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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