Written by Honor Joseph, LMSW and Therapist at HopeWorks
Initially I didn’t want to write this story, because I didn’t feel like it had the kind of ending we strive for, but then I thought about a hope I’ve seen in this particular person’s eyes when we sit down together and how it wasn’t always that way. That’s a victory that is difficult to quantify yet so transformative and integral to survival in this world. Despite the horrors he has endured, he lives in such a way that he might enable others to breathe a little easier, even if it requires living apart from his family for the rest of his life in order to send them a little money or offering his resources to help an old friend that has burned every other bridge. Encountering such sacrifice and selflessness has been immensely humbling for me. His ever-expanding heart makes room for those who are struggling and isolated, so these days I have him bringing strangers to our sessions asking if I can help them instead.
I met this individual my first week at St. Martin’s when I observed his diagnostic intake where he recollected his first experience in prison at the young age of 9 for stealing food for his family who was starving in Cuba. Although he was able to escape to the U.S., a felony stripped him of any immigration status. As a Cuban refugee, he couldn’t be deported either, so he resorted to engaging in illegal work to survive. He eventually began using drugs as an escape. He would tell me over and over that he didn’t want to use but he felt like that was his only solace from the harshness of the streets. Even so, he always carried a deep conviction about using every act of kindness, every monetary donation with care and responsibility, which translated to not even using it on a pack of cigarettes. He would (and still does) regularly send a portion of his General Assistance to his family in Cuba—sometimes for the simple fact that he did not want to use the money to feed addiction.
Last November, as he lay paralyzed on the sidewalk one night, a man ran him over with a truck for not delivering on an outstanding drug debt. His bones and organs were crushed, and he couldn’t do anything on his own for 6 months. He began to weep as I watched the nightmare take hold of his body and mind. During the first couple months of therapy, he expressed hostility and a recurring desire to hurt his perpetrator and get some scrap of justice for the debilitating health consequences he was still undergoing surgeries for.
With the generous help of the Heading Home program at HopeWorks, this client was housed last month for the first time since he arrived in the United States. For the first time in over 20 years, he has a space, a sanctuary he can call his own.
He no longer sees the near-death assault in November as something he needs to avenge. His body doesn’t collapse beneath the weight of traumatic memory. He’s found peace and considers that night a wake up call. Before, he spent much of his energy and time high or looking for the means to be; today, he devotes that time towards accompanying friends to methadone clinics and medical appointments or walking them to my door.
This story doesn’t have a perfect ending because he’s stuck in limbo between broken criminal justice and immigration systems and will never have the opportunity to experience the benefits of citizenship. I don’t know what’s going to happen when his housing voucher expires, but as he, without fail, assures me at the end of every session, he’ll be okay.
While we’re far from resolving systemic issues that disproportionately burden our clients and while we may not have a cure for every hurt, we can help individuals obtain some degree of stability or security that offers the opportunity to begin again or at least try once more. This client has been through darkness that most of us will never know, but rather than allowing the ugliness and injustice to harden his spirit, he is exerting his agency to push goodness into a world that is hungry for it.