Thursday, December 22, 2011

Home for the Holidays

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It’s been a long wait, but finally Eric Hardy can celebrate Christmas. After living on the streets and staying on friends’ couches and floors for three years, the 26-year-old is about to spend Christmas in his own apartment – complete with his very own Christmas tree.

Just over two months ago, Eric received an apartment through Catholic Charities’ Fortitude Housing program, which provides homeless individuals with their very own fully-furnished apartment. A case manager with Fortitude works one-on-one with each client to overcome the barriers that prevented them from living independently.

Eric describes his case manager Melvin Howard as being “like a father to me.” Melvin, for his part, is quick to point out Eric’s tremendous potential and multiple talents, traits he has always been known for.

Melvin Howard presents Eric with a Christmas present.
Eric said, "This is the first gift I've gotten." 
Growing up, Eric was the oldest child and the only male in his immediate family. He felt huge pressures from his family to be the role model and to be the most successful. On top of the pressures of succeeding, Eric’s family struggled to accept him as an openly gay teenager, which only added to his stress. After graduating high school, the pressure grew too much and he turned to drugs.

The spiral down was quick and led to a falling-out with his family. Despite an addiction to drugs, Eric had his own place and held a steady job. But after seeing the way drugs emaciated his body and how a day could pass without his noticing, Eric made a decision: he was done with drugs.

He quit cold turkey, holing up in his mother’s house for three months to overcome the addiction. Remarkably, his addiction occurred before he was homeless. It was his family’s discomfort with his sexuality that led to him being kicked out of the house. Amazingly, once he was on the streets, Eric was never tempted to relapse.

“How could I buy drugs?” he said. “I had no money. I had to eat. There was no way I could afford to spend money on drugs. And when I saw the some of the same people, and they would call to me to go get high, I knew I wanted more out of my life.”

To look at him, you wouldn’t be able to tell Eric was homeless. Having just turned 26 a few weeks ago, he represents the often invisible plight of young people fighting homelessness. He took meticulous care of himself, making efforts to keep his clothes and appearance clean. Like many young people, he tried hard to hide his homelessness. Eventually, Eric sought help from several programs working with the homeless, including S.O.M.E. And while working with a social worker, Eric was accepted into the Fortitude Housing Program.

In a region where affordable housing is in high demand and short supply, a program like Fortitude can help the chronically homeless to truly recover and get to a place of self-sufficiency. The program is possible in partnership with the District of Columbia government, which launched the initiative in 2008.

For Eric, it’s the nicest apartment he’s ever lived in. He keeps it very neat and organized and has decorated and painted it tastefully. His relationship with his mother and family remains somewhat strained, but he is excited to host them over at his place on Christmas Day. And if you asked him what he was looking forward to most about Christmas, his answer may sound familiar.

“I can’t wait to watch ‘A Christmas Story,’” he said, laughing. “Every year growing up, my family would watch it on Christmas day. It is one of my favorite memories.” Like many of the usual holiday celebrations, it was a tradition he missed out on the last three years.

From here, Eric has big dreams. He’s hoping to open his own day spa and has been volunteering with local business owners to see operations up close. But for now, he’s ready to put his feet up on his own furniture and finally, finally relax at home.