Homeless for the Holidays: 'Thankful I Overcame'


There are currently over 600,000 Americans who won't have a bed or warm meal to come home to this Christmas, with about 1 in 6 of them predicted to be homeless for more than one holiday season (otherwise known as chronically homeless). But despite these somber statistics, there is hope for the homeless -- particularly those who, like Pedro Rodriguez, have been taken in by a homeless support program and offered rehabilitation, temporary shelter and employment.

Rodriguez became homeless and a drug-user when he was only 15, and lived as an addict for more than 30 years. Now he helps feed those who struggle to survive, as he once did, on the streets New York City.

Thanks to the federal government and local communities, there have been vigorous efforts to increase resources available to emergency shelters and homeless support services -- efforts which have helped the homeless rate remain steady despite a still-sluggish economy and job market. Bolstering national and local efforts to curb the further growth of homelessness are programs such as the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which work to place 100,000 homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing by July 2013.

Support services (in the form of shelters such as NYC Rescue and the Bowery Mission in New York, and government initiatives such as HUD's 'Shelter Plus Care' across the country) and programs like 100,000 Homes have provided individuals like Rodriguez the opportunity to move forward and build a successful life. In most cases, homelessness is a temporary and transient experience that has been spurred by a combination of factors that can include poverty, joblessness and foreclosure. ("Homelessness can happen to anybody," recent cases have revealed). And though the road isn't easy, rising above homelessness into a life that is stable, fulfilling and even "gives back" is fully achievable, as proven in the case of Pedro Rodriguez.

Pedro's Story: 'Thankful to be a beacon of light'

Life was never easy for Pedro Rodriguez. Born and raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn long before the neighborhood's rapid gentrification, Rodriguez began drinking at the age of 11 and started using drugs at the age of 15. ("Remember when crack first became popular, around 1985? I was one of the people using it," he said.) According to Rodriguez, he became addicted to cocaine and heroin because it helped him to "not feel anything."

Pedro Rodriguez, NYC Shelter
Pedro Rodriguez, NYC Shelter

In the hope of rehabilitating the troubled teen, Rodriguez was sent by a concerned family member to live in Puerto Rico to keep him off the harsh Brooklyn streets. The change was unsuccessful -- "when you're an addict, you'll use anywhere," explained Rodriguez -- and he found himself on the streets again, falling deeper into a hole of addiction and "spiritual bankruptcy." Though he never attempted suicide, he admitted to entertaining continual thoughts of it.

That was until Sept. 11, 2001. Rodriguez recalls the experience of watching televised footage of the Twin Towers' fall as a slap in the face and a reminder of the fragility of life. He made the decision to return to New York, where he began a long and challenging process of detoxing himself and rebuilding his life. Rodriguez was taken in by rehabilitation program in Brooklyn and attended narcotics help groups on Schemerhorn Street, while finding temporary housing. Though he still struggled with addiction, the support he was offered was his life raft.

"It was hard, I would still use. But I knew I would never go back in that deep, like before, because I finally knew where I was going," Rodriguez told AOL Real Estate.

Related: Should Homeowners Open Their Doors to the Needy?

His luck persevered: Through a friend, Rodriguez learned of employment in the kitchen at NYC Rescue in downtown Manhattan. He applied for a chef position, and was offered the job in October 2007. It's been five years since that day, and Rodriguez (now drug-free, married and with a daughter), finds himself serving food to homeless, troubled individuals for a living. His life, according to Rodriguez, has "come full circle."

"These holidays I'm thankful I overcame [life on the streets and the addiction]. I'm thankful for the opportunity I have every day, to get to know people who have had experiences in life that are challenging and worthwhile," Rodriguez told AOL Real Estate. "And I'm thankful to be a beacon of light, anywhere I go, because of what I've been through. I have the peace of God in my heart and I know I'll be OK no matter what circumstances may surround me."

Also in this series:
'Just Grateful for a New Day'
'I'm Thankful for Life Itself'

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Not In My Neighborhood
Not In My Neighborhood