For this formerly homeless man, a new home means new life

Bill Strickland wanted to see his grandkids more. He worried about his health, too. And somewhere deep down, repressed after years of drinking, drug use and life on the streets of Concord, he missed the comforts of a home: a cat to keep him company, an American flag pinned to his bedroom wall, a place to store a few woodworking tools.

None of that might have seemed apparent a year ago, even, perhaps, to Strickland himself, who was splitting his time between a tent and a cold-weather shelter. When his doctor called last spring urging him to check into the hospital because his liver was on the brink of shutting down, Strickland replied, “Well, I gotta finish my beer.”

But today, Strickland, 56, has begun something of a remarkable turnaround. Over the past 10 months, he has quit drinking, moved into an apartment on his own and started repairing relations with his daughter and three young grandchildren. He talks about finding work again, at least something part-time. He plans to quit smoking this year.

It’s a long road ahead, of course, but Strickland’s progress so far is more than he’s made in well over a decade, and he attributes much of that to the housing he now has: a clean, quiet one-bedroom unit across from his daughter’s place on Loudon Road.

“This is the first time I’ve actually wanted to be sober,” he said Friday, sitting in his living room.

In truth, Strickland’s success has come through a host of contributing factors, including, and perhaps most important, a strong local support network made up of case managers, volunteers, relatives and an especially receptive landlord.

It’s part of the Housing First model that homeless advocates and city officials have been pushing forward over the past year, in an effort to target the most vulnerable subset of the homeless community, those who have been homeless for years and who have co-occurring issues, like mental illness or substance abuse.

The idea is to flip the traditional paradigm of intervention: Rather than being forced into sobriety or employment, participants are housed without question and then flooded with aftercare. Sometimes that will lead to sobriety, employment and improved health. Other times it won’t. Either way, proponents argue, it will ultimately save money by reducing the strain on hospitals, jails and other publicly-funded resources.

Strickland is one of a handful of people housed in the past year through a federal grant administered by Families in Transition – New Horizons.

Originally from Lincoln, he moved to Concord in the late 1980s and began drinking heavily. He spent six years in prison for accessory to assault and then reoffended in mid-2005 on drug charges, serving another three years before being paroled to the street.

By last spring, his situation reached a new low. He hadn’t seen his grandchildren in months, was suffering from Hepatitis A and back pain and taking medication for depression. He was being stopped routinely for trespassing and drinking in public. Then came the urgent call from his physician in April.

“He said, ‘You know, the enzymes in your liver are supposed to be 40, and yours are 2,000,’ ” Strickland recalled, adding, “That scared me.”

He detoxed over several days at Concord Hospital and then agreed to transition into the McKenna House, a sober living facility on South Fruit Street.

Strickland began working with a case manager from Families in Transition – New Horizons, and, with help from his daughter, found and secured the apartment in mid-September. He said his landlord has been especially accommodating.

Being housed again was both exciting and terrifying, Strickland said.

“It’s still scary,” he said. “I’m still waiting for everything to fall apart.”

But in a way, he added, housing has helped to prevent just that. He now has something tangible and immediate to lose.

Strickland has struggled with the transition, as well. It can get lonely, he admitted. But he has found ways to cope. He volunteers during the week with the homeless community. A friend gave him a radio, which he keeps on throughout the day. He rescued a cat, Misty, and said he sees his grandkids at least once a week. This Christmas, with help from donations, he was able to give them presents for the first time.

“It was awesome,” Strickland said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, [email protected] or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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