By Tessa Williams.
For the men living at our Fremont property, finding a safe, affordable place to live has never been easy. Seven of our residents here came to us through Better Futures (Better Futures is an immersive program that gives men who have experienced prison, poverty, homelessness and untreated disabilities the training and resources they need to become independent). These men are now enjoying having their own apartment for the first time in their lives. I sat down with three residents, JT, Greg and Michael, to hear what having their own apartment means to them. Their responses shared common themes of safety, peace and quiet, freedom, pride and dignity.
“There’s a yearn for privacy, especially as you get older and start to get to know yourself,” says JT, now 40 years old. Growing up, he says, “I never had my own bedroom and at times had no bedroom.” For JT, having his own apartment gives him a sense of peace and tranquility. “You can come home to a safe space to be by yourself after a long day… You have the ability to relax and decorate your apartment and let it mean something to you.” JT’s previous living situations give him a strong appreciation for a safe, peaceful environment. In one place he lived after prison, he paid rent for six month but estimates that he didn’t sleep in his room for more than three nights because it didn’t feel safe. In another, he paid a woman with a cocaine addiction about $300 a month to live in what he called “a closet.” For men of color with a criminal record like JT, rental screening for safe housing so often forces them into dangerous housing situations, often in the same environment that got them in trouble in the first place.
Greg also mentioned peace and quiet as one of the positives in living at Fremont. He says having his own apartment makes it easier to focus on school. In June, Greg completed an associate’s degree in culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu. By February, he will also have an associate’s degree in pastry. The other men at Fremont love that Greg is studying pastry because he frequently brings home sweets to share with them. Right now he’s doing an externship at Cookie Cart, a nonprofit bakery in North Minneapolis. Greg also enjoys having his own key to the building and the dignity of being able to come and go as he pleases without a curfew. At 53 years old, Greg doesn’t like to stay out late, but he still appreciates the freedom to set his own schedule.
Just down the hall, Michael says having his own room gives him more flexibility when looking for work. When he shared a bedroom at the Better Futures guest house, his roommate would be getting ready for work when he was getting ready for bed. Now Michael has the freedom to take night shift jobs that pay better and still sleep well during the day. Another benefit of living at Fremont, Michael says, is that “you don’t have to worry about your neighbors.” He likes that he knows the other men from Better Futures and that the guys look out for each other. But the change that mattered most to Michael was the confidence that came with paying rent. At 53, Michael had never had his own apartment, and he felt it was a stepping stone to adulthood he had yet to reach. “When it’s something you’ve never done, you’re really scared you’re going to mess up,” Michael said. After he paid his first month’s rent, Michael felt a huge weight lifted off his shoulders. After a few months, he says, it feels pretty manageable.
I asked Greg, JT and Michael where they see themselves in the future. Greg says he might move back to Chicago to take care of his mother in a few years. But as long as he stays in the Twin Cities, Greg sees himself staying at Fremont—the rent is the most affordable for what Alliance offers, and like Michael, he likes knowing his neighbors. JT is grateful for his apartment but aspires to own his own house. He recently started his own roofing and gutter business, and if business stays as good as it’s been lately, his dream could well become a reality. Michael says he would like to look into some programs self-improvement. While Greg, JT and Michael are all at different points in their lives, with different interests and aspirations, it’s clear that they all share an appreciation for a safe home and a second chance.