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To say that Tyler is not my idea of the typical homeless man is an understatement. It’s not his age or race so much as it is his demeanor. He’s refined, charming, articulate. He reminds me of one of my college buddies.
I ask him what he’s doing here.
“I grew up in Albany, went to college in Buffalo. That’s where I started doing drugs...I did well in school. Got into heroin over there. There’s a lot that comes through Toronto.” His eyes are squinting as he looks towards the sun.
“After college I worked as a case manager. Didn’t really like it. I went to law school. That’s where my heroin problem got really bad. I almost finished. Had one class yet.”
“I was using heroin every day—it’s not good, as it turns out.” He laughs. I smile, surprised at his candor. “The stress and being overwhelmed by it and 12 hours a day of work...I felt like I deserved to feel good.”
His face tightens up. “I kind of just collapsed at the end there. I became homeless...I didn’t have my apartment anymore. I stayed with friends, stayed at the shelter, I stayed with my girlfriend at the time, but I wasn’t getting any better. I didn’t know how to get better. She said you need to leave, you need to get help somewhere.”
So what did you do?
“I looked for a rehab, even though I did so begrudgingly. I wanted a therapy community, not a community that just yells at you, tells you that you screwed up.”
“I stayed with my uncle for a while. He’s a doctor and a professor at Dartmouth. He found out about this place, St. Christopher's and the Project Renewal Farm. He said this is your best bet.”
“I thought 90 days was an eternal amount of time. I was withdrawing from heroin and that wasn’t good.” His expression doesn’t change. “I didn’t know anything about addiction. I thought I was just screwed up and weak for doing it all. I learned a lot about addiction. I learned why I was doing what I was doing.”
“I have high blood pressure for a 26-year-old...the blood pressure of a 90-year-old...I don’t know what.” This time when he laughs, his mouth opens all the way. It’s contagious. I laugh too.
“They’re helping me finish school. I start my final class of law school next week. They help me with subway tickets and train tickets. I have a firm, sober foundation. Every day I’m going to come back here.”
His face firms up again. “I still have some problems, I don’t talk to my father.”
“But the farm’s been good. I’ve never really done this stuff before. At first I hated it because it’s repetitive. But now I find it meditative. I have to stay present. It’s what I needed.”
“When I got here, it was cold and I was planting seeds like...what’s the point? But now the plants are coming. It chills you out, being around plants that grow super slow. Plus,” he adds, cracking a smile. “Farming is a good thing to know. If there was a zombie apocalypse, and we had to start anew, I’d know what to do.”
Tyler has seen the radical change the Project Renewal can have on rehabilitation. And he’s not alone. Men of all walks of life pass through Renewal Farm on their road to recovery and a new life. However, due to recent budget cuts, Renewal Farm is losing funding. It’s our hope that, through the "Why Are You Homeless?" campaign, more New Yorkers will come to understand that anyone can become homeless.
You can help support Project Renewal through donations. But we appreciate it just as much if you just sign up to learn more about us or like us on Facebook. Check back next week for another eye-opening story about homelessness in the city. In the meantime, keep your eyes and heart open.