STORY OF JOE SICILIA
JOE SICILIA – CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE OF HOMELESSNESS THROUGH LIVED EXPERIENCE.
Opening Doors Fairfield County Coordinating Council member Joe Sicilia tells in a deeply personal way the story of his journey into homelessness and transitioning from “homeless to housed” as one of the first consumers to be served through the Bridgeport Housing First Collaborative.
Homelessness is at a crossroads in terms of what is still perceived as “those people” and what is actually going on. Many people fall into homelessness through no fault of their own, being left alone due to someone else’s misunderstanding or their lack of ability to provide for that person. Having limited knowledge or access to resources negatively affects people made homeless and they end up “going around in circles. At the end of the day, if someone cannot obtain resources or doesn’t feel like they have support they will flounder, leading to physical and mental problems. Many professionals in the field are seeing people that they would never expect to be homeless; those who do not fit perception of what a homeless person looks like. But unfortunately, situations that one would never expect can cause anyone’s life to change in an instant. It doesn’t make anyone an expert, but in my short 25 years I’ve become a mediator between what is and what is perceived. When I moved to Rockville, CT from Wallingford, CT in 2005 after losing my grandparents who raised me, Rockville was a great place to live. By the end of that decade, economic change led to economic decline and a rise in crime. I became homeless after five years of living in Rockville dealing with unresolved issues, problems at home, and living with the effects of other people’s addictions. At that point I was starting to be able to come to terms with many things about myself. I am bisexual and have been given time to understand what that means for me, from my outlook on my future life and how I feel in general. I dress the way that I do because of lack of resources and the opportunity to dress the way I’d like. Everything and more about this part of my story affected my transition from being homeless to being re-housed and the aftermath of being housed. I don’t think people realize that when you don’t get a chance to figure such things out, it makes life a little harder. In my case, having my own space helped me to access myself, life, things I’ve done, how I look at life, etc.
Several months after High School graduation, living with elderly relatives and even working for a period of time, I was eventually connected to Operation Hope in Fairfield. While there, I was able to say once that as soon as any of us walk through those doors, we are not the same people we were before, and that that affects every aspect of how you feel and act. One of the things I remember so clearly after adjusting to the situation was being rightfully judged based on what people saw, thought, knew, etc. Because I have had much time to myself, sometimes without much choice, I have been able to “connect the dots,” to forgive and have a better understanding of what happens when people are placed together. I hope many others have been able to have the same self-experience. I was able to stay as a resident of Operation Hope for over a year. Eventually I was approved for housing through Bridgeport Housing First Collaborative. Operation Hope staff worked with Supportive Housing Works to approve me for RAP-Rental Assistance Vouchers through the state of Connecticut. When I signed for my voucher I was one of three Operation Hope clients signed that day. Though at one point I cried, I had no idea that my journey wasn’t quite over. After several months of looking for a place to live, I finally found a place I thought was perfect back in Rockville. I received a fax from the landlord saying “inspection went great” and got all the way up there only to be told by my housing office that I couldn’t move in because Rockville was out of my jurisdiction. It turned out that my voucher was good for the first year only in the catchment area in which I had received it. After a year, I could move anyplace else I wanted. This was clearly different than the impression I got from what the shelter staff had told me. Clearly there was a misunderstanding and the stress my body went through led to me to being diagnosed with Pharyngitis, a condition similar to laryngitis except more like a virus which led to multiple emergency room visits and illness.
I had gone through months of looking for a place and had just left the place that was basically my home for the past year because of an unfortunate incident and coming back to a town I swore I probably wouldn’t come back to. I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall, a feeling that would last until the moment I would receive my apartment key. Finally, after searching back down in Bridgeport, I found a home! Then there was the aftermath of moving in! When asked how I got my voucher, I really didn’t have an answer, because I hadn’t gotten a clear understanding of what I had obtained exactly. I had a RAP voucher, not “regular” Section 8. I didn’t find out about Bridgeport Housing First or “100 Day Challenges” or what would come out of the “Coordinated Access Network” until after I got involved with local housing support/advocacy groups. This lack of knowledge and understanding affects you and how people perceive you and others. Also, seeing others succeed and others who are still “floundering” and not getting connected to things that could help them, simply because they don’t know and therefore don’t know where to look for something that could potentially change their lives, is distressing. I see this on a daily basis.
After I moved in I began to realize that I still had nightmares from my childhood that I had to address as well as I had not emotionally physically come to terms with the death of my grandparents— I was letting go and it was eventually okay. I can’t help but think that people on the street don’t know the circumstances I went through and who are just trying to get a bag of chips at least. One night, I was watching PBS Newshour and they were running a series leading up to the election entitled “Letters to the President”. These different pieces featured teens and students explaining what they thought the next president should focus on in order to help this nation. When the pieces got to this one girl who started talking about how she thought the next president should shine a focus on homelessness and how its face is changing, this young woman immediately went into her story of how one day her and her family were well stable and with a roof over their heads and the next day they were having to live in the woods and not having much access to clean water and other vital essentials. I mention this story because the girl featured was one who most people wouldn’t have imagined would’ve gone through something that really no one should have to go through. And this leads to solutions! People working in the field should think about bringing their clients in more on what’s going on in and around housing. Homeless people have proven to me to be some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and they want to know about what’s going on around them. Updates on housing progress and programs are a “must” in order to understand each other and work together if the goal is to quickly re-house and then sustain the formerly homeless person in their new housing.
I have lived in several places that are more similar than different. Bridgeport and Rockville both have had significant crime, and have undergone positive changes. It’s given me a perspective that most people would not think I have and that has prepared me for where I am now. To the “clients”, the people, the brains, the hearts…those with lived experience, you have proven to be some of the smartest people I’ve met— and to be fair I think everyone’s smart— our experiences don’t take away from what we know but adds to it; it all comes together! Also, if you are in a position where you have been rehoused through a voucher, understand what you have and how you got it, so that when you tell your stories you’ll be able to explain it to others. To anyone reading this, with personal experience for you or someone you know, or if you have no experience, I hope this has given you a better understanding and encouragement to listen to others and to possibly reach out to your communities to see how you can help. As for resources, they will always be needed. Talking to each other more about specific needs will help in finding out where funds can be placed and be most effective, such as in more collaborative efforts throughout the state and amongst individual communities.