4 Formerly Homeless People Open Up About What Gave Them Hope When They Were Out On The Streets

"I was blessed by niceness around me."

The homelessness epidemic in the United States has gone on for far too long. Yet it is an issue that doesn't inspire impassioned speeches on the campaign trail, trigger urgent national conversation, or spark trending hashtags on social media. 

It's all too easy to walk past a homeless person without a second thought, because how often have any of us really considered how each person living on the street ended up there? Losing a home is frequently accompanied by the loss of security, community and possessions. 

While it can be difficult to keep trudging on in such a bleak situation, many people do manage to escape life on the streets. We spoke to four formerly homeless people who opened up about the things that helped them sustain hope while they were on the streets. Here are their stories.

Gabriel Galvin

"I was a teenager when I was homeless. I really had it easy relative to other kids in similar situations to the point where over the course of about three years the hopefulness greatly outweighed the fleeting moments of hopelessness. I had a very dependable network of friends and without them I would probably not have survived emotionally.

Times that really stood out as as supportive and hopeful included interactions and conversations with police officers (mostly one in particular) that treated me with respect and trusted that the situation I was in was much better than my alternative at that time. Also, going to punk rock shows, writing music and playing chess always made me feel that everything was going to be okay. Community is everything."

Scott Benner

Ali Campbell/Artlifting
Ali Campbell/Artlifting

"I guess my hopes started to turn when I decided I couldn't stay outside anymore and went to Father Bills. By that point, I had been through a lot of stuff and had pretty much given up. Once I was in the shelter, I had food, shelter, a place to bathe and some counseling. 

But it was also the first time I didn't feel all alone in my situation. I met people going through the same thing for so many different reasons. It's where you end up when all the other options run out. I saw people looking out for each other, people who would probably not know each other in their former life. No matter how bad things got somehow we could find a way to laugh at things and that helps. 

After a while, I started drawing again, I've drawn since I was a kid. It's always been a thing I find comfort in. As I finished some smaller pictures, people at the shelter would see them and compliment me on them. Some of them, I gave away. 

One day, a gentleman who worked at the shelter was checking me in and as he was searching my stuff, I showed him some of my work. He told me about a group that had come by his church and they helped homeless and disabled artists sell their work. 

A week or so later I googled homeless artists and Artlifting [an organization that empowers artists who are homeless and disabled through their art] popped up, that led to a quick exchange of emails and I met Liz Powers in at Harvard one day. The positive energy I got started to give me hope then, I remember calling one of my brothers and telling him 'I think something good might happen' and as things progressed with Artlifting my hope grew, I tell people I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. 

I also know that other people at the shelter, some who weren't even artistic, drew some inspiration from my experiences. As things continue to grow with Artlifting, so does my hope for the future. I'm drawing full time, it's not a hobby anymore and I'm happy with that." 

Benner's artwork can be found here on Artlifting.

Kitty Zen

Ali Campbell/Artlifting
Ali Campbell/Artlifting

"I've seen things that I've never would have thought were possible happen, if not for uninhibited self expression. Much of my life has been filled with uncertainty and chaos. Personal successes have often been fleeting for me, I have already had so many ups and downs in the span of my relatively short life.
Even when my life is full of stress, I create artwork that bright and bold — adding beauty to my world where there may otherwise be none.

Deciding to try selling my artwork on a blanket in the park was as much of an act of desperation as an act of empowerment. At the end of the day, I was able to support myself in the best way for me that I could. The only way.

The doors that art continue to open for me continue to leave me amazed, stripping away self imposed limitations. Willpower has a way of making the unfathomable into possible, and so much more.

To truly succeed at creating a better future for our world, we need to be compassionate and open with the world around us. another way I've experienced self expression taking a transformative quality has been in the form of speaking about my lived experiences with surviving homelessness. I have put my perspective and knowledge gained through pain and struggle, to good use helping shape a better and clearer path out of hardships for other homeless young adults- including by helping with the creation of the nation's first student run youth shelter, Y2Y (which I was also invited to design a mural for). A guarantee that future generations of Boston's youth will never have to struggle nearly as much as I did.

This is a part of a much bigger picture — an age of innovation and compassion for fellow humankind, that comes from a point of truth and empathy. A revolution. I have a lot of hope that a compassionate and revolutionary future is coming sooner than later!"

Zen's work is on Artlifting, Instagram and Facebook.

Judi Dahlquist (JMW)

Ali Campbell/Artlifting
Ali Campbell/Artlifting

I was blessed to have nice people around me to take care of me. There was a man who had a restaurant, he always let me use his bathroom to wash up, gave me a small glass of pop and a free hot dog; I love my hot dogs. He did it for me every day. 

And there was a lovely florist. I would go in and admire plants and flowers, and anytime she was open, she would give me five dollars for food — even money for cigarettes.

I had a sterling silver ring and iI would go up to gentleman and I'd hold the ring out and say, 'Do you wanna buy this ring for $5?' I was trying to sell it, but the gentlemen would say, 'Keep your ring, here's $5.'

I never had the ability to do art when I was homeless, but I got out of that — I had a breakdown. My best friend got me into a hospital, a nice nursing home, I even got my own room and then Jesus sent an angel of a man in my life, and we've been together 11 years now.

Throughout my homelessness, I was blessed by niceness all around me. Because I'm a nice person. And it took me until I was about 50 to love myself; it took me that first painting [I made] to be proud of myself. It took that — I went, 'Wowee! I'm actually an artist.' "

Dahlquist's art is on Artlifting.

Cover image via Ali Campbell/Artlifting