Darnell’s Story by Chris Ash

Darnell’s story is a composite created for Freedom Network USA’s Decal Project campaign. Use allowed provided appropriate citation.

Content warning: homelessness, substance use

Darnell, 62

After a series of family tragedies left Darnell homeless and struggling with a substance use disorder, he struggled to find the right kinds of support. He was hesitant to stay in shelters after a few bad experiences, and bounced around from place to place, staying with friends or renting cheap rooms.

After an altercation landed Darnell facing court charges, he agreed to court-ordered substance use treatment in lieu of incarceration. He was sent to a program that gave residents the opportunity to work while attending groups and living together in a sober house. When he arrived at the program, however, it wasn’t what he expected.

The bedrooms in the home were filled with smelly mattresses, and the 6 people in each room shared a small space heater for warmth. The residents were “rented” out to local businesses for day labor, and worked long hours without breaks or water. The meals were inadequate — a bologna sandwich or cup of ramen for lunch — and on days you weren’t able to work you didn’t get dinner. An in-house support group was offered twice each week, led by the wife of the program’s director, but most of the residents didn’t attend after their first week.

Darnell thought about leaving, but he wasn’t sure where he would go. He didn’t want to leave without his cell phone, which was locked in the office “for safekeeping.” When he complained about the living and work conditions, he was told: “You can always go to jail if you don’t like it. Do you want to call your probation officer or do you want me to?”

During an emergency room visit for a grease burn, Darnell told the nurse about his living and work conditions. She recognized the elements of coercion in his situation. After treating his wounds, she talked to Darnell about his options. He was struggling to trust many of the referrals she offered, but agreed to have her connect him to a lawyer to help him renegotiate the terms of his sentence. It didn’t solve all his problems, but it was a start.