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How One Local Man Found Shelter—And Redemption—In The Spa City

Local homeless advocate Lisa Mitzen introduces us to Kevin, whose decades-long struggles recently ended on a happy note.

Homelessness
Kevin, showing off the key to his brand-new apartment. (Lisa Mitzen)

As you know, I’m now writing a regular column for saratoga living, shedding light on Saratoga Springs’ growing homeless population—and doing my best to put a human face on some of the “people without homes” that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting throughout the years. You met Grace in my last column; now, let me introduce you to Kevin. I recently sat down with the nearly six-foot-tall gentle giant to talk about his life and experience with homelessness. He had a kindness about him that was really heartwarming, and I think his story will resonate with you.

Born in 1959 in Corinth, NY, Kevin describes his upbringing as happy and normal. He was born into a large family with very kind, hardworking parents. They had a nice, simple home in Greenfield, NY, where all of the neighborhood kids would congregate. He describes his father as a big, strong man with an equally strong work ethic, who had served in the military and went on to work for the Saratoga County highway authority, while his mother stayed at home to raise the family. She was a normal mother in every sense, insisting that her children eat breakfast every morning before they got on the school bus and having them lend a hand in the family’s vegetable garden after school. (Kevin wasn’t a fan of weeding, so he learned to drive his parents’ tractor instead.) The family’s garden was not only a source of after-school chores, but also one that provided for the family itself: Kevin and his siblings would help their mother can vegetables and make homemade jams and jellies from the garden’s produce. Kevin says he learned his way around a kitchen from his mom; she felt it was important for all of her children to learn how to cook and clean. “We grew up tough [and] we grew up strong,” says Kevin.

Besides having a stable home and family life, Kevin grew up doing a lot of the things that most kids do. He spent a lot of time outdoors, playing with his friends. Some of his favorite pastimes were ice skating, trapping and stealing cigarettes from his older brothers. He and his friends even pushed the envelope a little, hitchhiking into town to grab a bottle of whiskey or some tobacco, then catch a ride back home. Talking about his childhood brings a smile to his face, and he reflects that “days were different back then.”

The 60-year-old Kevin in his new apartment. (Lisa Mitzen)

While in high school, Kevin maintained a C average and felt like he’d have a better chance of succeeding in the workforce, so he dropped out after the tenth grade. Over the years, he held a variety of jobs at restaurants, hotels, construction companies and even did some horse logging. He built himself a camp in the woods and split time between there and his parents’ home. Although he loved spending time with his friends, he also enjoyed the company of his parents and their friends. His mother and father never drank or smoked even when they were socializing. The only recollection he has of his father drinking is an occasional sip of brandy in the winter months to fend off a cold.

Unfortunately, he and his father were two different men. He started drinking heavily around the age of 17, while hanging out and partying with his friends, and that eventually spiraled out of control, leading to alcoholism. He got his first DWI just two years later. “Back then, they just slapped you on the wrist and sent you on your way,” he says, shaking his head. Despite his heavy drinking, he seemed to always be able to land a job. With a tenth-grade education, though, Kevin had difficulty finding work that would pay enough to cover his cost of housing, let alone his out-of-control drinking habit. In the years that followed, his drinking problem kept landing him in hot water, getting him a number of traffic tickets, a DWAI and a few more DWIs. At one point, he lost his driver’s license and did a handful of 30- to 60-day stints in the county jail. Eventually, his numerous violations added up to a felony for which he served three years in state prison.

Once he got out of prison, Kevin completed his parole, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and trying his best to stay sober. He was able to find a job in a Saratoga Springs restaurant and also managed to get an apartment. He wasn’t able to afford the fine to reapply for his driver’s license, so it was important for him to be close to town. He was doing pretty well for almost a year, and then his addiction took hold again. Just like before, the money from his job didn’t cover his growing habit and rent check, so he decided to go “back into the woods.” He moved out of his apartment and set up a camp, where he lived and “partied by myself.” (He notes that because he was raised to have such a tremendous respect for the land, he never left any trash or food around to attract wild animals at his campsite, never built a fire or invited people there.) Surprisingly, even without an apartment, he kept his job, biking or walking to work. But by 2012, the lack of convenient transportation to and from work took a toll on him, and he ended up quitting his job. Now out of work, the effects of his heavy drinking caused him to become lazy and have the “I don’t care blues.”

Before he had an apartment of his own, Kevin split his time between a camp in the woods and the Code Blue Saratoga shelter. (Lisa Mitzen)

And, of course, all of that happened when it was nice enough outside to set up camp. But once the leaves changed and the frigid temperatures set in, Kevin knew that he wouldn’t be able to survive the cold. He walked to Saratoga’s local homeless shelter, Code Blue Saratoga, looking for a warm meal and a place to sleep. Kevin spent the next several years between the woods and Code Blue. And his alcoholism drove his decisions. He would collect cans and bottles and panhandle on Caroline Street, all to support his drinking habit. He said that most locals were really nice to him. “I didn’t bother anyone,” he says. “I only talked to them if they talked to me.”

Now, for those of you thinking, “Why doesn’t this guy just quit drinking and get a job?,” it’s easier said than done, Kevin tells me. He looks down and says, “They just don’t understand.” He explains that it’s a daily struggle for anyone suffering from alcoholism, it’s especially difficult when you’re living on the street. “What else is there to do?” he asks, rhetorically.

Last year, now 59, Kevin’s lifestyle started to catch up with him. He had a few pressing medical needs and realized that as much as he hated to admit it, he just couldn’t live like this any longer. Just like his father, Kevin’s a big, strong guy. He’s a true survivor, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He swallowed his pride and sought the help he needed. Kevin expressed sincere appreciation for Code Blue and Shelters of Saratoga—especially to their outreach program—for helping him have the strength to get back on his feet.

Now 60, Kevin’s recently sober and has moved into his own apartment. He’s settling in and actively looking for employment. When I ask him what he does to past the time in his new home, he says he enjoys reading Western novels by Louis L’Amour and watching old black-and-white Western films. “I still get the craving for whiskey—I’m a whiskey man—but here I am, back on track, before it’s too late,” he says. Everyone, especially me, is rooting for Kevin’s continued sobriety, and I think we can all recognize that the transition from living on the streets to having a home is a difficult one—and that battling alcoholism is both a daily and lifelong struggle. I can’t help but commend Kevin for having the strength to seek help, and he tells me that he hopes others will follow his lead.

When I met with Kevin for the interview, at the end of our conversation, I thanked him for his willingness to share his story. He smiled and said, “Well, now you see me in a different light.” I do, Kevin. We all do.

 

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