Giving Homeless Help…and Work

By Emily Leayman
Staff Writer

When people discover the locations of the tent cities surrounding Reading, Pa., the homeless people living there feel they must move. But there is one man they can trust, who was once in their situation too. Randy Simmons was formerly homeless and a federal prisoner. Those experiences caused him to found We Agape You, an organization that provides resources and job opportunities for homeless people wanting to work.

Aside from privacy concerns, Simmons found other reasons for the homeless to be wary of visitors to the tent cities. “True homeless people are not too quick to take you into their homes,” he said. “Homeless people rob other homeless people.”

But if people encounter the homeless, whether in the tent communities or on the streets, Simmons advises to approach them with caution.

When he first created his organization, he encountered a homeless man who was trying to get in the hospital. But the hospital would only take him if he was drugged or drunk, so he asked Simmons to buy him alcohol.

Simmons adds that homeless people are suppressing pain from whatever got them there. They turn to alcohol to cope and may unconsciously make bad decisions.

The welfare system does not help either, Simmons said. He believes that the system – which gives up to $700 a month of assistance, a cell phone, medical assistance, and food from shelters – is abused. The homeless can also stay at shelters or receive housing, provided that they find a landlord complying with Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937.

In addition, they know which non-profits can help them. Berks County has a high number of non-profits, according to Simmons. In his opinion, “It is possible to end homelessness.”

Shelters like Opportunity House provide temporary living and soup kitchens like Kennedy House offer meals, but not all of the homeless are going there, according to Simmons.

When Simmons spent the night at a tent city, he remembers how cold it was at 4 a.m. But he discovered not all of the tents were for living; some were for storage. Tents had items like blankets, sleeping bags, whole turkeys. A lot of these items came from non-profits.

Experiencing homelessness firsthand, Simmons understands the circumstances that put people on the streets. “The people who are living under bridges, the people who are suffering, they know what they wanted to do [in life]. It didn’t happen,” he said.

For people who don’t want help, he said, “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.”

According to Simmons, he cannot help people who do not seek work. This is why he recommends approaching homeless people a certain way.

“Don’t tell them what you will do first,” he said. “See what they want to do.”

He also focuses work on homeless children who cannot help their circumstances. Some parents even prostitute their children to earn drug money, according to Simmons. He said that the adults know better, but children do not and “The sad part about [it] that people aren’t writing about is that [they have children],” Simmons said.

Simmons is currently helping 47 people find work. Some of his success stories are a man who travels to prisons to speak and a few who started their own company.

In addition, he organized a breakfast for the homeless on Sept. 12. He hinted that East Penn Manufacturing, one of the largest employers in Berks County, will be hiring. After that event, even just one homeless person who got hired is another Simmons has helped.

An Afternoon in the Opportunity House Gardens

By Malek Derhammer
Staff Writer

Parsons1

Malek Derhammer spends time with Opportunity House resident Michael Parsons.

In the Opportunity House garden, perched on a picnic table sat an aging man with a cigarette in hand. Michael Parsons’ cigarette slowly burnt out, ashes falling to his toes. With just a pen in my hand, and a dead cig in his, Parsons began to unravel his story to me.

He started by calling me over, eager to speak out, not only about himself, but the area around the homeless organization. The Lawrence-born man swayed his hands as he gestured to the bridge and the train rails by the Opportunity House.

As he advanced to his story through chapped lips, it became more apparent that this man was an idiosyncratic one, being that Parsons held many unique characteristics. Individuals who reside at the shelter, as I have learned, are there for a variety of reasons, and they, including Parsons, seem to shine through the misconceptions that society labels them with.

Entering Parsons’ conversation, his eyes began to flare when he spoke of design or science, elaborating on a collection of books he maintains in the Opportunity House. Parsons exhibited knowledge he picked up through novels that he came to own. He refers to Mechanix Illustrated, an engineering magazine published for nearly 70 years, one of his more treasured works of literature.

At times, we found ourselves fumbling over our own words. Within that discussion, it became almost unclear where abstract and realism intertwined.

Parsons, turning 60 this October, must have been fairly young when he got interested and began reading these worn magazines, or so I figured. His interest in works of literature helped me understand his fascinations as those of a person, instead of the mere illusion offered by being homeless.

This illusion had little effect on Parsons, for he wore the whitest of t-shirts, and blue gym-shorts that almost repelled to suit the man. His eyes intensified once again, buried with strands of caramel haze.

At times, we found ourselves fumbling over our own words. Within that discussion, it became almost unclear where abstract and realism intertwined. He would stutter with answers, and I’d choke on my words when inquiring. It became an odd relationship in that point of the conversation, where I gradually understood where he was coming from.

As time passed in the middle of the garden, Parsons and I remained silent through the train wreck in my head. I began running out of questions, and Parsons lessened my straining anxiety by telling me to take my time and be at ease. After that point, I felt obliged to dig deep for questions. For my first interview, I was losing the battle to better my journalism skills.

Parsons2Then, he let out a harsh bark, stating through heavy breaths that he has to stop smoking so much. The long pause of silence broke as my head sputtered out inquiries, just as birds swarmed above, hidden behind the leaves. Their chatter nearly canceled out Parsons’s coarse voice as he responded to the questioning of his future and dreams.

Parsons said, “I’m gonna give $40 to $50 million dollars to each person in my family,” when he acquires the money he hopes to receive soon.

He echoes his story again, more detailed each time he shares it. I came to see him as a narrator, formulating his life in a plot. I became his ghostwriter, tracing his shadows with my pen strokes. From my first interview as a journalist, I take away that every living presence has a story, and every story deserves the right to be voiced.

For Book-loving Homeless Man, It’s the Simple Things

By Caitlyn Sablack
Staff Writer

At the Opportunity House in Reading, Pa., an older man caught my attention when I noticed he was intently reading a Tom Clancy novel. Beginning a conversation with me, Christopher Allen Pieffer, 52, delved into his love of books, and his weekly trips to the library. I sat across from him, both of us ready to eat the daily lunch of soup and sandwiches that the Opportunity House provides for its residents.

Pieffer is having his third – and if all goes according to plan – final stay at the shelter, this time for a year. We talk about his last two stays, but he remains good-natured and quick to laugh. His first stay spanned from 1998 to 2000, and another in 2006.

Pieffer cannot work with his various health problems, which include asthma, bronchitis, and hearing/speech issues. He’s waiting for his hearing aids to be replaced, as well as one kidney. Pieffer completed an application for Supplemental Security Income in 2006, and again last year, and is very hopeful that in two weeks’ time he’ll be accepted.

Peiffer

Christopher Peiffer and staff writer Caitlyn Sablack discuss books during lunch.

With the food, the clothing, the appointments made at Berks County Counseling (to aid with his bipolar disorder and depression), Opportunity House has been crucial in helping Pieffer in his life, for which he expresses immense appreciation. Pieffer feels that the shelter has really helped other people who need it like himself.

The perfect home for Pieffer, if you ask him, is “a high rise… that way, I’m by myself, but not by myself.” He wants it filled with books; Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin would be prominent among the authors, spanning different genres from fiction to fantasy.

Pieffer said something that resonated with me when he described what reading means to him: “It’s something that takes my mind off my problems, for at least a little while. I know they’re always going to be there… but I don’t want to have to deal with them all the time,” he said. “But, you need to take time and get away from them, so when you do go back to deal with them, you’re refreshed. That’s what I need.”

He then giggles to himself and continues, “But sometimes I need it more often!”

Waiting comes easy to Pieffer, who is looking forward to the next two weeks with ease. His simple dream of an apartment filled with wall to wall hard covers may be closer to realization than for many other residents of Opportunity House. For him, it would mean never having to come back for a fourth time.

“I’m just waiting patiently,” he said.

Fulfilling a Promise to Own a Home

By Darius Pleasant
Staff Writer

The time is 5:30 a.m. and you are abruptly woken up by an automated voice that says:

“Good morning.”

You wipe the crust out of your eyes, debate sleeping for a couple more minutes but quickly realize you have no choice in the matter and those last few restless hours of sleep will have to do.

For most people, this might just be another start to a regular morning. They would eat breakfast, brew their morning coffee and begin their usual commute to work. For Opportunity House residents, though, they would involuntarily be awoken and required to shower, make their beds, do more chores and then go out into the city searching for employment.

To those attending regular jobs and coming back to their homes every evening, this all might seem rather depressing. They might even consider calling it quits, but for Opportunity House resident Keith Robinson II, that is not the case.

Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., Robinson’s life never was all that bad. He was born into a large military family, in which he was one of seven children, played football all through high school and seemed to have everything going for him.

RailroadTracks

Railroad tracks behind Opportunity House, Second St.

After graduating high school, he was given three choices: go to college, work full time or follow in his family’s footsteps and join the service. The only problem was that he didn’t exactly agree with the views of the military, didn’t feel he would be making a difference in the Air Force and didn’t agree with the war in Afghanistan, so the Army was also out of the question.

Ultimately, he chose to enlist in the Navy, mostly because he loved to travel. While in the Navy, refilling gas for the planes that flew on and off the ship, he was able to visit Israel, Spain and Africa.

“I’m better today than I was yesterday, and that’s my goal. To be better than I was yesterday and do something positive. You have two options, either stabilize or expand, but you can’t get complacent.”

After finishing his tour of duty, he returned home, and then his life took an unfortunate turn for the worse. Staying true to his love for traveling, he left home again and began a new life in Reading, Pa. – or “Ree-ding,” as he calls it. In 2007 he was arrested on drug charges, and after serving six and a half years in a State Prison, Robinson was released in 2013.

With all of his family still in Colorado, he had almost no one to turn to. That all changed when he met his wife, Claire, who also had no immediate family in the state.

Born in Haiti, Claire moved to the United States, leaving her family behind. Without a home or any place to stay, they both braved the elements together for months at a time.

During the winter of 2014, they slept everywhere from the streets of Reading to abandoned houses infested with cockroaches. Robinson specifically remembers on several occasions waking up in the middle of the night to roaches crawling all over him. Eventually, they both found safety in the Opportunity House.

Finally, they have a stable roof over their heads, a comfortable place to sleep, good food to eat, but still do not have the means to buy a home of their own. Every year, for Claire’s birthday, he promises to buy her an apartment, and even though they have only lived in the shelter for a couple of months, Robinson is still doing everything he can to make that dream a reality. He has been applying for jobs for months and has four possible leads.

The city alone is enough to depress him, from the run-down houses to the lack of opportunities. All of this would be enough for anyone else to call it quits, but Robinson has not lost faith. Growing up in a positive family, he has always been taught to carry those values and attitudes with him wherever he goes, and he has.

“I’m better today than I was yesterday, and that’s my goal. To be better than I was yesterday and do something positive,” he said. “You have two options, either stabilize or expand, but you can’t get complacent.”

Robinson’s main motivation to do better is his wife and children. Whenever he thinks of giving up, they are always there to remind him of his goals.

“Don’t give up and don’t ever feel defeated.” Robinson said. “I’ve already taken too many steps forward to go back.”

Robinson feels that even simply sharing one’s story to others could always help someone. He makes the analogy that everyone is comparable to a full or empty cup. The cups with more should give to the cups with less as much as they can.

To highlight his point, Robinson cites an Edmund Burke quote: “The only thing evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

Mother of Two Hopes for Brighter Future

By Kelly Alderfer
Staff Writer

Chelsea Kuhn hangs out with her little “rugrats” in the women’s dormitory of the Opportunity House in Reading, Pa. With her 7-month-old son, Dylan, on her lap, she tells me, “Most of my day I’m running around after my children.” Her nine-year-old daughter, Chloe, is playing with friends and singing along to the “Spongebob Squarepants” theme song.

Kuhn, 29, was born in King of Prussia but grew up in Boyertown. After graduating from Spring-Ford Area High School, she got her medical assistant degree from Anthem Institute in Springfield, Pa.

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The outdoor mural at the Opportunity House’s daycare center.

Unemployed at the moment, Kuhn is working on finding a job and being able to pay for daycare. The Opportunity House provides 24-hour daycare services for a lesser fee compared to most other child care programs in the area.

“It’s good for families who have to work at night…I haven’t really heard any complaints about it,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn explains a typical day at the Opportunity House.

“We get up at 5:30 to do our chores; each woman gets a chore. Usually the women who have kids do the chores in the morning and then we do chores again at night,” she said.

These chores include mopping the stairs and cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen.

“We get fed lunch around 12 and dinner at 7, the kids are in bed by 8:30…and our curfew is at 10,” she said.

“My kids teach me life lessons every day.”

During the day when Kuhn isn’t running around after her kids, she is searching for jobs.

“I used to do manufacturing so I’m looking into manufacturing work or a medical assistant job,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn and her family have been at the Opportunity House since July when they were evicted from their home.

“Unfortunately, my fiancé is incarcerated…and I just couldn’t afford my apartment,” she said.

Kuhn said he is able to come home “any day” but he is looking for somewhere to go.

“I have not seen him since we’ve been here, but it’s okay…we write,” she said. She does have family in the area.

“My family is spread out from Royersford, King of Prussia, West Chester…but I have to take responsibility for my own actions and I’m trying to get on my feet,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn is grateful for the support the Opportunity House has given her.

“When you have kids, it’s difficult when you don’t have an income to find daycare, so they’re helping us out with day care, and then finding a job…it’s tough when you don’t have the resources…here they will help you,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn looks at Dylan while he lets out a giggle, and her face lights up. “My kids teach me life lessons every day,” she said.

For RACC Student, a Different Kind of Dorm

By Emily Leayman & Kelly Alderfer
Staff Writers

At Opportunity House in Reading, Pa., Jordan Calvalcanti, 26, is another homeless resident. When he steps out its doors, he is a college student working toward an associate degree in criminal justice.

But he is usually not at Opportunity House until he hits the bed. Aside from taking criminal justice classes at Reading Area Community College, he works Sundays to Wednesdays at Giorgio Mushroom Co. in Blandon.

“To me I just see it as a place to sleep,” he said of the shelter.

Because Opportunity House does not have Wi-Fi for residents, Calvalcanti completes homework on campus or other places in the area with Internet. At the moment, a lot of his work requires an Internet connection.

“It’s frustrating because there’s only so much work I can do from school here,” he said.

IMG_1091

Writing Wrongs Adviser Dorothy Hoerr (left) talks with resident Jordan Calvalcanti.

The wounds of becoming homeless were still fresh for the 26-year-old. In December 2014, Jordan Calvalcanti had left a party intoxicated and crashed his car into a guard rail. He had already been on probation for an incident one or two months before that. On top of that, his roommate missed a rent payment.

“It just kind of went downhill from there so I lost pretty much everything,” Calvalcanti said.

Then, he moved into Opportunity House in May. Battling alcoholism, he said that “was a better option at the moment.”

“It’s humbling. I never thought I would be in a situation like this,” he added.

He is in recovery, but he questions whether the shelter aids his improvement.

“They appear like they want to help,” he said of the staff. “Other people, I know they had done a little more for them. I don’t really have any hard feelings about it because I’m an independent person, so I like to go out and do stuff and get things done.”

Calvalcanti has no plans to stick around. In one or two weeks, he will move to an apartment a few blocks away. He has about one year left at Reading Area Community College and hopes to work in private investigation. Afterward, he may consider a bachelor’s degree, but worries if his criminal record will affect career options.

“I don’t want to put the money in and not be able to utilize [the degree],” he said.

Asked about his passion for criminal justice, he said, “Some part of it came naturally like investigation stuff, but it’s also just trying to contribute to society, just trying to balance injustice.”

In addition to pursuing this career, he enjoys paintball, shooting ranges, videogames, and spending time outside and with friends.

Originally from Philadelphia, Calvalcanti has been in Reading for approximately six to seven years. His sister, three nephews and mother live in Reading as well.

Lunch at Kennedy House

By Rachel Lee
Staff Writer

Single-file lines: Teachers can never get children to stand in them patiently, and it doesn’t work for adults, either. However, as I rounded the corner from Pearl Street onto Spruce Street in Reading, Pa., I saw the closest thing to a single-file line that I had seen in a long time. It was 11:15 a.m. and about 35 people were lined up, waiting to enter the Kennedy House soup kitchen for what may be their only meal of the day.

I proceeded to the back of this unusually straight line, noticing people of various ages, ethnicities and gender. Some were very well-kept, looking as if they were simply waiting for the library to open on a breezy weekend; others appeared more haggard, as if they had not slept in a few days. Most kept quietly to themselves or cheerfully greeted a friend or relative who just appeared. One couple began bickering between themselves, just like those waiting for the register at Walmart often do.

A lean, tall man joined the line behind me and immediately began asking me questions. He again inquired as to my reason for being there and I explained my role as a reporter. Gregarious and bold, the man revealed  that although he is employed and doing quite well for himself, he was at Kennedy House this weekend in order to visit his friends and have some lunch.

Before I knew it, the line had moved and I could peer into the House. It  looked quite like a restaurant; tables with checkered tablecloths, centerpieces, and salt and pepper shakers dressed the open space. A kind, gentle-faced woman manned the door; only so many diners could be seated in Kennedy House at a time.

Kennedy House

Dining room at Kennedy House. Photo: Dawn Heinbach

Following the aisle from the entrance to the back where the kitchen was located, the patrons each received a tray and a heaping plate of rice, ham and pineapples. Along the side of the room was also soup, milk, juice, and bread with butter. Having filled a tray with whatever enticed the eyes, diners proceeded to locate an empty chair.

Men or women, young or old, rich or poor, with home or without – they all ate, discussing politics, the newspaper, current events and problems with “the system.” Amazed by the diversity of life, I introduced myself to some diners. One young man, Bryhem Scott, was there because shelters and churches he had visited had told him about Kennedy House’s weekend meals.

Another couple, who walked in greeting numerous people as they went, explained that “lunch helps financially.” Only able to afford renting a single room at the time, the Ehrgoods are regulars to the Kennedy House during the weekends, and so are some of their family and friends.  As Heidi Ehrgood explained, “Your kids come first and sometimes you cannot afford a lot of groceries.”

Kennedy House and other soup kitchens work hard to fill that gap in the budget. Open on Saturdays and Sundays for a mid-day meal from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Kennedy House also operates a food pantry on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. so that individuals who are running low on food can come and restock. The pantry often includes breads, cookies, cakes and, on Mondays, leftovers from the previous day’s meals.

Sister Eloina

Sister Eloina Alvarez

When asked about the population that utilizes Kennedy House, the operator of the organization, Sister Eloina Alvarez, replied, “you never know.” According to Sister Alvarez, Kennedy House exists to feed people, and as such, “anybody who comes to the door” is permitted entrance, whether they are rich or poor. Each weekend, Kennedy House serves between 160 and 400 individuals, most of whom are adults, even though children are permitted. Supported by Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Kennedy House has been open for over 40 years.

“Soup kitchens are great. Thank God for soup kitchens.” – Paden

Insights on Addiction from Behind the Front Desk

By Tabitha Lockard
Staff Writer

What is the root cause of homelessness? To James Fink, a weekend guard at the Opportunity House in Reading, Pa., the answer to this question is not black and white.

“The cause of homelessness should not be viewed as one single thing. The first thing people think of when they think of the homeless is the drunk on the street.” Fink said. “How about the guy or single mother who’s raising children alone and loses their job? The landlord could care less because he’s all about the money. That’s not the bum, the drunk, or the drug addict on the street.”

Although Fink believes that there are many causes of homelessness, he has always been interested in the prevention and treatment of addiction.

Fink’s interest in addiction is fueled by his compassion for people.

“I love people, for the most part. I don’t always love their behavior,” he said.

Fink1

James Fink discusses addiction with Tabitha Lockard.

In regard to relating to others, Fink said, “Rather than have my view for people jaded to the point where I would be distrustful all the time, I had to learn not to take things so personal. Through my spiritual growth I’ve learned not to look at the act and make the person the act.”

Born in Lancaster, Fink grew up in Philadelphia. After high school, he joined the military and served in Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic. Upon arriving home, he did not receive the welcome he’d expected and could not get a job in the area he wanted for “lack of experience.” He then decided to pursue a degree in mental health and social services. However, this plan was detoured as life changed its course.

“The definition of addiction says absolutely nothing
about a chemical or substance. It is any behavior
that is obsessive, compulsive,
and disregards adverse consequences.”

Many years later, semi-retired and starting over somewhere new, Fink relocated to Reading. It was there that he decided to begin studying addiction counseling.

“The definition of addiction says absolutely nothing about a chemical or substance,” Fink said. “It is any behavior that is obsessive, compulsive, and disregards adverse consequences.”

Fink makes the point that an addiction can just as easily be to food, gambling or shopping.

“We are sensory motivated people, so the last thing in the world that we want is the kind of pain you can’t put a Band-Aid on,” he said. “Without proper treatment, it just continues to fester and fester.”

When Fink first arrived to Reading, going back to school was one of the last things on his mind. But life has taught him that plans are not etched in stone, and the final destination can be much different and better than the intended result.  

“We might not like the places we wind up, until we’re there and our eyes are opened,” Fink said. Fink2

Fighting for Financial Freedom

By Rachel Lee
Staff Writer

As I sat in the common area of Opportunity House on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a strong, well-kept young man walked through its doors. Arms laden with bags, he stopped by my table to rest his heavy cargo. Noticing the beads of sweat dripping down his face, I asked “Did you have to walk far today?” Answering in the negative, the young man, known as “L.J.” to his friends, proceeded to inform me that he just finished working. I quickly gathered that I was speaking to a bright, energetic 25-year-old man who hates to sit still. Although L.J. has been staying at the Opportunity House for a little under a year, it is not because of a desire to be there: he continually works whatever jobs he can, and also helps with the Opportunity House’s delivery truck when he is not working. In his free time, L.J. loves to be active, and often occupies his time with hiking, biking, swimming, and learning languages (including Russian, Spanish, German, and French). It is rare to catch this motivated young man indoors on such a warm day.

So how did someone so determined to use his energy productively end up in a homeless shelter? Did he fall into drugs? Or alcohol? Was he imprisoned and now trying to get on his feet?

In actuality, none of these were the case. Having been raised in the foster system, L.J. has been living on his own and supporting himself since he was 19 years old. Less than one year ago, having lost his management position at a local bakery, L.J. found that he could no longer pay his rent. Swallowing his pride, he sought shelter at Opportunity House and has been there ever since, appreciating the roof over his head while he seeks full-time employment so that he can support himself again.

Opportunity House’s Vice President of Shelter and Housing, Delia McLendon, revealed that finding stable employment is often one of the biggest challenges for individuals wanting to get on their feet.

Another resident at Opportunity House, Lazaro Salavarria, explained the job situation in Reading this way: “It’s just tough for a lot of people in our situation to live in this area and to climb out because there is nothing here – no jobs. It’s just tough, it really is.”

Lasso

Dalila Lasso talks with Writing Wrongs staff member Tabitha Lockard.

One young lady knows this truth more than others: After having lived in Florida for some time, Dalila Marie Lasso returned to Reading in 2012. While she has had some jobs through temporary agencies during the past three years, Lasso was hired last week into her first permanent assignment in four years. When discussing her life history, Lasso further revealed that she also has not had permanent housing since she returned from Florida. Instead, she’s been “house-hopping” since 2012. When discussing her decision to finally turn to the shelter last week, Lasso explains that the decision was a last-option choice; she had nowhere left to live, no stable income, and she has to provide for her 4-month-old son. For the well-being of her son and his future, she will rely on government assistance while she waits to see if this most recent job can offer her stability in income.

“It’s just tough for a lot of people in our situation to live in this area and to climb out because there is nothing here – no jobs.
It’s just tough, it really is.”

As McLendon explained, however, gaining a job is only half the battle: A minimum-wage, entry-level job is not enough for most people to live on. While a single person who simply rents a room may be able to make do, single individuals with children need more than that in order to achieve secure financial independence.

Being a convicted criminal who is searching for a job in order to get onto his own two feet is even worse. As one convicted drug dealer explained, “A lot of people won’t hire you. Like myself: All I have is drug cases. I don’t have any violence, but they won’t [even] hire me for a register job….”

“I want to make it to that point where I can say that I did it.
It’s gonna take awhile, but I’m gonna do it.”

The discrimination is not just against individuals with criminal histories. L.J. revealed that he often feels as if he is discriminated against in the hiring process simply because his “home address” is that of the Opportunity House.

Despite these barriers, McLendon is a firm believer that “you are in charge of your own destiny” and that individuals have to “keep beating the bushes until something flies out.” Sometimes, this includes “re-turning over stones.” Determined to work, L.J. tries to follow McLendon’s advice. Although he hates filling out employment applications, L.J. perseveres in his nearly year-long search for work.

While L.J. and Lasso continue seeking self-sufficiency, Reading’s lagging economy makes achieving their dreams difficult. Until these two can secure stable employment at above minimum wage, they are left relying on the government and goodwill of those associated with Opportunity House.

As Lasso stresses, however, she is “only depending on the government until I get to where I need to be.” Once she is financially stable, she stressed, “I’m not gonna want no food stamps, no cash assistance, no nothing…I want to make it to that point where I can say that I did it. It’s gonna take awhile, but I’m gonna do it.”

Vietnam Veteran Finds Solace in Books

By Kelly Alderfer
Staff Writer

Joseph Fayden sits in the corner of the common room of the Opportunity House in Reading, Pa., his arm resting on the table, looking content. A golden necklace with a cross lies around his neck, and there is a brace on his knee. As I approach Fayden to speak with him, I notice a book on the table.

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Vietnam War Veteran Joseph Fayden.

Fayden, 68, grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Two months before his 20th birthday, he was drafted in the Vietnam War. While serving, Fayden was stationed in Germany, Italy, and Austria. When asked about his favorite place he was stationed, he said, “Austria…I was in Salzburg, I saw where “The Sound of Music” was filmed…it was nice.”

When he was finished with the service, Fayden worked several jobs, such as cabinet making, flooring, and printing, but his favorite job was being a taxi driver in Long Island.

“I met a lot of interesting people,” he said.

After retiring, Fayden moved to Trevorton, Pa. Unfortunately in 2011, Shamokin Creek, which was not far from his home, flooded the area, and his home was destroyed.

“I stayed there as long as I could afterwards and finally one day the health department came in and said, ‘You gotta leave’; there was black mold on the walls,” he said.

Not sure what to do next, Fayden called the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for help.

“They had no place for me to go,” he said. “They just told me to get on a bus and go to Allentown or go to Harrisburg and if I needed an address they would tell me where to go and that was it.”

The veteran is frustrated with the lack of help he has received from the VA through the years. He believes that “each VA…has to deal with the resources they have in the area, and if the area doesn’t have the resources, there’s not much they can do about it.” One example would be the lack of housing for the homeless “from here on to Wilkes-Barre.”

Eventually, Fayden made his way to the Opportunity House and has been there for three years now. Being retired, he enjoys spending his time reading.

“I could read a 350-page book a day,” he said. When asked what his favorite genre is, he responded, “all kinds…I read a lot of fiction.”

IMG_1002Fayden gets his books from the Lebanon VA Medical Center.

“They got so many books they can’t keep track of…people donate books like crazy up there, he said.”

When he’s finished one of his books, he passes them around to other residents because he can’t stand books being wasted.

“If people leave them laying around, the staff will throw them out,” Fayden said.

Aside from reading books, Fayden goes on the computer when he can to stay in touch with his family. He is divorced and has five children;  the oldest is 45 and the youngest, 19.  Most of them live in Long Island, but he has a daughter in Arizona and a granddaughter he hasn’t met yet, but hopes to in the near future.

For now, Fayden is comfortable at the Opportunity House. When asked if he plans to look for a new place to go, he responded, “There’s nothing holding me here, there’s nothing holding me anyplace.”

I returned to the Opportunity House later in the day to speak with Fayden further.  Sure enough, while walking past the window to get to the front door, I saw him sitting at that same table reading his book.