For many of our friends who are homeless, there is a deeper issue behind the addiction. An issue that involves the pursuit of something that is lost or missing. Of course, it’s hard to know what that “something” is, and it can be different for everyone. For some, it’s relationship. For others, it’s hope. For Nelson, it was identity.

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For in the day of trouble He will keep me safe in His dwelling; He will hide me in the shelter of His sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.

Psalm 27: 5-6 (NIV)



Every story we tell is different, unique in its own way. Many of the stories are tainted with addiction. But substance abuse is often only a mask people stand behind and observe the world through.

For many of our friends who are homeless, there is a deeper issue behind the addiction. An issue that involves the pursuit of something that is lost or missing. Of course, it’s hard to know what that “something” is, and it can be different for everyone. For some, it’s relationship. For others, it’s hope. For Nelson, it was identity.

“I was a lost soul looking for direction and guidance, says Nelson. "I felt worthless. I spent many years searching for my place in life and where I fit in. Every night I’d go to the club. I’d party, drink and try to find women.”

Nelson’s story begins in Dallas, Texas—where he, his sister, his uncle, and his mom lived with Nelson’s grandma. The five of them were experiencing poverty, both physical and emotional. For young Nelson, physical poverty looked like living in a small two-bedroom apartment with four others. He shared a room with his sister and uncle while his mom slept on the couch every night.

Then, there was emotional poverty. Nelson’s family moved around a lot. “We moved schools, changed cities, changed homes,” says Nelson. “We moved from Dallas to Chicago, then back to Dallas. Then we moved to Fort Worth, and then back to Dallas, again. It was impossible to make friends. I was always alone.”

Nelson often felt neglected and lonely. His mom was a strong woman, but emotionally abusive. It wasn’t unusual for her to scream at young Nelson and curse at him. The first eight years of Nelson’s life she married three times, to three different men. “None of them lasted very long,” says Nelson. “I’m not sure why she married them. They beat her up, they took advantage of her and they abused me and my sister.”

Nelson grew up in the heart of the Southwest. Some would describe him as a “good ole boy,” the type that says, “yes sir” and “yes ma’am.” Growing up, he learned that to show feelings is a form of weakness and that courage is defined by hard work, grit and rigidness. But as he begins to speak about his mother, his rigidness is replaced with empathy, and a sense of sorrow fills the room.

“I remember one of the men,” says Nelson. “He slammed my mom’s head against the wall. But it wasn’t just the men. It was her too. She stayed abusive most of her life, all the way up to her death. I’ve learned to forgive my mother for all the wrong she's done to me. And I forgive myself for all the wrong I've done. But it was hard—it is hard. Even when she died, I was grieving the loss of a mother who didn’t want to see me on her deathbed.”

And with that statement, Nelson pauses. He leans over and stares downward, at the table in front of him. But it’s as if the table is not there. He peers through the table and into the past. His eyes are filled with memories and tears. Then he breaks the silence with six words that, until eight months ago, have defined his story: “The alcohol flowed in our family.”

For Nelson, drinking alcohol and getting drunk were the only answers he knew. From the time he was a newborn to the day he turned eight years old, he watched three men come into his life and navigate daily stresses via drinking and violence. So, when 12-year-old Nelson encountered a problem at school, he resorted to the same.

“School was hard for me,” says Nelson. “It was impossible to make friends because of how often we moved. I was a loner. I didn’t like myself, and I just wanted to feel good about myself.”

Throughout junior high school, Nelson carried a thermos with him to classes. In it, he mixed vodka and orange juice, sipping on it during the day. By the time he turned 15, he was drinking daily, eventually dropping out of school before his sixteenth birthday. “When I drank, it gave me relief,” he says. “I didn’t feel like a loner anymore. Alcohol made me feel good about myself.”

At 15 years old, Nelson was an addict.

Over the next thirty years, “addict” became Nelson’s identity. He would go on to get his GED, join the military and become a dad. But his old habits, drinking and violence, would also lead him to prison twice—once at 30 years old and again at 50.

Nearly eight months ago, Nelson was released from his second stint in prison. As he stood there, alone, some fifty feet from the exit doors of state prison, something happened. He’s not sure what it was. He didn’t have a vision or an epiphany. “I just decided I wanted to change my life,” says Nelson. And with that decision, he took a bus from Dallas, Texas to Denver, Colorado. He heard about Denver Rescue Mission and was eventually accepted into the New Life Program.

Being accepted into the New Life Program is only the start of a very long journey for our program participants. For many, the road to recovery at The Crossing can last up to two years. During that time, your donations help chaplains, counselors and work readiness supervisors engage with our participants in areas such as: fostering new habits, education, job readiness, financial management, relapse prevention, spiritual development, medical services, and reestablishing relationships.

"My work readiness assignment is painting rooms and offices at The Crossing,” says Nelson. “I love it. I get to hone in on my trade, and it gives me confidence that when the time is right I will be able to find a job."

As Nelson worked with our counselors and chaplains, the question he was wrestling with most became evident, “Who am I?” says Nelson. “Apart from being an addict, who is Nelson?”

Addiction is not just an action where one drinks or takes drugs. For many, addiction is an identity. For nearly 60 years, Nelson’s identity was defined as a drinker, an alcoholic and a failure. Broken relationships with his mom, his sisters and his son have wreaked havoc on his self-concept.

But identities can change. Not overnight, of course. It takes time. “It’s a process,” says Nelson. “I’ve been enrolled in the New Life Program for six months. There are still hard days. Sometimes I go through difficult things, but when you’re at The Crossing, there’s someone to talk to and help you through those difficult times. You're never alone here.”

Over the last six months, Nelson has begun the process of change by connecting with his past experiences, exploring them and beginning to realize that his identity is in something greater than alcohol.

“In the New Life Program, I’ve found my identity in Christ,” says Nelson. “There used to be this gap. It was a gap right in the center of my chest. I tried filling it with drugs and alcohol. But now, that gap is filled with God.”

This spring, he will start looking for sustainable employment and begin saving money toward moving into his own apartment.

And for now, Nelson continues to work with his chaplain, counselor and work readiness supervisor on his big question, “Who am I?”

“I am Nelson,” he says. I realize my purpose, now. I finally feel like I belong. And I don’t feel worthless anymore.”

Letter from the CEO

When I joined the staff of Denver Rescue Mission 19 years ago, on April Fool’s Day (I know, can you believe this is my anniversary at the Mission!), I did not know much about being homeless or about what it took to help someone out of poverty. I imagine that I was like many of you—I just wanted to help people change their lives—and I knew that Jesus could help them do that.

Although I have learned a lot in my time here at the Mission, I cannot say I have all the answers. But here are some of the things I have learned that I think you might find interesting:

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Nelson's story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Changing Lives titled “My Name is Nelson”

Also in this issue:

  • Volunteer Appreciation Week
  • 6 Little-Known Ways to Bless Your Family
  • John Miller On Why Denver Rescue Mission Matters
  • Letter from the CEO
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