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Holiday giving is a way for formerly homeless residents in Durham to show they're part of the community

Giving Back Holiday giving is a way for formerly homeless residents in Durham to show they're part of the communityThis is the first Christmas in 10 years that Juliette Bunn will be spending time with her family. For most of the past decade, the holiday held little joy for the 31-year-old Durham native. Her cocaine habit meant that one day was just as grim and constricted as the next.

Bunn's addiction also drove a wedge between her and her family. "If my mom would pass me on the road, she'd just stay away from that area," she says. "Last December, right before I quit using, my brother drove by me on the street and took a picture of me. I looked like death."

This holiday season, things are very different for Bunn. She's drug-free and living at Dove House in East Durham, a program for single, homeless women run by Housing for New Hope. She has a job doing janitorial work for the Durham Housing Authority. In addition to making plans to spend time with her own family for the first time in many years, Bunn and her roommates at Dove House are wrapping presents, making meals and giving gifts to needy families in their neighborhood.

Community service is an important part of the support offered to residents of Housing for New Hope--a way for people who've been abandoned on the margins to rejoin the mainstream, says founder and Director Terry Allebaugh. Residents of the organization's three transitional and one permanent housing sites in Durham regularly raise money for local charities and help their neighbors. They participate in the annual CROP (Christian Rural Overseas Program) Walk for the hungry and in a program called Wood Chuck Ministries, chopping wood for families without heat.

This year, residents are also volunteering and giving to Presbyterian Urban Ministry, which recently came under Housing for New Hope's nonprofit umbrella. "It's just part of the ongoing ways that men and women in our programs generate community good will," Allebaugh says.

At Christmas time, these service activities hold special meaning for New Hope residents, many of whom are recovering from years of addiction to illegal drugs and alcohol. For them, giving back is a way of returning from a world of despair and dishonor.

On a recent weekday evening, more than a dozen current and former Housing for New Hope residents gathered at Dove House on Holloway Street to talk about their holidays and their progress on the road to independent living. The wood floors shone, small candles lit the mantle of the sitting room, and the smell of baked chicken, biscuits and cheesecake wafted temptingly from the direction of the kitchen.

Here are a few of their stories:

Bobby Gray, 40: A native of Fayetteville, he has been at Phoenix House, Housing for New Hope's men's facility, for seven months:

"I was pretty bad off and one of my sisters suggested getting away from my situation, so I came here. I was doing drugs, living in the streets. I had nowhere to turn. My Dad was in the military and I never really had to struggle that much early in my life. I didn't start off with drugs until I was 18 or 19. Now, I know I can make better decisions. I've taken so much that it feels really good for me to give right now. There was times when I was just about doing selfish things. This [holiday giving] makes me feel like I'm really doing something with my life."

Sheila Withers Smith, 44: A recent "graduate" of Dove House who works as a nursing assistant in the oncology unit at the Durham Veterans Administration Hospital. In January, she'll be a nursing student at North Carolina Central University:

"It's always good for me to be around people who are healing the same way I am. Dove House has been the best chapter in my life that way. I was broken, but I was healed here. I was born and raised in Durham. I went to Hillside High. I started doing drugs at 17. I started on marijuana, then coke, then heroin. I came here homeless. I'd lost my apartment and my job [at a local nursing home.] This wasn't the first time I had tried at rehab. Before, I'd always say that I was going to get clean for my husband or my kids. This time, it was for me. I just wanted to be loved and cared about again. So that's what I started putting out. I'm just glad to be clean. I don't have to be out there in the cold, my body hurting. I can take a drug test at work. It's the simple things. On the holidays, I used to just want to get high. Now, I prefer to be at work because my patients need me, too. That's how I get out of myself. It helps to know I'm helping someone else."

Donald DeVane, 43: Has been at Phoenix House 10 months and plans to "graduate" in March. A native of Ivanhoe, near Wilmington, he does landscaping and maintenance work for the Durham Housing Authority:

"My life became unmanageable long before I came to Phoenix House. I was in prison twice for stealing and hurting people. My kids never saw me in addiction--one thing I'm grateful for. It's kind of hard making amends with the kids. I haven't seen them in four years. The slogan at Phoenix House is "freedom through responsibility." I'm learning to live life on life's terms. I've learned how to pay my bills and save money. I really love the idea of giving something back. It frees your self from being selfish and self-centered. Those are good standards for anybody to have. Nobody knows what it's like to be homeless until you are. Once upon a time, I didn't have any feelings. My last few months before I was incarcerated, I went into people's houses and bummed food. I don't have to live like that now. For me, being here has been a very great blessing."

Sidney Armstrong, 42: "Graduated" from Phoenix House last August. He has a job doing maintenance work for Measurement Inc. in Durham, and has been drug-free for two and a half years.

"Being at Phoenix House showed me how people can love someone they didn't know before. If you can change how you are, giving becomes easier. And I see how important it is to do for others. I used drugs from the age of 15 until I was 40. My only goal was to get high. I used to sleep at my kids' schoolyard. Here, they've taught me how to live simple and want the simple things in life. I'm a father and I want to be a good father. I have goals. I want to be this great spiritual guy. And every year since then, things have gotten better for my kids. Christmas hasn't meant anything to me for a long time. Now, I try to act like every day is a holiday for me."

Tina McClean, 36: Has lived at Dove House for seven months. She works at Boston Market and is studying for her high school equivalency degree:

"Freedom through responsibility means a lot to me. When I came here, I'd lost custody of my kids. This Christmas, I'm going to be able to see my daughter again. I've taken a whole lot from the community. So it's real good for me to give back. We've been talking about sponsoring a little boy--a foreign child that we heard about in the mail [through a charity appeal]. When I got that paper in the mail I was shocked. To think that they'd send it to an addict like me. It feels good to be doing that together. We have our ups and downs here but we all get along. That's what I love about these ladies. I have no blood sisters, but I have these sisters here." EndBlock

For information on programs run by Housing for New Hope, call (919) 220-3777.

  • Holiday giving is a way for formerly homeless residents in Durham to show they're part of the community.

More by Barbara Solow

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