Life for Demetrius Caldwell had always been chaos.
He grew up in Columbus in a family plagued by addiction. With little guidance, Caldwell felt that his only path in life was to “hustle” drugs — it was what everyone else did.
Caldwell’s brother had moved to Mount Vernon, and he started visiting him in 2004 at age 18 to sell crack around town. It was easier to sell drugs in a town where he wasn’t a known entity. He sold drugs in Mount Vernon for two years before he was caught and sentenced to four years in prison. He was 20 years old.
When Caldwell was released in 2010, he returned to Mount Vernon, once again looking to sell drugs.
“When I came up here, I was just a hustle state of mind and I was embracing, like, the crack market was … it was what was in demand at the time,” Caldwell explained.
Caldwell soon found a stronger connection to Mount Vernon when he started a family. He was very close with his baby’s grandmother, who treated him like a son. As his ties to his family grew, so did his stress level and addiction. Caldwell had only ever used alcohol and marijuana, but provided his baby’s grandmother and mother with prescription opioids and crack cocaine. Soon he started to use some of his prescription pill supply as well.
“It was just a lot of stress, it was really a lot of stress at the time,” Caldwell shared. “It came from a recreational thing that I was trying to do, thinking I was just going to save up [money], to being a forced situation to where I had to do it and to an addiction situation to where I couldn’t go without it.”
From the time he got out of jail, he moved from place to place, staying with whomever was buying drugs from him, often it was with his “baby mama” and her mother. In 2012, Caldwell moved from prescription pills to heroin and his life fell to new lows.
“When you’re caught up in the moment of a lifestyle of addiction, you’re not, like, physically or mentally fit to really do nothing [sic] else because it just overrules everything,” Caldwell said.
In 2014 he was incarcerated again, this time for 17 months. His baby’s grandmother died in 2015 and soon he and the mother of his child broke off their relationship because of the loss they felt.
It was 2015 that Caldwell stayed at the Winter Sanctuary for a few days, but a relapse on heroin meant that he could no longer stay.
“I’ve just been homeless for a while,” Caldwell said. “It’s frustrating being homeless, but it is a certain dynamic around here, like it’s still blessings, because you get help, man, from different ways… You can’t give up on a community, you can’t give up on people who drop off and comeback, drop off and comeback. Just always be there for them.”
In 2016, for a third time, Caldwell found himself back in prison for nine months. He now views his prison time as a blessing, because “it preserved a little bit of me and kept me alive.”
When he got out of prison he returned to life on the streets and continued to struggle with addiction. A probation violation took him to First Step Recovery in Warren, OH. When he came home to Mount Vernon, he was put on the waitlist for the Riverside Recovery men’s house, which opened in September, following the women’s house, which opened in July.
Now Caldwell is on a new path, with far less chaos. He just received his transcripts to attend Mount Vernon Nazarene University where he plans to study business.
“I have always been pivoted back, you know, just by the community itself,” Caldwell explained. “And that’s where I’m trying to get to. I’ve definitely been through a lifestyle of addiction… throughout [that time] I just didn’t know how to adjust my priorities, because I never had that guidance.
“It took a whole town just to help me to begin to feel like that,” he continued, “The issue is drugs and homelessness is hand in hand, no matter what. But as long as we’re still around and patient with each other and there whenever somebody comes back… eventually something will click. I’m learning how to own up to my actions. It isn’t about [not] going to jail now for me, it’s just about trying to keep the relationships I do have, strong.”
Nearly two years ago, James Dowalter was released from the Knox County Jail.
Going into jail, Dowalter had a family, a wife and three kids, a house and job. When he left jail on probation in November of 2016 he had nothing. He lost custody of his children. His wife was also incarcerated and had dealt with her own addiction problems. His house and his job were gone.
Prior to jail, Dowalter had been a heroin user for 38 years and maintained a job and family. But things started to catch up to him. Warrants in four different counties lead to various jail sentences and he bounced from jail to jail until he ended up back in Mount Vernon, where he had been living the past several years, with a drug possession felony charge.
He stayed with friends for a short time but soon found he had no one who would take him in.
It was then that he started staying at the Winter Sanctuary, a seasonal emergency homeless shelter in February, 2017.
“I had never — my whole life I lived on my own, raised kids family and things,” Dowalter said. “I was just— I was stunned. I was stunned…I had never been homeless. I never even knew what homeless was. I always pictured homeless people living under a bridge or something. I never thought (in) a little town there’d be homeless.”
In addition to his probation, the rules surrounding drugs at the Winter Sanctuary kept Dowalter accountable in regard to his drug use and addiction.
“It kept me from going into another vein of jails and who knows what,” Dowalter said. “I realized what I had lost. I had never thought about quitting drugs before. I had done it for 38 years and I had never really been in trouble for it. I kept it hid from everybody, raised my kids and everything and nobody really knew it.”
When the shelter closed for the season in April, Dowalter stayed for a few weeks with friends, but the people he stayed with often had law enforcement and other problems, something that Dowalter wanted to avoid because of his probation.
Dowalter soon returned to his old drug habits, including methamphetamines, which were easily available. Even when he was “what you would call a respectful citizen,” earning six digits and paying his bills, he used drugs to “fill in the gaps.”
“It was kind of a boredom thing, you know it filled in the gap,” Dowalter said. “It filled in the gap, because I didn’t know how to better myself, because I had always had what I needed and then some. This whole concept of bettering yourself and climbing up out of a hole like that…and when the shelter was gone, because it was, honestly at the time it was paradise…When it went away man, there was a big emptiness in me.”
It was at the homeless camps that he saw and learned first-hand the effects that homelessness has on a person.
“People get wrong concepts of what’s really going on,” Dowalter said. “There’s a lot of cops, obviously cops have warrants and things, like I said it’s a good place to hide… but everybody who did their thing there, there was a lot of good people there. There was a lot of sincere people that I seen. For the first time in my life I got to see what the struggle was like on that end. How you get stuck.
“People say, they made that choice…and that is very true. I get that. You know, my choices led one to another,” he continued. “But when you get in that place, that does not mean you’re not sincere about disliking it.”
While he was at the camp, he also started to look at drugs in a different light, seeing the way they had affected the lives of individuals around him. He started to get serious about quitting. When his probation officers warned him that the camp would soon be closed by law enforcement, Dowalter took their advice and went to the Men’s Riverside Recovery House.
James is now in his fourth month of the six month program at Riverside Recovery, and just graduated from Intense Outpatient treatment (IOP) for drugs and alcohol at the Freedom Center. After going through his experience, James is very thankful to those who helped him but feels that the community as a whole needs to come together to better address homelessness.
“I mean [the resources] are there,” Dowalter said. “It seems like it needs to be bigger, more. Because you go some places and you have the few that would accept you or try to help you, and you’ve got other places where they pull their blinds down when they see you coming.”
After three years in prison, Jason Sowers was a free man in April 2017, but he wasn’t free from his addiction.
He immediately returned to using drugs and felt himself falling further and further from the path and goals he had laid out while serving his sentence.
Sowers moved in with his kids and their mother for a time, but things started to get tense when he started a relationship with another woman. He was given an ultimatum: he could stay with his kids and their mother if he broke things off with his girlfriend, or he could leave and be homeless with his girlfriend.
Sowers chose the latter.
They slept under bridges, behind grocery stores and in abandoned houses. Friends to stay with, Sowers explained, were “few and far between.” They would get food from the food pantry when they could, but sometimes would be turned away because they didn’t have identification. Both of them battled addiction.
“It seemed like every time we started to get some footing, you know, something else would knock us back down,” Sowers recalled. “In all reality, it was our drug usage. It was just a really, really horrible lifestyle.”
The first evening they spent together living in homelessness was in Mid-February of 2018. It was a rainy night, and they slept in the woods behind a business in the 200 block of Wooster Road in Mount Vernon. Early the next morning they looked for shelter in the basement of an abandoned house, but Sowers’s girlfriend fell ill from the rain and they soon sought a drier place to stay.
They found an abandoned garage with a mattress in it. Sowers borrowed blankets and made the area as clean and comfortable as possible. For three days, he held her while she fought to feel better.
Memorial Day of 2018, a friend invited the couple in to live with them and asked Sowers if he would work with her boyfriend to hang drywall. They would have a place to stay, with a steady income and a ride to work. Life seemed to be looking up, and they quickly jumped on her offer. But that evening, the friend threatened suicide, and the next morning took her own life.
“It was a very traumatic experience for me and [my girlfriend] both,” Sowers said. “I’ve been exposed to a lot of things like that, but it was always really horrible bad people that I’d seen stuff like that happen to, and to see it happen to somebody that was a down-to-Earth, really good-hearted, good-natured person, that was when it really hit me hard. Within our drug usage, you know, that’s when we realized that this just wasn’t the life for us.”
The two worked to get clean but would often pull each other back into their addictions.
“With two people in active addiction, it just seemed impossible,” Sowers recalled. “She’d be clean for thirty days and then I would pull her back in. I’d be clean for a couple weeks, she would pull me back in, and there was always some excuse and reason why we couldn’t get clean.”
Both Sowers and his girlfriend went to Riverside Recovery to complete an outpatient assessment but didn’t take treatment any further. They continued doing drugs, and stayed at an old house without electricity or running water. They washed their clothes in totes that they would fill with water from a storage unit and hang them to dry.
“It become the normal. It become…you know they say people don’t change until they hit rock bottom, and that wasn’t the case for us,” Sowers said. “You know, we lived on rock bottom. We got there and we got comfortable with it. We got to where we didn’t mind using food pantries or eating out of dumpsters. And we got to where we didn’t mind not wearing clean clothes for two or three days. Just trying to beg and borrow money from everybody, selling everything that ever meant anything to us was just, we didn’t mind it. Until we got to looking on Facebook and years back, seeing how our lives were and seeing how we looked, and how we felt.”
Sowers was soon put back in jail for 10 days for a parole violation. On the tenth day of his jail time, his girlfriend checked herself into the Riverside Recovery women’s house. Sowers asked to be put into the men’s house, but instead was released to the streets, because the recovery house didn’t have an open bed. He found his way to the Winter Sanctuary, which had not yet opened for the season. The sanctuary paid for a hotel room for Sowers to stay in until a bed opened at the Riverside Recovery men’s home.
“It was devastating to be not with my person,” Sowers remembered. “I had this little bit of clean time and I just wanted to, you know, I just wanted to be clean. And now she was in recovery, in rehab and like, that’s what I wanted.”
Two days after checking into the hotel, a bed opened for Sowers at the men’s house. Eighty-one days later, Sowers celebrated 88 days of sobriety, but it hasn’t been an easy journey.
“I feel like a toddler, because I’m having to relearn all these things in life being sober,” Sowers said. “There would be days that I would just feel so sad and depressed … and I realized that it was, me being sober, that all these emotions that I experienced, you know — my mom passing away, my dad passing away, my brother passing away — all these emotions weren’t dealt with properly, I didn’t grieve. I just masked them with drugs and alcohol.”
Sowers and his girlfriend, now fiance, are looking forward to a much brighter future. He is continuing to work on his recovery and has a job. He also has his kids back in his life and is enrolled in a four-year psychology program with Colorado Technical College, with hopes to work with adolescent teens. But in the meantime, Sowers is focusing on how he can help and give back to others that are going through the same struggles that he did.
“People that I see, down and out, I know that they can make it to where I’ve made it, and even further,” Sowers said. “I always thought, it’s just like, ‘well get up. Go get a job. Quit sitting on your butt and expecting everybody to do stuff for you.’ But until I was actually there, and I was in the poverty that everybody else is consumed with, and my active addiction, then I actually understood it; understood why it was such a rut to get out of and it seemed almost impossible. It seems intimidating to take that first step, and then once you do have the will-power, it’s about the knowledge about where to go and how to get this done; and I think that right there is the biggest thing that needs to be spread as far as the homeless community in Mount Vernon.
“I just think that, and this is not being disrespectful to any sector of Mount Vernon, but when you get to people that are upper-middle class, it seems like a lot of them are just mainly focused on their group of people,” Sowers continued. “Not all of them, but a majority, I feel, look down on people that are homeless and they look at them as living off of funds that certain places provide and living off of food pantries. But until they’re actually ground zero in that homeless community, they don’t get it. They can’t see the reasons why they’re there and they can’t see the reasons why they stay there.”