But the education sector was hard hit by the recession, and Rajali’s teaching position was eliminated. His struggle to survive was only compounded when he suffered two strokes in 2012. He lived with friends and managed to find tech work, but with failing health and dwindling work, Rajali could not pay rent.
A friend referred him to Union Station. At Centennial Place, he found the stability and resources he needed.
“I can regain control over my life now,” he says.
In his own words…
My Path: Homeless to Housed
By Rijali Durham
I am a man of African descent who’s raised three boys to men in the Pasadena area. My resume includes a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College and a California State Teaching Credential. I worked 10 years in film and television production, 12 years in computer and software sales, and the last 14 years as a high school computer applications teacher. My resume was supposed to guarantee I’d never end-up homeless.
Stepping into my memory, each absurd fact spikes the jagged shards of my fractured life deeper into my brain. As I unscramble my thoughts I absorb a feeling and find myself clinging to the only solid element left in my life: the bed in the men’s dormitory, on my first night at Union Station Homeless Services Adult Center, a shelter for homeless men and women in Pasadena, California.
I taught my sons to always take responsibility for everything that happens in their lives. Over the years, they heard many of my corrective lectures begin the same. “Responsibility is your ability to choose the best response to anything!” Now, during my 60th ride around the sun, it all distills down to me responding by letting my frustration, guilt, fear and despair liquify into tears, or not. Blaming a deity or a devil reveals nothing, but an avalanche of big, life-altering events did start the 2012 train wreck rolling. OK, what big events led me here?
I remember in 2011, strolling through an average week in my old life, diligently teaching students computers are more than gaming devices. The week wasn’t complete until I fed my artistic side with Urban Ballroom Dancing, soulful indoor roller skating and about three hours of kickboxing. Then 2012 sucker-punched me into a soul-wretching reality. The world as I knew it simply blew-up.
The explosion was deafening. My 30-year marriage ended tragically 13 days into 2012. While we had not lived together for over 15 years, we were functioning co-parents and spoke frequently. So that Sunday morning, I could only answer my son’s frantic call with, “What do you mean by dead!?” The sudden death of the mother of my children –foster, natural and adopted– framed 2012 as the worst year of my life.
Then my livelihood collapsed, eviscerated by a rusty pen that serves political agendas, not students. While some cheered the bloody ax of educational reform, my financial body was gored so deeply it bled-out during the carnage. Computer teachers joined art and music teachers on the scrap heap of “Subject-Not-On-The-Test.” More tragic learning casualties for American Education. If the subject is not on the proficiency tests, why pay for a teacher?
Maybe because my financial meltdown and wife’s death were still raw wounds, but two months later I found myself in the hospital, for the first time since birth. A moderate stroke left me unable to recall common words or speak above a mumbled whisper. While the stroke’s after-effects dissipated quickly, my retirement cash-out was depleting faster. My brain screamed, what’s next!?
I am so eternally grateful that the all-good of God is always expressing. Sometimes it shows up as a phone call from your grade school BFFs, Best Friends, Forever. Why forever? Forever is a lot closer now than it was in fourth grade when we all met.
So, “what had happened was!” It’s late summer, 2012, I’m on the couch in my one-bedroom, Los Angeles apartment. I’ve got a week before a sheriff-enforced eviction, and I take a call. My Pasadena childhood buddies not only offer me an eight week job but a small place to stay that fits within the job pay. I graciously accept and returned / escaped to ‘Dena, the Altadena Pasadena area, home of my youth and most of my adult life.
I’m feeling great, like 2012 is finally tired of trying to beat me senseless. Whatever confidence I had that I was going to breeze through and out of “Hell Year,” my body disagreed. On October 25th, at 3:00 am, I suffer a massive stroke that cripples my entire left side.
Fortunately, my heart looks for God’s sunlight to show up everywhere. This time it beams through the exceptional therapists, nurses and doctors at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California. They taught me the process of severe stroke recovery can take years. Also, my rapid progress was the miraculous sunshine I was expecting to show up.
After four weeks, I returned home to continue my healing. It consisted of outpatient physical therapy, doctor visits and learning to hobble around with my walker. Not exciting, but steps to help me actively work my way back to my normal.
Financially, blessings continued through the charity of “framily” (friends functioning as family) carrying me into 2013, but after my car was repossessed and all other living options were exhausted, my friends told me about Union Station Adult Center and drove me to Passageways, the intake center for Pasadena-area homeless people.
This review of my life’s recent potholes only brings clarity about my shock-drunk state of mind. Depression is not an ugly overcoat you put on one day. Like a coffin it is constructed by the responses we choose to address unfortunate life events. (Great, it’s the same lecture I gave my boys, with a deeper twist.) How I respond to the life events that pinned me to the bed in a homeless shelter will either support or reject what the Swahili name “Rijali” means. Am I being a “principled and honorable man”?
Thankfully, God is good all the time and works through simple tasks. This time showing up my first morning at the USHS Adult Center. That must’ve been a Wednesday because I can still taste the piping hot, wafer thin pancakes. That hot breakfast started deconstructing the “Depression coffin”.
I was discovering that Union Station Adult Center is a finely-oiled machine of support and care. The peppy sunrise wake up activity, the frenetic rush of residents, and the military precision of dining room setup and breakdown radiated an upbeat urgency. The machine was constructing windows and doorways out of the fog my life had become.
Everywhere I looked was safe, clean and orderly. Watching the massive coordination of volunteers and resources, for me, generated a calm space for healing mind and body . The efforts of the staff–case managers, food preparers, and cleaning facilities manager–inspired courage. As a team they nudged me closer back to the life I had been so rudely ejected from.
The first meeting with my Case Manager / Advisor / Life Coach began building a concrete understanding of my options with SSI, SDI and senior housing possibilities. As the weeks stretched into months, I witnessed the least cooperative being infected by the climate of courtesy. Someone offered to help me with my walker or backpack every single day.
Union Station Homeless Services Adult Center is temporary housing. The support and love USHS invested in me, landed my feet on solid ground, Centennial Place Apartments. In my heart, my spiritual practice was opening a portal, the next giant step to rekindling joy-filled, purposeful and productive living: keys!
I know metal keys are just objects. The powerful images of our past and future memories, creates keys as being close to our heart. Months ago, when I tossed away my old keys, one by one I held each key to memorize the feelings associated it. The feeling-tone of that moment is one of the experiences I am writing from now.
In High School I was built and moved like Charles Barkley, but my friends chose to mock my logical, even temperament, nicknaming me, “Mr. Spock.” I’m still very reserved about revealing joy and especially anger. However, when the paperwork was complete and I was given keys to my room, the party was on and poppin’!
The keys touched my fingers, and triggered the giddy memory of my first toy store visit. Keys meant I had a door of my own. I practiced locking and opening the door, confirming it was my door and it worked. I forced back my sugar-hyped kid, and reasserted my spiritual manners. I took a reverent pause to embrace, celebrate and bathe in the love-energy I perceive as the Universe, God. Next, I got quiet, silencing my mind enough to become still and generate peace.
Back to the party! I had a private room with a brand-new bed! A wardrobe box to hang my clothes! I even had my own mini-refrigerator to store fresh food! Then I really got it! Keys can trigger our memory of cherished experiences and impactful people. When I locked the door for the night, I just sat and marinated in gratitude; soaking in all the events and people bringing me to the peace of that single heartbeat.
That was almost one year ago. At Centennial Place, Union Station Homeless Services offers an office of counselors and coaches, plus I have a compassionate, knowledgeable and lovely case manager. Together they’re leading me to fulfill my current mission: to heal, learn and create. How’s that working out?
Well, I voiced an interest in writing. You are reading the results. In August I will be working with a college professor, Rabbi Bill Cutter, in a writing workshop for Centennial Place residents. I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes at Pasadena Senior Center. On the employment trail, I’m exploring how my computer skills can fit in with AARP’s “seniors using technology” initiatives? And, daily I’m getting closer to physical wholeness and full mobility.
In the stream of events we process as life, I choose to look for the good, the all-good of God. All things do work together for good, if you activate your vision to see it. When I began writing through this experience, I wrote, “I waited till I was 60 to make it all the way to the bottom.” Now I see the truth. I am majestically and powerfully perched at the top of the rest of my wonder-filled life. Namaste.
Centennial Place: “Heart-A-Tudes” for Success
by Rijali Durham
The Historic Pasadena YMCA building was constructed in 1910 as part of Pasadena’s city core layout of buildings. It is now called Centennial Place Apartments (CP) and in 2010 Pasadena’s Union Station Homeless Services (USHS) partnered with Abode Communities and the City of Pasadena to deliver on-site supportive services for the residents of the142-room Single Room Occupancy (SRO) building, creating the vibrant Centennial Place community.
Before we entered Centennial Place we were content and on our personal path “in the pursuit of happiness.” Then, an assortment of traumatic events, mental Illnesses, and/or physical illnesses conspired to abruptly snatch us off our intricately designed paths. Related reactions caused many of us to weather the soul-crushing experiences of homelessness, severe depression, and self-medication abuse. Still, we continue our crusade to recreate our individual flavor of a normal life.
Fortunately, the USHS supportive machine at Centennial Place starts with our case manager assisting us in creating a life-repair and healing plan. USHS gently coaches us forward, but we still must execute the daily tasks of our plans ourselves. Courageously, residents of Centennial Place exemplify the fierce “Heart” needed to reconstruct shattered lives and paths. The term “heart” miss-characterizes the intensity of character we call upon daily to put things back together again. “Heart-A-Tude,” a heart-centered perspective expressed as a attitude, is a more accurate term.
Strong, consistent “Heart-A-Tudes” are required to successfully navigate the barrage of weekly treatments, medical regimens, recovery and counseling meetings compounding our week. Sometimes a joyful “Heart-A-Tude” of bold happiness in the face of bureaucratic and circumstantial setbacks, is the only frame of mind that gets you through the day. Because, the very same “demons” and self-doubts that may have contributed to becoming homeless, shout even louder as you persevere to rebuild your severely disrupted life.
We are all on our own unique adventures to return to our paths “in the pursuit of happiness.” Miraculously, in the midst of the cow manure generously spread along our journeys, the “ Heart-A-Tudes” we draw from everyday becomes the common connection vibrating throughout the Centennial Place community. Deep down inside, most of us hope and envision the best possibilities for our fellow residents. Just like we hold a parking space, we are holding a space in our hearts and minds that displays our fellow residents’ “happily ever-after.”
When we hold a parking space we often find ourselves fending off challengers with a powerful and steadfast resistance. Sometimes, we literally scare people, events and things away from our planned path or parking space. In short, we hold the space for each others’ best possibilities with a fierce “Heart-A-Tude,” that screams “success is the only option!” Yes, Centennial Place has the “Heart,” “Heart-A-Tude” to make anything happen on our journey back to our path “in the pursuit of happiness.”