A woman's journey from streets to a job

Debbie Durgin and other graduates of a course at a Boston homeless shelter find self-worth and a room of their own.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There was the white tent, the big-name speaker, the pomp, the circumstance. Beaming graduates, adorned with white carnation boutonnieres, marched across the stage as friends and family cheered them on.

But one thing sets the recent graduation at the Pine Street Inn apart from the dozens that flood Boston each spring: The graduates are all homeless.

Completing a 13-week course in food service or a three-week job-readiness program may not seem like much, but for many of the 202 individuals who finished such programs at Pine Street last year, this was the first time they had graduated from anything.

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Sen. John Kerry, who delivered the keynote speech, was the biggest name on the program, but the wildest cheers greeted Debbie Durgin's announcement that she now has a steady job at Dunkin' Donuts and was promoted to assistant manager after less than two months. "For most of my life I was finding excuses," she recalls. "Now, I am finding a way."

Not all graduates find and retain jobs, of course. And even for those who do, it's just one step toward settling in permanent housing. A minimum-wage job may not pay the rent, and many homeless are also battling drug or alcohol addictions, or mental-health problems.

Still, say advocates of such programs, preparing to hold down a secure job is crucial to regaining confidence and achieving economic independence. "We're trying to do three things," says Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street, Boston's largest shelter. "Give people skills to take into the workplace, get them reacquainted with work and how important it is in their lives, and buy them a period of stability."

FOR Durgin, a middle-aged woman with a raspy voice and bright blond hair, life is looking finally looking up. For 12 years, she was an alcoholic and a heroin addict, living outside Boston in Lynn. She couldn't hold a job. When she lost her apartment eight months ago, she hit bottom. "I was sick and tired of living that life," she says. "It was to the point where I didn't want to live no more."

At Pine Street, she entered the Women in Transition program, determined to turn things around. She went to Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and worked with a counselor. She completed a 13-week food-service training program. But what really made a difference, Durgin says, was the three weeks she spent focusing on people skills, attitude, and responsibility in a national job-readiness program called Strive.

Now, Durgin measures each success as a milestone. She found a job at Dunkin' Donuts four days after finishing Strive. Her alarm goes off each morning at 3 a.m., in the transitional-housing room she has to herself. She's at work by 4. As assistant manager, she supervises nine others. She's rebuilding a severed relationship with her parents, who live in nearby Braintree. She has opened a bank account - her first in seven years - and is saving money for her own apartment, which she expects to secure within a month. "These are very simple things," she tells her graduation audience. "What a great personal achievement for me to be able to do the simple things in life, like get out of bed and go to work each day."

Bob Heard, who runs the Strive classes for Pine Street, is an imposing man. A former convict and drug addict himself, he can relate to many of the individuals whom he works with. But one of his key tasks, he says, is to get people "to see they're not entitled, that they're not the only ones behind the eight ball." Many have been living with a chip on their shoulder. On his first day of class, Mr. Heard instructs them to stand up and talk about themselves. Horror stories spill out, but they lose some of their drama when followed by others.

"They begin to see that when we meet people within this culture that we don't know, we don't meet strangers - we meet people just like ourselves," explains Heard. In class, he's a taskmaster, demanding punctuality, a workplace-like dress code, and 100 percent participation. But he's fiercely proud of his graduates and recognizes their struggles.

It's difficult to measure the program's long-term success, since most graduates tend to fall out of touch with Pine Street. But Heard says about 50 percent of recent graduates have jobs.

JUST before graduation, Durgin hit another milestone. Knowing she was going to give her speech, and worried that her employers might read about it in a newspaper or see it on TV, she admitted to them that she was a recovering addict living at Pine Street. She was terrified that they might fire her. Instead, "they were so good to me. The headquarters sent me flowers. They said we're so proud of you, look what you're doing." She's now aiming to manage her own Dunkin' Donuts store.

"Now that I've lived the life I'm living now," she adds, "I wouldn't give this up for nothing."

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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