There is no symbol more reflective of the end of homelessness than a set of keys.
As Manager of the Client Advocacy Project (CAP) at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, I had the privilege of leading a team that helped put keys in the hands of over 100 homeless men and women. These single adults, either street homeless or languishing in the city’s municipal shelter system, lived with a range of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. With a housing stock that to this day is grossly inadequate, this was no small accomplishment, and I am extremely proud of the team of dedicated individuals who made this possible.
The primary goals of the CAP were to secure federal disability benefits for those who, with appropriate advocacy, were eligible, and to leverage those benefits into a move to supportive, supported, transitional, or independent housing. The timelines involved were quite long—3 to 5 months for an initial application for benefits and two to four years to appeal the denial of benefits—sometimes longer. This being the case, in providing intensive case management for our clients we got to know them very well.
One such client, who I’ll call Mr. Franklin, came to the CAP through the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program. Five days a week, homeless single adults, couples, and families would line up to receive services, referrals, or advice at the Coalition’s office at 129 Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. Mr. Franklin, a lean muscular man of about 50, had been on the street for a few years and was living with schizoaffective disorder. He was tired of being on the street, but refused to enter the shelter system. “I’m safer on the street,” he told me. For some, I knew that was true. He also was suspicious of “the system” and unwilling to “jump through all the hoops” that were held up as a condition of shelter. Despite our willingness to advocate for him and the fact that a number of newly sheltered and formerly street homeless individuals were willing to vouch for our program, Mr. Franklin chose to do it his way and remain on the street—of course, we stuck with him every step of the way.
Through our advocacy and with the assistance of our partners at The Legal Aid Society, Mr. Franklin was awarded disability benefits 18 months after coming to the CAP for assistance. Three months later, together we were able to secure a studio apartment for him in the Bronx with on-site social services—what a victory!
Mr. Franklin, who rarely smiled and for whom eye contact could be quite difficult, absolutely beamed the day he walked into my office holding a set of keys. I sat back in my chair and smiled. “Well! What’ cha got there?” “Could you make me six copies of these?” Mr. Franklin requested. “Out the front door, make a left, across the street in the middle of the block.” “No no no…” Mr. Franklin replied. “I mean, on the copy machine.”
I was terribly curious where he was going with this. “Sure thing, Mr. Franklin.”
I placed Mr. Franklin’s keys in the center of the glass on the copy machine, fanning them into a semi-circle—three keys in all. Then I took the long cord they were attached to, which he wore around his neck, and circled the keys. Mr. Franklin took the six copies and sat down to write.
A few minutes later, he handed me a copy with a note of thanks. “You saved my life. I love my apartment. Thank you. Franklin B.” It brought tears to my eyes. Mr. Franklin took the other five copies he had personally inscribed and gave them to the five staffers who had helped him in various ways. We were all so excited and touched, we were like little kids!
I asked Mr. Franklin if he minded if I put the picture up on the wall in my office. I explained to him that if other clients saw it, it might inspire them to hang in there a little longer until they got their own keys. Mr. Franklin didn’t hesitate. “Go for it.” With Mr. Franklin looking on, I taped the picture of his keys right in the middle of the wall. We stood there for what seemed like the longest time, just staring, and smiling. I turned to Mr. Franklin and shook his hand.
“Congratulations, Mr. Franklin! You are formerly homeless!”
He smiled back then, for the first time, gave me a hug. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
From that day forward, every single client who came into my office looked at those keys up on the wall. Some of them just stopped and stared, taking it in. How profound, how potent a symbol to the end of homelessness. Several of the clients would tear up. A week later I was sitting with Ms. Carol, who had just gotten a room in a supportive housing residence in Queens. She leaned in, like she had a secret.
“Mr. Craig. Can I have a copy of my keys, too?” I smiled. “And uh… have you got room up on that wall for me?” “Ms. Carol, we always have room for you.”
I made the copy, which she signed, and let her choose her spot on the wall. She chose a spot directly below and a little to the right of Mr. Franklin’s. Ms. Carol couldn’t have been more proud!
This started a tradition in the Client Advocacy Project at Coalition for the Homeless. I can scarcely think of one other person who, when they got their keys, didn’t ask to sign a copy and choose a spot on what I dubbed the “Wall of Fame.” It was really a Wall of Freedom, though. Freedom from this affliction, this scourge, known as homelessness. From time to time, when someone was really hurting and needed a little inspiration, I’d write their name on a post-it and stick it to a spot on the Wall of Fame. “This is your spot,” I’d say. “This is where your keys will go. I’m not putting anyone else’s keys up there but yours.”
It worked—every time.