Well-spoken, affable and single, 32-year-old Meichell Dale has three children under age 10. She works about 20 hours a week at a Blimpie sandwich shop, where she earns minimum wage, taking home $400 to $450 per month. She has two felony convictions for methamphetamine possession and forging stolen checks, and she lives at the Boise Rescue Mission's City Light Home for Women and Children in Downtown Boise.
"With three kids, it's hard," says Dale, fighting back tears. "I have three very difficult children that I've put through hell, and I don't make enough yet to even pay rent. It's a lot of stress. But at the same time, its kind of exciting to know that I'm doing it."
Doing it, for Dale, means staying drug-free, climbing her way back into "the real world," and working toward the day when she can move out of City Light. It's been a long journey from addiction, domestic violence at the hands of a former boyfriend, drug court, jail and a court-ordered residency at the shelter.
Boise Rescue Mission Ministries is a church known for its food, clothing and shelter programs. Its River of Life men's shelter, also Downtown, and City Light served more than 342,000 free meals in 2012 and provided beds for 124,000 overnight stays. Its shelters in Ada and Canyon counties are the biggest providers of shelter to the homeless in Idaho.
For women like Dale, the mission is a place of safety, an alternative to jail and a step up from rock bottom. She credits the mission's New Life recovery program, including its work-search component, and the mission's staff for offering her a plan and hope.
WORK SEARCH, NOT JOB PLACEMENT
The work-search program is a highly structured, multiweek program tailored to the individual. It teaches basic skills through on-the-job training at the shelters, including kitchen, custodial and front-desk work, and basic office skills.
At the shelters' learning centers, mentors teach computer skills and help participants practice online job searches, prepare resumes and write cover letters. One-on-one sessions help job seekers prepare for upcoming interviews. The training includes how to handle tough and often embarrassing questions that may require applicants to disclose histories of drug abuse, felony convictions and homelessness.
The shelters also provide job-hunting attire. For men, that means donated sport jackets, slacks, shoes and dress shirts when needed.
River of Life also provides participants with a path to leave the clean but crowded barracks-style "A" dorm, where most men sleep until 5:45 a.m. If a man secures full-time work, he can move upstairs to one of 16 rooms shared with a single roommate.
"Men typically start in the 'A dorm,' and they stay there until they get a job or Social Security disability benefits, a regular income," says Steven Schmall, River of Life guest services manager. "Moving upstairs is an incentive for men to get a full-time job rather than just day jobs or the occasional odd job, which is really just temp work. While those jobs are handy for spending cash, it's not a way to survive."
Women at the City Light shelter have similar options.
Schmall says a person in the work-search program is assigned a case manager. "The case manager serves as a source of motivation during the work search process, while also holding the participant accountable to the requirements of the program."
Participants must sign an accountability and performance agreement to receive training, housing and counseling. They're required to sign up at the Idaho Department of Labor and attend one of its job-search workshops to learn about the local job market and improve their chances at landing an interview. Schmall says participants normally must apply for at least 20 viable jobs a week, online or in person.
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Jorge Montesino, 54, found a job while living at the shelter. A Pennsylvania native and a veteran, Montesino has an associate degree in communications.
He says he found himself unemployed about 18 months ago after being laid off from his mechanical technician job at Micron Technology Inc. in Boise. He found a job at a local call center but "burned out" and left that job last July. Unable to find another, he spent much of his savings and soon found himself homeless.
"One of my friends then told me about the Boise Rescue Mission, where they help people that are down and out," he says. He showed up the day before Christmas in 10-degree weather.
"Never ever in my wildest dreams did I think that I would end up in a homeless shelter," he says. "No felonies. Just a couple misdemeanors here and there. No drug issues at all."
Three months later, he praises the River of Life shelter. "Luckily, the Rescue Mission is here. I didn't have to sleep a day outside."
Few friends and family members knew of Montesino's fall. "You get to a point where you don't want to let anybody know that you're homeless," he says. "You try to keep it to yourself and not worry your family. I told my adult children just a couple weeks ago."
He said he got lucky quickly, because the day after Christmas he went with a friend to Western Building Maintenance, a janitorial service, to pick up the friend's paycheck. "And they were hiring," he says. It was a part-time janitorial job.
For Kerri Thibodeau, Western Building Maintenance's human resources manager, hiring Montesino had little to do with his plight or his residency at the River of Life. "I didn't even know at the time that the mission had a work program," she says. "I had never spoken to them."
Thibodeau says her experience with Montesino has been positive, and she has since hired other mission residents.
Schmall says the mission aims to move people out of the upstairs rooms within three months.
"If they can save a minimum of $400 per month or more, then they can have one of those rooms," he says. "As part of the savings-plan agreement, the money is held by the mission. Once the individual reaches the $1,200 to $1,500 savings goal, they're expected to find independent housing." The mission turns over the money when the resident moves out.
The mission provides no additional financial help. Handing out money "is not giving a hand up, that's giving a handout, and that's the opposite of our goal," Schmall says.
But the mission does help with vouchers for free donated furniture and housewares.
EVERYBODY HAS A PAST
For Meichell Dale, the single mother, the transition from bad past to hopeful future has taken two years. She's had her own room with her children, because she went into the City Light New Life Recovery program for people with addictions.
"You do a bunch of work and slowly earn your freedom back to be out in the real world," Dale says. "For the first little while, you're on lockdown you don't go anywhere. No phone calls, no nothing. Mine lasted 60 days. I didn't leave the place unless I had to go to court and (had to) have a staff member with me at all times. It was hard, to a point, but it was kind of a relief, too. I knew I was at least with my children."
She went through work-search training similar to Montesino's. In January, she started looking for work.
"The program has given me the courage to face people, talk to people and do the interviews," Dale says. "Before, that's what stopped me from getting a job, because I would get so nervous that I just wouldn't do it.
"It's because of my past. You have to disclose all of that. It has to be common knowledge my past, my record, my drug use. And before the mission, I didn't want anybody to know. Now I've gotten over that and I've gotten to the fact that everybody has a past."
With a fragile smile and a chuckle, Dale adds, "Mine might be a little more colorful than others, but everyone's got one."
Her work search produced no good news at first. "I was turned down at several interviews because of my felonies. It's not discussed, but you just know they're not going to hire you.
"Yes, I did those things, but that's not who I am. Those convictions are years old, and I haven't been in trouble for years. I have turned my life around, and I'm confident that I can stand up and say that. A couple years ago, I wasn't so confident."
Then Dale got a break. In January she went back to a former employer, Steve Harding, who owns three Blimpie sandwich shops in Boise. She worked for him briefly before moving into the mission.
"I was surprised, because she left under not-so-great circumstances with her personal issues," Harding says. "She said she needed a job again, that she was ready to work and her life was in a better place where she would be a good fit, long-term, for a position at Blimpie."
Harding gave careful thought to rehiring Dale.
He says she had been a good worker before, but "you're always cautious about those personal issues interfering with work, because you want to hire responsible citizens and those who will stay with you a long time. When she came back, she seemed to have everything in order to make it work again."
Harding had hired a few other women from City Light before.
"I do feel these are people who really need a leg up and a chance to prove themselves," he says. "I think Meichell is in a position where she has shown responsibility in her recent decisions. It has worked out."
With determination in her voice, Dale notes, "It's important to move on. Your past is your past, no matter what. It doesn't go away, and it isn't going to change. But you can change your future."
Lennon S. Reid: firstname.lastname@example.org