By Alexa Epitropoulos | email@example.com
Photo by Sarah Williamson
Levi Drouillard appears young and unworn in comparison to the men he smokes cigarettes with under the makeshift patio towards the back of the St. Francis House.
Outfitted in a baseball cap and a black tank top that reveals his tattooed forearm, Drouillard would blend in better on a college campus. Drouillard, who celebrated his 24th birthday in September, is homeless.
Six weeks ago, he was in Flagler County jail. Although he had been arrested nine times in the past and served brief sentences, Drouillard says that being in jail for four months, especially as a young man, motivated him to ask for help.
His relationship with his parents, sister and brother fractured over time due to problems related to substance abuse. At the age of 22, Drouillard was fending for himself—sleeping where he could and living off what work he could find.
“I was on the streets for a couple months, trying to survive, trying to find ways to make money here and there, legally or illegally,” Drouillard said.
Drouillard describes himself as a loner during that time—it’s a habit he has carried with him into the St. Francis House. Although he has made some friends, he is afraid of the influence past relationships have had on his behavior.
“I have a few of the boys who are my age or maybe a little bit younger that stay here with me that I talk to, but for the most part I stay to myself,” Drouillard said. “Honestly, I try to keep it that way because I’m not going to be strong enough, if those people party, to say no.”
Drouillard is not the only one. His struggles embody the trials of a larger homeless population in their late teens and twenties. They are, largely, invisible, buried beneath the images of panhandlers with signs and tin cans that homelessness brings to mind.
More than 23 percent of homeless are between 18 and 29 years old, according to a 2011 Homelessness Resource Center study. That, however, only accounts for those on the radar.
Drouillard is one of the few individuals that are young and homeless that step forward to seek help, according to Chris Papadopoulos, a case worker at the St. Francis House.
Papadopoulos says that Drouillard’s case is far from ordinary. While men and women in their early 20′s do come to the St. Francis House to eat lunch on occasion, they rarely come to stay or find a permanent solution.
“Some of the young people may have come from jail and they get a boot camp in what reality is—the kind of reality our parents and grandparents shook our fingers at us and told us about,” Papadopoulos said. “The young people who do come here get a glimpse as to what the end to that lifestyle is.”
Struggling with the Past
For Drouillard, the problems started in middle school, when he began to throw tantrums in class and start arguments with teachers. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADD at a young age. He began to drink and abuse drugs by the time he was in 7th grade.
In the beginning, he drank to fit in. Soon, the problem was more serious. By the time he reached high school, his drinking had moved beyond weekends and social events.
“It was a really big problem. Even though I started in middle school, I only did it to fit in and be cool,” Drouillard explained. “In high school, I would have days where I would go on random, angry outbursts if I couldn’t get a beer or smoke a joint.”
By the time Drouillard reached the beginning of 11th grade, he was thrown out of school for his disciplinary record.
Drouillard lived with his father in Flagler Beach and moved from job to job in the years to come. When he was fired from a restaurant he had been working at for a year, he began to lie about being employed.
“I was lying to my dad for a week, saying I was going to work when I wasn’t. One day he caught me,” Drouillard said. “I was coming in late. I was always drinking. At the time, I was stealing money from him to drink, to hang out with the people I partied with.”
When Drouillard’s father told him he couldn’t live with him anymore, the friends that he thought would support him evaporated quickly. Drouillard was suddenly alone, obliged to sleep under “under bridges, benches and anywhere I could get comfortable and pass out”.
While some strangers offered Drouillard help, many were simply confused about how someone like him could be homeless.
“I don’t think they had pity towards me. It was more along the lines of ‘what are you doing out here? Why don’t you have anybody? You should be young and up-and-coming and doing something’,” Drouillard said.
Conditions were so bad that, at times, Drouillard considered going to jail better than living on the street.
“After a period of time, I got to the point where I was like jail can’t be worse than this,” Drouillard said. “You have a place to eat and sleep and take a shower.”
That was when a detective with the Flagler County Police Department referred him to the St. Francis House. It was something Drouillard didn’t know was an option at the time.
Drouillard traveled to St. Augustine on a bike, with a MapQuest printout that the detective had given him as his only guide. It was that three-hour bike ride that finally led to getting off the street for good.
Jonathan Ellis, a 27-year-old from Detroit, was in a similar predicament two months ago. It was Drouillard who found him in the woods and told him about the St. Francis House.
At the time, Ellis only had $20 to his name. He used what remained to get as close as he could to St. Augustine.
Ellis has traveled from state to state and experienced periods of being out on the street since he graduated high school at the age of 17. He has also been in several different homeless shelters.
“I got involved in substances at a young age, so it was kind of a trickle effect until now,” Ellis explained.
His struggles with substance abuse have endured over the course a decade, which contributed to being relegated to life on the street. He has experienced periods of sobriety, but it has never lasted.
“I would do well and then I would self-sabotage,” Ellis said.
Ellis has now been sober for almost six weeks. He is currently in the process of applying to Flagler College, where he intends to major in sociology. His experiences in life have led to a desire to understand homelessness on a deeper level.
“You have a house filled with people from the north, south, from the hood, from wealth, and we all are here,” Ellis said. “I want them to know that you don’t have to be 27, 37, 47, 67 before you can change your life.”
A New Start
Drouillard is back in school and working towards his GED at First Coast Technical College through “Fresh Starts”, a four-week program that helps homeless individuals become certified in culinary arts.
He spends most days in class or studying at the library. His goals are not to just get through the program, but to thrive on all levels.
“I don’t want to get by with the bare minimum. I want to go above and beyond. I want to get really, really high scores,” Drouillard said.
Drouillard’s time at the St. Francis House has given him stability and hope for the future.
“They helped me a lot. Living here teaches you morals —responsibility and how to carry yourself and be an overall productive citizen,” Drouillard said. “It’s not about just getting a job and paying your rent.”
Drouillard now attends AA and NA meetings and has made connections that have helped him stay sober.
He is also working on rebuilding relationships with his family, including his mother, who lives in Tennessee and recently graduated from a rehab center herself. They keep in contact through bi-weekly phone calls, texts and Facebook. Drouillard’s family might even visit for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
After graduating from “Fresh Starts”, Drouillard plans to further his education in culinary arts. His dream is to eventually open a restaurant of his own.
“I can’t wait to get my degree,” Drouillard said. “I can’t wait to be able to say, for once, I actually went through something in my life and completed it.”