Al Freeman lives in a first floor apartment on Lake Avenue.
It is small, but comfortable, furnished with hand-me-downs from Sanctuary Village volunteers. The balcony out back overlooks a small patch of green grass and a few trees. It’s like living next to a park, he says.
He likes to sit on the balcony with a cigar and watch the squirrels play. He has gotten to know them. He has even given them names.
This is his home now. It is a quiet, safe resting place in a life that has taken violent twists and turns for the past three decades—from solid jobs at companies like Kodak to addiction, armed robberies, years in prison, countless rehabs and too many nights sleeping on the streets, struggling to survive.
The turning point came eight months ago when he walked through deep snow to find Sanctuary Village, the temporary shelter the House of Mercy operated downtown during the brutal winter of 2015.
This is the story…
A promising life gets derailed.
Al Freeman grew up in a middle-class black family. After the civil rights movement opened doors to corporate employment for African-Americans in Rochester, his parents landed good-paying jobs at Kodak.
After graduating from Franklin High School, Al got a job with an industrial manufacturing company. Then he was hired at Kodak where he learned the skills needed for injection molding. But three months into the job at Kodak, his three-month-old son died of SIDS.
“That devastated me,” he says. “That’s when things began to tilt a little bit.”
His relationship broke up. There were other problems in his family. And that led him to look for an escape route. Before long he had a full-blown $1,000-dollar-a-week habit.
His salary wasn’t enough to cover it. So he worked days, and committed robberies at night. His mother hated what he was doing and worried that he would be hunted down and killed. So she finally convinced him to turn himself in to the police.
“I always showed respect to my mother,” he says.
He served a total of 12 years in eight different prisons. On three occasions, he was sent back to jail for using, a violation of his parole.
He went through a series of rehabs. But the problems continued. And he found himself living on the streets of Rochester with occasional stays in local shelters.
He soon discovered the irony to shelter life. “When your time’s up, they can throw you out in a blizzard,” he says.
If you’re homeless and suffering from addiction, any kind of stress can break down your best intentions. So guess what happens when you lose the roof over your head. All of a sudden you’re outside, on your own, broke, with maybe a backpack and a few items to call your own. And the snow is coming down…
Finding the one place that never closes its doors on people in need.
One day, out of desperation, Al turned to the one shelter he had never tried: The House of Mercy.
“I told them I had nowhere else to go. It was totally different there. They don’t give you a date when you have to leave.”
He stayed at the House for three months, saved his SSI money, and got a room in a rooming house. But rooming houses come with their own perils. You run into people who are using every day.
“I tried be strong,” he said. But when he fell behind on his rent, he was back on the streets, this time too embarrassed by his latest relapse to return to the one place that had accepted him without limitation.
This was the lowest point in a very hard life. “The only reason I didn’t take my life was I’m a Christian,” he says.
A life-changing moment
After that, he slept on the streets or stayed in other shelters. For a brief while, he had a room in the Cadillac Hotel. But when his money ran out, he had to leave.
It was February, 2015, in the middle of one of Rochester’s worst winters. But Al had heard about a temporary shelter called Sanctuary Village that was managed by The House of Mercy.
He hiked through deep snow with his backpack trying to find the location. “I was praying I could get in.”
The minute he walked through the door, Al Freeman was welcomed. And he quickly earned the respect of staff and the other residents with his easy-going personality, straight talk, and generosity, sharing what little he had with other residents.
“I don’t put value on material things. I put value on human beings,” he says.
One day he was asked to help out with security. Then he became a night supervisor. He also connected with the many people offering assistance and support services at Sanctuary Village.
He also became close with Maurice Cooper from The House of Mercy. As time passed, Maurice became his personal guardian, helping him manage his money, providing structure and support, taking him shopping for food, and making sure he paid his rent on time.
“He’s become my best friend, and he does it from his heart,” Al says. “He shows me a lot of love. He stands by me and he stays firm with me. I need that. It works for me. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
With help, Al found the apartment on Lake Avenue. The House of Mercy moved him in. Volunteers provided his furniture.
“A lot of people showed me love,” he says. “I feel blessed for that.”
He also began saving money. At press time, he had $600 put away for the future.
“It’s been thirty years since I had that much in the bank.”
Writing the next chapter in the Al Freeman story.
Al pauses for a moment to look out on that patch of green grass below his balcony. It’s a rare break in a conversation that could go on forever. But there is one question that slows him down.
“Do you feel like you’ve put everything behind you? Do you feel like you’re in a safe, stable place now?”
He drops his eyes for just a moment. His voice softens. When you’ve struggled with homelessness and addiction for 30 years, can you ever say you’re free of it all?
The he tells you about life on the streets. He’s seen women he cared about degrade themselves because of their addiction. And he talks about how you almost get addicted to the constant chaos and drama, because that’s the world you live in. That addiction to chaos is one of the reasons why people keep screwing up.
At times, Al can stun you with his insights into the human heart.
But sitting outside on a beautiful September day, Al Freeman quickly recaptures his confidence and spirit. And he thinks he’s ready to move beyond the chaos into a more peaceful and secure way of life.
“I don’t want to screw up what I have or disappoint the people at The House of Mercy for all the world after all they’ve done for me,” he says.
“I’m a man again. My mind’s together. I have that gusto for life now. My head is up. And I’m now in a place where I can reach out and help someone else. I’m basically hanging in there, but I feel good where I’m at.”
When The House of Mercy moves to its new home on Ormond Street later next year, you might find Al Freeman there, welcoming new residents, helping out with security, and sharing his understanding of what it takes to break free from a life of addiction and homelessness.
He hopes something like that will work out.
Wouldn’t that be a great chapter to add to the Al Freeman story?