It’s been 18 years since James Ahlman slept on the floor of Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Center or on a cot at Mary Hall, but the memory of his time there is always close to mind.
“I think the experience makes me a better person, not just in my personal life but exponentially in my professional life,” he said.
James still has the shirt given to him at Joseph’s Coat in downtown Saint Paul. It’s too big for him now, but he wears it once in awhile to just remember and reflect. Same with the old plastic film canister he found discarded on the street. Then, he used it to collect coins he found on the sidewalks, now the canister of pennies is a token of his time on the streets.
“My experience at Catholic Charities is a part of who I am, absolutely,” he said.
Like most, James never imagined he would experience homelessness. He grew up in the eastern suburbs and would often drive by West Seventh St. in St. Paul and see the homeless on the street corner. He admits he would sometimes mock them, and sometimes felt sad to see people meet that fate.
“It never, ever dawned on me that I’d be one of those people on that corner outside,” he mused.
He began his adulthood working in bars and restaurants to pay the bills and at nonprofits to feed his soul. He was a functioning alcoholic going to school and living in student housing, until he was evicted because of his drinking and taken to the county detox center. From there, he found Catholic Charities.
“I had no place to live. I called and they said I had one bed if I could be there in 40 minutes I could have it,” he remembers. “It gave me food and shelter, to start with. I was kind of in shock. People there gave me a lot of support, they showed me how to get tokens and use the bus, told me when the leftover muffins would be there and they showed me where to go and not get in trouble. Everybody really took care of me.”
He remembers being told that if he ever couldn’t get into Dorothy Day Center to go to the hospital, to sleep under the big heating vents because they put out enough heat so he wouldn’t freeze to death. Being told where to sleep so he wouldn’t die was a punch in the gut.
“I thought, this isn’t good. I’m getting advice on how not to freeze to death. I had never thought of that,” he said.
One day James was one of two people to show up to an AA meeting at Dorothy Day Center, and it changed the course of his life.
“I think her name was Denise. She was super friendly and had a row of earrings going up her ear. She just point blank looked at me and said ‘What are you doing here?’,” he said.
She swiftly helped James get into treatment under Rule 25, a program which provides chemical dependency treatment for those who cannot afford it.
“Had she not done that, I don’t know when or if I would have made that step again,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those freaky ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ experiences when somebody does something for you. The right person. The right time. The universe just collided for me.
James has been sober ever since. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Metro State University and now works as a clinical director at Hazelden Betty Ford Addiction Treatment Center just north of the Twin Cities. He has dedicated his career to helping people just as he was helped 18 years ago and is pursuing his master’s degree.
“Now, when I see the guys on the corner holding the signs, it’s kind of surreal. I can’t go down West Seventh Street without thinking about the whole experience. I don’t want to forget—in a good way—I think it’s important for my recovery not to forget.”