- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Chris Dowdell walked into a women’s homeless shelter at age 15 and refused a lot: affection, responsibility, acceptance.

He was angry, embarrassed, and it mattered to him what other people thought. Walking into Friendship Mission North with his mother, who for years battled drugs, alcoholism and homelessness, was walking into something devastating and upsetting.

But there was no other choice: It was the shelter, or another car.

“I get in there, and a man who worked there greeted me,” said Dowdell, who was set to start his junior year at Robert E. Lee High School. “And I just looked at him, and thought, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to look at you.’ I’m angry at the world.”

He stands just inside the front doors, and Tammy Middleton, the Friendship Mission’s executive director who oversees the women’s shelter on Chisholm Street and also the men’s shelter on Mobile Highway, asks how he is doing. And asks for a hug.

“I don’t hug people,” Dowdell told her.

Middleton responded, “You’re going to hug me one day.”

She had 19 months - the amount of time Chris and his mother, Sophia Dowdell, stayed there - to make that happen.

Friendship Mission is the largest homeless shelter in the River Region with 37 men housed at the men’s shelter - Friendship Mission West - on Mobile Highway, and 45 women and children at the shelter on Chisholm Street. Between 10,000 and 12,000 meals are served every month between the two locations. Twice a day, every day, anyone who is hungry and needs a hot meal can walk through the Mobile Highway doors and eat at its soup kitchen.

Dowdell would not tell anyone where he lived. When his school bus dropped him off near the shelter, some days he would just walk past the building and not stop, especially if other students were walking near him or with him.

While he laughs about it now, his mother would see him through a window and think, “Where’s he going?”

Her son responds: “I used to tell people that this was my mom’s job at the shelter. She didn’t work there then, but I told the lie so much it became true.”

Sophia and Chris Dowdell moved to the shelter in July 2013. They had been living in lodging financed by a church, and when the money ran out, they had nowhere to go, and Middleton offered them a room. After Sophia Dowdell finished her master’s degree in professional counseling from South University - while living in the shelter - she was offered a job as a case manager at the men’s shelter.

“I remember when she told me we were moving into the shelter, and I remember telling her, ‘I can get a job, I can do something … cut grass, do something,’ because I did not want to be in there,” he said.

Asked what the first few months in the shelter were like for him, he answered, “Hell, I would think that would be any youth’s mindset. I remember (those months). I counted by the day.”

“He did not want to go,” Sophia Dowdell said of her son. “He got into the tub and sat and cried. And cried. There wasn’t a choice. It was the devastation for him that was the most upsetting in the moving to the shelter. Me, I felt I could handle it. It was another stepping stone to get to where I needed to get.

“But for him, it was devastating. He was embarrassed. Maybe a little horrified, terrified.”

And the entire time he attended Lee, he only told one person where he lived.

Chris Dowdell’s grades were below average when he moved into his room on Chisholm Street.

“Let’s start by saying school was not hard by any measure,” he said. “School started boring me around middle school. If the work is not going to attract my attention, I’m just going to likely not do it.”

But the grades were low. And before he and his mother moved into the shelter, she went to school with Chris Dowdell for three days “to let him know I would go to school with him if he did not do his work. I told him, ‘This is on you, because I have to do what I need to do to finish my degree.’

“That didn’t work. His grades were low.”

So she held to her promise, and showed back up to his school his junior year and met with him in a separate room and, “I picked him up in the air because I was angry.”

Chris Dowdell laughs: “She loves telling this story. She didn’t pick me up.”

“I lifted you,” she responded. “I let him know I was not playing with him, that he was going to get his education. That he was going to walk across that stage if it killed me.”

To see it through, she attended school with him for 23 days. She sat in every class of his, and by the time finals approached his junior year, his grades were pulled up.

“I was not playing about school,” she said.

Her son did not let people know she was his mother. Students, he said, thought she was “someone from the school board, and I let it slide. Then they started putting two and two together.”

During his senior year, he doubled the workload and took one class during the summer and graduated in 2015.

“Most people my age don’t live to see my age,” Chris Dowdell said. “I don’t want to say it, but I have to say it. Most black people don’t live to see my age and do what I’m doing. Graduating high school and getting a job. Most would let their past hinder them. Instead, I chose to see it as something that could push me forward.”

Asked how he managed it, he answered, “Because of my mom.”

Since March, Dowdell has worked at the Friendship Mission Thrift Store, which opened in July on East South Boulevard in an effort to offset the rising cost of the women’s shelter budget.

“I walked into the place, and it was empty,” he said. “Everything that is in the store, I’ve had my hands on about 99 percent of it. My official job title is loader/sorter.”

It is his start. He wants to go to college to study computer science, and is looking at Auburn University Montgomery.

“The goal is to save enough money, and I get a new vehicle, and he gets mine,” Sophia Dowdell said. “We’re doing things to get prepared for that.”

“Baby steps,” Chris Dowdell said.

The shelter - the place which three years ago brought such anger and hurt - helped Dowdell grow. He did eventually hug Middleton, today saying there is nothing but praise for her and the shelter and “for everything they’ve done.

“I learned a lot of things about life,” he said. “Sitting there and actually seeing that life is not easy. That life can hit you at any time. Anything can happen to you at any time. And all you have to do is sit there and endure through it and you can make it through.

“If you give up, then you give up. But you can always fight through something.”


Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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