He needed hope. A native of some of the mean streets in North Philadelphia, Ben bore scars from a long battle with homelessness and addiction. From his early days, he fell into what he described as the more seedy parts of the neighborhood. His living situation had been precarious since he left home at only fourteen, when he began staying with friends and relatives until he became homeless. He lived in abandoned houses and panhandled outside of a deli at 23rd and Ridge Avenue.
He had spent his first night in a shelter in 1988 – with living conditions that he only considered acceptable in comparison to the time he had spent in prison. At a point of deep personal desperation, Ben decided to try Project HOME’s St. Elizabeth Recovery Residence. There, he began what he describes as a long road to recovery, where he would grow to establish a meaningful relationship with Project HOME An important turning point for Ben was his participation in a creative writing class with Leslie Fredericks, a former staff member coordinating Project HOME’s education programs.
Since he was naturally outspoken and assertive, writing poetry came naturally to him. Two of Ben’s works, “Fred is Dead,” and another untitled, appeared in Project HOME’s Home at Ten, a publication celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the organization. On several occasions he performed artistically, reading his poetry at potlatches and talent shows. Involvement in the creative writing class eventually led Ben to his true passion: political advocacy.
Leslie Fredericks introduced Ben to Jennine Miller, the Associate Director of Education and Advocacy. He soon became active in voter education and registration even before the advent of the now prolific Vote for Homes Coalition. He believes that advocacy work was what truly began to spark his successful recovery, remarking that it allowed him to feel important and empowered.
As he puts it, it came down to the fact that “I liked advocacy more than I liked getting high.”
Ben has a great deal to say about his road to recovery, mainly classifying it as long and slow. “If I had only been in a 12-step program, I never would have made it.”
The most important aspect of Project HOME’s philosophy, he believes, is their insistence on inclusion. Even after a few relapses since his entrance into the community, he cherishes that Project HOME has welcomed him back without question. “Addiction programs talk about changing people, places, and things. Project HOME helped me surround myself with positive people, places, and things.”
Since getting involved with advocacy, Ben has logged nearly 3,000 hours of volunteer work at both Project HOME and New Pathways, where he is currently employed as an outreach worker. He attributes his current passion for outreach work to his initial advocacy work with Project HOME: “I found out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I refused to wash dishes or clean toilets because I knew I was capable of doing more than that.”
What attracted Ben to advocacy and volunteering at Project H.O.M.E. was the sense that he had a say in what happened. It was also an important reason he pursued training to become a Certified Peer Specialist, which enables him to work with others in recovery with mental health diagnoses. “I could express myself to people who understood me.”
At one point, Ben attempted to go to college, but his clinical depression proved an obstacle. He enjoyed class and often did well (in his last full semester, he got all As), but some days he found it impossible to get out of bed. Eventually, Ben realized that the school of life experience would bring him more education than he felt he could gain in a traditional classroom environment. His breadth of knowledge about advocacy and empowerment comes from a long list of trainings provided by both Project HOME and other organizations in the city of Philadelphia.
Ben proves one shining example as to how the Project HOME model benefits everyone involved: our residents become empowered, and our community becomes increasingly enriched and diverse.
Having just turned 54, what’s ahead for Benjamin Mitchell?
“Well,” he jokes, “I’m too old to be climbing in and out of windows anymore!” His current plans are to do outreach and advocacy work as long as he possibly can. He enjoys the full-circled nature of being able to work and volunteer at the programs he attended because he feels it allows him to connect with others on a deeper level. Reflecting on his life – where he’s come from, where’s he heading – Ben cites words from the New Testament, quoting Philippians 3:13: “I don’t consider myself arrived, but I press on."