MANCHESTER, NH – Four years ago Lenny Constant was wading through the darkest time of his life.
“I became homeless at 43 after raising two children, keeping a roof over their heads, feeding them and putting clothes on their backs,” says Constant.
He would be the first to agree that the story of how he turned his life around is inspirational – more than inspirational, even.
“It’s almost surreal,” he says, as he prepares to tell his story again, this time, to a gathering of local business leaders – and coworkers – during a Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce lunch event Tuesday at the Hilton Garden Inn, where Constant works full time in maintenance.
He confesses he’s a little nervous about this particular gig. “Not many people here know my story,” he says.
Disability and job loss = no safety net
It was February 3, 2013, the depths of a harsh winter was bearing down on the city, as back-to-back blizzards were about to dump several more feet of snow across the region. Constant, a native of New Hampshire, had moved to Manchester from the Tilton area to stay with a family member after a COPD and emphysema diagnosis made it hard for him to work, leading to financial issues.
Lenny became a statistic when his relative decided to move “and not include me,” says Constant, leaving Constant without a safety net.
“I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been in a situation like that before. I ended up at New Horizons asking for a place to sleep. I stayed there throughout my homelessness. It was a rather short stint, all things considered,” says Constant.
He says what really motivated him to get his life back on track was something a counselor said to him during a session at the Manchester Community Resource Center.
“He said to me that he sees a change in people after about six months of being homeless. He can see it in their eyes, that they’ve just given up, and they’ve just accepted that’s how it’s going to be. I said nope, not me. I gave myself 90 days to be out of that situation, and I actually got out in 60,” says Constant.
He got out but he stayed connected, returning to the soup kitchen every fourth Tuesday to serve dinner to residents with a group of fellow New Horizons alumni. He was enrolled in the psychology program at Mount Washington College, and was looking at ways to build a better foundation for his life going forward. It was during one of those Tuesday dinners at the shelter that the program director pulled him aside and told him about a new program that might be of interest to him.
Granite Leaders program was a lifeline
“He gave me a flier for the inaugural Granite Leaders program and I took the flier home. A couple days later I read it again, and sent an email saying that I was interested. I got called in for the interview and got accepted, and looking back now, it was one of the best things I ever did for myself,” Constant says. “It showed me I wasn’t the only guy who was homeless for reasons other than drugs or alcohol. There are many people out there like me. And secondly, it showed me all the resources that were available, and how to try and attain them. It was a real confidence builder for me because they were all so supportive – not only the trainers, but the other members in that class were all doing good things.”
Constant credits the Granite Leaders program for boosting his confidence at a time he needed it most – even though he was making good grades at school, deep down he doubted his capacity to see it through, especially at his age and with his particular challenges. But he managed to graduate with an associate’s degree in psychology before Mount Washington College closed its doors in May of 2016.
Setting specific goals during that time is what helped him focus.
“One of my goals was, not so much trying to change people’s minds about their outlook on homeless people, but if I could convince a few people to have a more open mind and show a little empathy, maybe I could make a difference. Not everybody knows everybody’s story. To point a finger at somebody and say you’re doing this because you’re lazy or you want to get drunk – you don’t know that,” says Constant.
The other goal Constant developed through Granite Leaders was to do his part to make sure nobody else ever had to walk in his shoes.
“I didn’t want to see anybody else become homeless and struggle like I did, just to find out where I could sleep in the middle of a blizzard,” he says.
As vice president of the board for the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness Constant continues to advocate for the homeless and the real need for meaningful services, outreach and compassion. It can be a hard sell in this city – given the rise in addiction due to the opioid crisis, city officials have mounted a campaign to discourage panhandling. They’ve recently erected street signs urging those who might be inclined to give money to someone claiming homelessness and hunger to instead donate to a local charity.
Constant gets that.
Although he says he never resorted to begging for food or money while homeless, he has compassion and follows a specific protocol when someone asks him for a hand out.
“I’ve been approached by panhandlers right on my own doorstep going into my own house. I never give money,” Constant says. “I’m not willing to take that chance that I’m perpetuating someone’s drug cycle or alcoholism. But what I will do is say if you are hungry, let’s go down to Subway and I’ll buy you a sandwich. If they accept that, we’ll go do it. If not I say, well, there’s nothing I can do for you,” Constant says. “So I do have an opinion about it. But I think some people’s opinions are way too strong on it. I’m kind of a little bit biased because I’ve been there. But while I was homeless I never did that. I didn’t ask anyone for anything. I walked around and looked for a job every day.”
The stigma of homelessness
He pauses there to reflect on that particular challenge, and the stigma and discrimination he experienced while trying to work his way back from being homeless.
“Being at New Horizons wasn’t a great experience. It’s not supposed to be a great experience. You’re not supposed to get comfortable. I was thankful to be able to have a place to sleep, shower and have food. I barely had any clothes when I got there, and they gave me socks and underwear and pants, and a winter jacket, which I didn’t have. They do what they can and will feed anyone in the city, seven days a week,” says Constant.
“But finding work was hard. I had many doors closed in my face. I went into one prominent restaurant for a job washing dishes, a job I was overqualified for. But I went in carrying my backpack and I think they judged me because of it. They told me the job was already filled – even though I saw they kept advertising the job after that,” Constant says.
He has also been stopped by police officers, more than once, for backpack searches. He says people in our city are judged for the appearance of homelessness, whether it is by potential employers, the public, or even police.
And even after leaving the shelter for his first apartment, Constant wasn’t out of the woods. He couldn’t sustain the $850 rent on his $872 Social Security Disability check, and lost that apartment. But he adjusted himself again, and landed a part-time job at Mount Washington College 20 hours a week while he was a student, which supplemented his SSI. After a year of that, he landed a full-time maintenance position at the college. A few months before that, he took on a second full-time job at the Hilton, working both jobs full time until the college folded last spring.
In the process, he worked his way off SSI, realizing that his diagnosis was not a death sentence, and that he was still healthy enough to work – it helped him physically that he dropped 80 pounds in the process, and the psychological burden he carried from living on the edge had also been relieved.
He may go back to school someday and try to leverage his associate’s degree into a career where he can counsel troubled teens, or get into organizational psychology. But for right now, he’s in a good place in his life.
“Working for this company is like working with family,” he says.
Pushing forward, through good times and bad
Every good adventure story needs a romance, and Constant has that as well – he got married last year, and just celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary.
“It’s my first marriage, someone I knew from years ago. We dated for a while and then went our separate ways, but then reconnected at a friend’s house and have been together ever since,” he says, adding that he’s enjoying the role of step-dad to two teenagers.
And this is why he’s more than happy to sit on panels at forums, or take on public speaking engagements to tell his story. It’s a good one.
At Tuesday’s Chamber gathering, Sharon Nista, director of sales for the Hilton, relayed how it was through happenstance – and Constant – that the Hilton was making a corporate donation of $2,000 to the NH Coalition to End Homelessness.
Each year the company looks for a local organization to support. This year they were looking for suggestions and brought the staff in on the discussion. That’s when Constant suggested the NH Coalition to End Homelessness, and shared his personal story – from homeless, jobless and hopeless, to college graduate, happily married, working at a job he loves, while volunteering as an advocate for the homeless.
His story doesn’t end there, and he’s the first to admit that nothing is perfect. Constant says even though he and his wife both work full time, they are just a few paychecks away from financial disaster, something that hit home just two weeks ago, when his own children from a previous relationship were involved in a serious rollover car accident on I-293.
“I’m lucky I work here with and for the people I do. I rushed out of here that day, said I gotta go, my kids are in the hospital, and it ended up being five days I was out of work. That could have been the one paycheck I missed that put me back on the street, but instead, I was able to use vacation time,” Constant says.
His son and daughter are recuperating from the accident, and he’s thankful they are alive. He feels blessed that he is able to tell his story in a city where he knows there are programs and services that can turn a life around.
But he also knows, first hand, that the struggle is real.
“Life is a struggle. There are still hard times but I just push forward. I have a ‘never give up, don’t quit’ attitude,” he says. “It’s a struggle you have to try to win because if you don’t, you’re going to lose and I don’t like to lose.”