Believe in thyself: Motivating homeless men

john tenuto 1Each year, about 40 percent of Americans are motivated to make New Year’s resolutions. They take advantage of their gym memberships, or decide this is the year they’re going to quit smoking for good.

Resolutions can mean a different thing altogether for residents of the Coalition’s Men’s Service Center (MSC). The men who reside there are often working to shed something that weighs much heavier on their self-worth: a past that involved living on the streets.

At the MSC, men are given tools to succeed, such as job skills training and resources to help find employment. And yet, even with the hope that comes from rebuilding an independent life, there is lingering self-doubt that results from the stigma of being homeless.

The motivation MSC residents need to turn their lives around doesn’t come easily. That’s where John Tenuto comes in. Every Sunday and Monday morning, John holds a session that offers just that: motivation.

During one recent class, John asks the men to change seats twice, explaining that he’s noticed they tend to sit in the same spots each time, in their comfort zones. But what happens, he asks the class, when you’re forced out of it? How close do you allow a stranger into your comfort zone? It all depends on how much you trust them, he points out, something to think about as they transition to a life outside the Coalition.

“In your job, in your relationships with your friends, you have to build that trust, because you lived here or in the woods,” John said. “You’ve got to be able to build that trust in the community that you lived in. You will be profiled by the general community.”

John continues to question the men. Will you go back to the lifestyle you led before coming to the Coalition, back into that comfort zone? Will you associate with the people you did before? As the class progresses, it’s evident that the meeting is unlike any other. John’s class is a conversation between a mentor and mentees. He shares his own experiences of businesses that have crashed and burned, and of having his house repossessed, as examples of what can be overcome.

“Don’t think of these experiences as a failure. Think of it as a constant continuation of growth,” he said.

John’s unique outlook comes from a varied background that includes a career in the entertainment industry as a performer, asjust john well as a professional speaker. His desire to interact with audiences on a deeper level led him to the Coalition.

“I wanted to find a place where I could go to speak and not be interrupted by cell phones, interrupted by laptops, interrupted by liquor. I wanted to be able to connect to people,” he said.

For the last six months, John has been doing just that. Though he’s been approached by the Coalition to accept a permanent position, John insists on volunteering his time. The trust he has built with residents, he said, is due in part to his not being a part of the Coalition staff.

Thanks to John, residents have another person who believes in them. His hope is that, because he believes in them, members of his class will begin to believe in themselves again.

”My hope narrative, for lack of a better word, and I say this in all my classes, is ‘I don’t want to see you guys again. I want you out of here,’” John said. “I get close to them, build a relationship. I’ll look up and go, ‘Oh, so-and-so isn’t here anymore.’ In one way it’s sad because they’re not in my class, in another way it’s cool. I say, ’I want you out of here, I want you to have a really good job, do really well, find that love in your life, whatever your passion is.’”