Stamford shelter guides man to college
STAMFORD — For nearly a decade, Michael Garcia would couch surf in between having a place of his own, all while holding down jobs in retail and dabbling in his true passions, music and graphic design.
There were also times when he didn’t have a place to stay and so he slept outside.
Two of those times he ended up at the Pacific House men’s shelter — first when he was 22, and again in November at age 30, after he lost his apartment in Bridgeport.
“I’ve been good on and off for a little while, but I’ve never had a permanent address,” said Garcia, a Stamford native who has lived in more than a dozen places across the city.
“I’ve had little apartments here and there. I’ve stayed with friends, stayed with a few family members, and it would be all good. I never felt like I didn’t want to be around these people or they didn’t want to be around me,” he said. “It was more like I wanted a little bit more. Like something was missing.”
During his eight months at Stamford’s Pacific House, staff members took Garcia under their wing in the shelter’s young adult program. Launched around the time of Garcia’s second arrival, the program is for men in their late teens to mid-20s who have different needs than the shelter’s general population. Like the older men, they may deal with mental illness and substance abuse, and need help with housing and jobs. But unlike those men, they often aren’t chronically homeless and so they don’t have many of the other issues that come with living on the streets for years.
Garcia is just one of the program’s early successes. In its first few months, the shelter has been able to create a separate living area for the young men, and has already helped 25 of them transition to housing and school.
Garcia admits he’s now beyond the age of a young adult. But the staff at Pacific House was so impressed with his maturity and work ethic they made him resident adviser for the 15 or so men in the program.
“He saw something in me, I guess,” Garcia said, referring to Fran Parkman, the program’s former coordinator.
The South End shelter happens to be on the same block as a white house with green shutters that Garcia lived in briefly as a teen. After moving in to the house, he learned that a friend’s brother had been shot and killed the prior year in the backyard.
“It wasn’t home,” Garcia said. “I just went to sleep there. I’d be everywhere else all day. I just didn’t want to be there.”
Garcia’s life hasn’t been easy — but that’s something he’s hesitant to acknowledge. His motto, even in the darkest times, is “be positive.”
At four months old, Garcia was placed in foster care, where he was raised alongside three foster siblings. His biological mother, who is HIV positive, was deported to Jamaica when he was 7. He didn’t meet his biological father until he was 24. When he refers to his mother and father, he’s usually talking about his foster parents.
“It’s a unique situation because they’re Italian and Spanish descent, and me being Jamaican, it was different. I never really asked questions like, ‘Why am I the dark one?’” Garcia said.
He attended grade school in Stamford, doing well in English and science, even if at times it felt like he wasn’t being challenged.
As he advanced in high school, his home life became more unstable.
“After my father died, things got a little rough, money-wise,” he said. “My mom made due, to an extent. I did what I could — what I had to do. I got into a lot of activity outside and in the streets to try and compensate.”
Garcia ended up dropping out of Westhill High School. When he learned he was expecting his first child, he got his GED and first real job at Walgreen’s in Riverside. Then he enrolled in Job Corps in New Haven, learned carpentry and moved to Milwaukee, Wis., to be with his two kids, who are now 9 and 11.
Unable to find steady work, he came back to Connecticut and ended up at Pacific House for a few months.
Garcia spent the following years working minimum-wage jobs and moving around. During that time, he also discovered a talent for drawing and design, and was able to pick up a few clients. He started his own small business, Astronaut Graphics.
“I don’t really make enough to be considered a company, but I make enough to get by,” he said.
When Garcia returned to Pacific House, he worked at Home Depot in Port Chester, N.Y., and continued with freelance graphic design. He also performs under the name C.E.F., opening last year for rap artists at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford.
When the staff at Pacific House learned of his design skills, they were able to get him a new laptop. They also helped him get a DMV learner’s permit.
Eventually, they brought up college, which Garcia had considered but never pursued. That changed when he took a practice SAT and scored a 1390 out of 1600.
“I kinda thought about college, but I was getting paid for graphic design anyway. I thought I didn’t need a degree. But then I started looking at some of the salaries for someone with my level of experience with a bachelor’s degree, and some people are getting paid $120,000 a year,” he said.
Pacific House paid for his applications and helped him through the admissions process.
When Garcia was accepted at Wayne State College in Nebraska, where he plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, the shelter bought him a plane ticket, and even sent him off with a suitcase and winter coat.
“Going from homeless to college is pretty remarkable,” said Pacific House Development Director Andrew Barer, noting that another person at the young adult program is already at college, and two more besides Garcia are on their way.
Garcia promised Pacific House Executive Director Raphael Pagan, as he was being given the suitcase for his trip, that he would put in the work to succeed.
“You did it,” Pagan told him. “We just provided the tools. You have just have to be willing.”
Before leaving last Sunday, Garcia was more worried about getting on his first flight than he was about taking his first college classes.
“I feel like I’m going to reinforce a lot of the things I already know and learn a lot of new stuff,” he said.
After all, pressure makes diamonds, he said.
“I feel like I have a lot of good survival instincts that came from when I was younger,” he said. “I’ve literally been through it all. I’ve been robbed, I’ve been shot at, I’ve been in numerous fights — and I survived. Going to school and getting homework done, that’s simple stuff.”