Ron Bennett leads the way down the hall into his apartment. The layout is simple, with a combined kitchen and living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom that dwarfs the one in this reporter’s house.

“It’s ADA-compliant,” he explains.

The rooms are sparsely furnished with good-quality pieces, some donated and some the result of his mother’s garage-sale expeditions.

“I came in here with this hide-a-bed, my TV and that dresser, and that’s it,” he explains. “Most of this came from my folks’ house, but three weeks before I moved in, this bedroom set was donated to me.”

As we sit in the living room, Bennett tells me his story: He was first diagnosed with HIV in 1995, and he went to full-blown AIDS in 2000.

“I used to take 30 pills a day,” he notes. “Now I take three.”

Coming to terms with his HIV status has been a long struggle, but he is philosophical about it.

“If I let HIV/AIDS rule my life, then it’s gonna win. A lot of people don’t like me to tell my status, [but> I’m comfortable with my own skin,” Bennett says. “It took me a long time to get where I’m at today.”

Kicked out of his family’s home in 2008 due to his substance abuse issues, Bennett moved from shelter to group home and back again, going from program to program as he fought his homelessness and his addiction issues.

“To me,” he says, “homelessness and addiction go hand in hand. Most of society, they don’t want to deal with the homelessness. ... A lot of homeless people have trouble with the alcohol and drugs. Some don’t want to get out of it, others are just caught. I got lucky. … I refuse to go back to that.”

About a year and a half ago, he got his chance. He had applied for housing through SAVE Inc. and wound up on the extensive waiting list that anyone seeking aid encounters. Then he got a call.

Was he still interested? “I asked them, is it permanent? They said yes, it was. So I said yes.”

Having a place of his own has allowed him to clear his mind and work on improving himself.

“I’ve been in and out of different facilities, trying to work on recovery. I’ve always had a roommate. And if you’ve ever had roommates ... I’m not saying I don’t get along with people, but [if"> you got five people going in too many different directions, you can’t focus on yourself. I love City Mission, but I was sitting there with 350 other men every night trying to sleep.”

At first, his new home almost seemed too good to be true.

“I didn’t feel I deserved it,” he explains. For the first two and a half months, he kept his personal effects packed, expecting to be thrown out yet again. “The manager came by, and she said, ‘What are you doing?’ Well, I’m waiting for you to pull the rug out from under me.”

But over these 18 months in the SAVE program, it never happened. And now his outlook on life has changed.

“Long story short,” he says, “God gave me a second chance.”

He now gives tours of his apartment to people who want to see how the program works and speaks to people about its benefits. “The thing I like about SAVE is ... I’ve done all these groups, but SAVE wants their clients to be a success. I do want to get a part-time job -- I’m not working now -- I want to be self-supporting.”

Right now, Bennett is working toward that future by going to school.

“I want to be a substance abuse counselor. I found out today that they no longer offer human services/drug addiction services at any of the campuses. I was told to go take two semesters of criminal justice, then I could go do it. So I’ve got to regroup.”

“… I really want to help. I want to pay it forward. Next semester, I can do the work-study program, either being a tutor or working on groundskeeping and so on, as long as I’m trying to better myself and not sitting around drinking all day and smoking dope, as long as I’m doing something right.”

He looks around the small, neatly appointed apartment.

“I’m grateful for what I have today,” he said. “I have less today than I’ve ever had, but I’m richer inside.” "

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