Chris Szkiladz was staring death straight in the eye, and was certain it was going to defeat him.
Over two decades ago he had moved to the United States from Poland when his mother won a Green Card lottery. Having moved away from an ideologically repressive region of sorts, the land of dreams proved more of a personal prison for Szkiladz – as he spiraled into alcoholism, drug addiction and became homeless.
But in a true testament to the human spirit, he defeated his demons, emerged victorious, and today he is working to help those very people he once was – the homeless and drugs addicts – in his job at Common Ground, which does street outreach work for the Department of Homeless Services.
Szkiladz grew up in the Northeast part of Poland during the Cold War when Poland was still aligned with the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. It meant he was in line for long-dreaded compulsory military duty. He had studied at a technical high school there and was training to be an electrician. He had a solid middle-class upbringing – his mother worked as Polish language teacher and his father worked as a manager in an agricultural company.
“We had a good life,” said Szkiladz. “It might not have been the greatest place because this was before the Wall (the Berlin Wall) came down and we would be forced to serve in the military, but it wasn’t as bad as people might think.”
A great stroke of luck hit the Szkiladz family when Chris’ mother won the green card lottery, and in 1990, the family moved to Meserole Avenue in Greenpoint. Szkiladz, who was 19 at the time, and his older brother were beyond thrilled – they had escaped the army – and had moved to the United States to make a better life for themselves. The Szkiladz had family in New Jersey and people they knew in Greenpoint, things were looking up until they suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Szkiladz’ father was diagnosed with cancer – the only earning member of the family at the time was immobilized. Szkiladz was forced to take a job at a plastic factory earning $3.75 an hour.
The goal had always been to earn enough money in the U.S. and return back to Poland, wealthy – the dream however was never realized for the Szkiladz family, when Chris’ father passed away just three years after they had moved.
While Szkiladz categorically refused to blame his life’s trajectory on his father’s passing – the incident set off years of a troubled existence.
Szkiladz had gotten married shortly after he moved to the States. He had two daughters. He ran a successful electrical consulting business. But addiction began to overtake his life – what started as a dependency on alcohol became a gateway to a strong cocaine habit.
A year later, his wife kicked him out.
“She just didn’t know how to help me,” he said. “She didn’t know what was happening to me, and at that point she had stopped caring anymore.”
From there it seemed like a never-ending spiral of oblivion: Szkiladz began living out of his car, began drinking and partying excessively, and lost out on work because he would never make it on time. Soon he could no longer afford to keep his business afloat. He tried to live with his older brother, but his drunken bouts got him kicked out of there as well. He slept in parks, and moved from one homeless shelter to the next – breeding grounds for more drugs and alcohol, according to Szkiladz.
He was alienated from his wife, his kids, his brother, and mother, and it seemed all to certain that he would end up dead on a sidewalk – all but forgotten about.
On any given night, more than 600,000 Americans are homeless, according to government records. About 700 die each year from conditions like hypothermia, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
But about three years ago Szkiladz had an awakening – it’s a realization he says can’t quite convey in words – it wasn’t a moment or a series of instances – but what his life had become.
“I felt that if I didn’t stop, I was going to die,” said Szkiladz. “I kept having these shakes that didn’t seem good at all, and I was always having this fear that I would die.”
He called out for help, and his family came to his rescue. A cousin took him to a treatment center in Staten Island, and over the next few months he went from one detox center to the next to get himself back on track. He stepped out a clean man on February 9, 2011.
“I was so afraid to come outside,” said Szkiladz. “I was afraid to face people. It felt like I was sober for the first time in my life.”
Now, Szkiladz works to save the very group of people he was once a part of. He first started working with them after Hurricane Sandy, helping the homeless who were taking shelter at the Church of Ascension.
He is also rebuilding his relations with his family. He says he sees his daughters more often now.
“They were still young when it was all happening so it is like a bad memory for them,” he said. “But I am happy where I am now. This is what I am supposed to be doing.”
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