At age 26, Kristin DeShong has a life experience résumé no one would envy.
She grew up in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families after suffering abuses and bouncing among foster homes in Connecticut and Massachusetts and a juvenile rehabilitation facility in New York state. She turned to heroin as an escape, was arrested for larcenies and spent time in prison as a youthful offender.
As a young adult, she has been unable to keep a job because "my mouth gets me in trouble." She lost a job as a maid at Foxwoods - "I hated it" - because she failed a drug test. She has lost other jobs as well and is now on Social Security disability income after being diagnosed as bipolar.
She voluntarily turned over custody of her young son, now 5, to her parents. "He wants for nothing," DeShong said, with satisfaction that he is doing well.
But now she is entangled in a custody dispute in court with her mother, who is trying to terminate DeShong's parental rights. DeShong wants at least supervised visitations.
"He is an awesome little boy," DeShong said. "He got the raw end of the deal. I did not want him growing up in DCF."
Recently, her longtime fiance, who had severe addiction problems and whom she helped through a medical crisis, suddenly left her. DeShong sports a tattoo prominently on her neck: "Cornell Forever for Life." She got it for Christmas.
When he left, he told her he was going out for a haircut while DeShong went to Walmart. She returned to find that he had packed his few belongings and left.
"I was so upset. I don't know what I'm going to do. I pray maybe he'll come to his senses," DeShong said the next day.
Last Wednesday, he suddenly returned, telling her he had been visiting family in Baltimore. They have "some things to work out," she said, but she is relieved and thrilled that he is home.
On Dec. 3, the couple had been evicted from their Norwich apartment. DeShong had stuffed a few pairs of pants and shirts into a backpack but lost everything else.
They lived on a friend's couch for two weeks, while her fiance recuperated, but when DeShong was arrested for shoplifting - "I wanted to have a little Christmas," she said - the friend kicked them out.
"We were absolutely homeless," DeShong said, "carrying medical equipment around."
They went to the Norwich Hospitality Center, a small winter overnight shelter. One morning, DeShong went next door to the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen. The program's director, Jillian Corbin, stopped her. "I want you to meet Donie," Corbin told her.
DeShong became case manager Donie Jarmon's first client.
Jarmon started looking for housing for the couple, but DeShong warned her that she only had $500 a month in Social Security income. Three days after their first interview, Jarmon showed them a tiny but good room in a large shared apartment in Norwich for $350 a month. They quickly moved in.
"Donie has been amazing," DeShong said. "I feel like she's kind of at my level. She doesn't pull any punches."
Once settled in their apartment, she bought a cheap computer at Walmart - her only luxury, she said. DeShong has few clothes. She's a large woman and has found little that's suitable at the clothing bank at Bethsaida's Norwich office.
Jarmon said last week her top concern is making sure DeShong stays on track and does not have a relapse, given her recent stress about her fiance. DeShong and her fiance both relapsed into heroin use once in April, and she says she has been clean since then.
"She's a really strong woman. She'll pull together," Jarmon said last week.