From Incarceration to Inspiration: An Interview with Kevin Mellette at The Haven (Part I)

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Accompanying photo taken near the 2017 Rally in front of the Robert E Lee statue that sits across from The Haven

1. What brought you to Charlottesville?: “I am originally from Newark, New Jersey, but I was born in Chatham, Virginia in 1960. I was adopted by my great-aunt when I was three days old. I was an old-school baby who wasn’t born in a hospital. I had a midwife, and this is the history of many older Black African Americans: We didn’t have the privilege of going to hospitals because of the costs. I lived in Newark most of my life, but I got in trouble in Danville, VA for writing some bad checks. In 1995, I was incarcerated in Pulaski, Virginia. I didn’t have an address in Virginia, so I could never make parole. My friends suggested that I apply for a halfway house, and I got one in Charlottesville.”

2. Why did you get involved with The Haven?: “Originally, I was a guest. I came for housing assistance in 2013. At the time, I was challenged with a substance use disorder, and I was using heroin intravenously. Me and my wife were married for 25 years, but my addiction really took up a good ten years after I got out of the Piedmont House. I was heavily engaged in substance use and my wife had a disability, but with the combination of Region Ten (Community Services Board) and The Haven, we were able to find housing. I got clean on September 28th of 2015, and I live in Troy, Virginia now." 

Unlike the stereotypes associated with addicts and African American culture, I actually had pretty good schooling. I went to Catholic school from 1st to 8th grade. I did the arts, and I could have gone to any college I wanted to, but I experienced a pretty traumatic experience right before I was about to go to college. When I actually met Steven and Owen at The Haven, I’d always been skeptical of white people — not all white people because my mother conditioned me to love all people — but with the experiences I went through, I learned the playing field wasn’t fair. I’m a civil rights baby, and my parents were Black rights activists, so the protests today, it’s like déjà vu but with a younger generation. But with Steven and Owen, I was doing a great number of things trying to adjust. I wasn’t very good at meeting people where they were when I first got there. I’d get physically involved with guests when they got into my space, but Steven and Owen saw the best person in me before I saw it in myself. I realized I wasn’t a piece of crap like I thought I was, and they were instrumental in helping me see that. That’s why I've stayed at The Haven: Even if we have different views, they give me room to express myself. They let me go, and likewise, I’ve learned to let them go. I’ve learned to not group a whole class of people. Herb Dickerson, the Outreach Coordinator and Shift Supervisor, is also a recovering addict who’s recovering now for 20 years and was instrumental in showing me a new life through Narcotics Anonymous. I’m a proud member of NA. The Haven helped me move in the direction of helping other people. The Haven is my family, and I am a voice for them.”

3. What is your role at The Haven?: “My role constantly evolves. I ended up at the Haven because I was caught up in addiction and was committing crimes to support my habit by forging checks. I’d had thirteen to seventeen years back and forth behind jail bars, and this time I ended up in the Charlottesville Circuit Court. Judge Moore gave me an opportunity to participate in the Charlottesville Circuit Drug Court, which gave me the option to participate in community service with a local organization. I chose The Haven because it had been instrumental in helping my wife and I establish residency, and this was a way of giving back to those who had helped us. I believe that one good deed begets another, so my wife and I worked in the kitchen, helping keep the building clean. The Haven saw what my work ethic was, and asked if I’d like to become their Facilities Manager. There were times when our guests would get rambunctious, and I was able to communicate with them and meet them where they were. I’m like a chameleon: I can talk street if I want to, or I can be in the White House. The Haven saw that I was able to work really well with the guests, so I became the daytime supervisor. I’m actually known as the pitbull of the Haven, as I am very loving but protective. I’m gentle but firm. The Haven is a rescue center, so I make sure guests understand that. I understand people are using substances, but they can’t come to The Haven and clown around while Kev’s in the building. That’s why I went and became certified in Virginia as a Peer Recovery Specialist. The Peer Recovery Specialist Program is based on the idea that peers help peers who have substance use disorders or mental health disorders, which are connected. Drugs are not the problem: They are just the consequence of the trauma experienced by the individual. So I got certified to work with people professionally, like a junior counselor.”

4. What is a good habit you have developed and hope to maintain post quarantine?: “Me practicing quarantine is life or death. I am one of the people who is most vulnerable to COVID-19. I’m a big CNN guy and their coverage has been excellent. Dr. Fauci is my man along with the CDC. I make sure I’m educated on what’s going on right now so that I can protect myself and help others. I left [The Haven] mid-February, and myself and my wife, who’s also employed at The Haven, came back last Wednesday. Now we just work in the evenings whereas we used to work throughout the day. That would have put me at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.”

5. How have you been spending your time in quarantine? What are some of your favorite hobbies?: “I’ve used quarantine for a real soul-searching mission. Because of my age and realizing what has happened (being 60 years old we had never seen things like this happen). Other diseases never had the chance to turn out like COVID-19. We were freaked out by Ebola and H1N1 but had never seen the funk thing that COVID was doing. I initially thought it would be a plague like something that happened during the time of the pharaohs, so I’ve been looking at my life, what things have been, where they started, where they are now, and where I wanted them to go. I took some time to do a personal inventory. How appreciative am I for the 60 years I’ve lived? I’ve thought a lot about what else I can be doing, and what else I can be changing. One of the things I’m working on changing is the way I speak. I say vulgar words, but it bothers me. I wasn’t conditioned to use that sort of language, but I started using it because of the people I was hanging out with and trying to fit in with them. I’ve learned to wear a lot of masks over the years as a defense mechanism, so now I’m uncovering those masks, and asking myself: ‘Kev, who are you really?’ The soul-searching was the biggest hobby for me. I’m also living with my wife and dog, and I have my own man cave. I’m a singer, and I have a little recording studio where I write songs. I also spend lots of time reading.” 

When we spoke with Rob at The Haven a few weeks ago, he said he was doing something similar with his time in Quarantine: “Rob has always been very inspiring to me. His energy, he’s so freaking mellow. I’ve always wanted to be like that. We’ve had guests come at him aggressively, and he’d just be so calm, whereas I’d be more reactive. He’s such a passionate soul, and I have that same thing in me, but it’s been locked up due to the environments that I’ve been in that told me acting like that would make me look soft. But I’ve learned to start to undo that, cry in public, and express my feelings. I pride myself on being transparent because I’m too old to care what people think. I don’t want to leave feeling like I tried to appease people and wasn’t myself.”

6. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned at The Haven?: “I’ve learned so many things. One of the most important ones is that no one is any greater than or less than you. The images and stereotypes I was taught to believe were that people landed in homelessness because they refused to do what was right. A lot of people think they need to just get up and get a job or stop getting high. But these stereotypes serve to perpetuate homelessness. A number of people are homeless for a lot of reasons that seem foreign to a lot of people, but aren’t actually that foreign. Just when I thought I knew so much, I found out I knew practically nothing. Some of the trauma my guests have actually shared with me — a number of my guests do share with me because they know I'm real — I've been through it too, and I share my horror stories with them. I learned about a lot of women and men who grew up in abusive households that were not conducive to developing as a human being. This has been one of the most mind blowing things I’ve come to appreciate while being there. Nobody knows what someone else’s journey has been to get to where they are. A lot of people have a phobia of getting help for mental health. There is a misconception that mental health is connected to being crazy, but it’s actually connected to trauma. I don’t have any stories of being abused physically or sexually, but I have been mentally, emotionally, and spiritually abused by my family and society because I'm a Black man.”

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