A few years ago, Alisa Bazo of Key West didn't think much of the homeless men and women living on the island.
Panhandlers, she figured, or drunks who didn't want help. Didn't matter.
Homelessness wasn't on her mind. After all, she had a $5,000-a-month job at a local guesthouse where she had an ownership share, and a car, she said on a recent afternoon.
"Until I became homeless myself," said Bazo, 54, recalling the 18-month descent into cocaine that robbed her of everything material and nearly buried her, as she attempted suicide five times.
She found herself with nothing to hold onto, nowhere to go, no one to call. She slept for five nights in a neighbor's yard.
Since Aug. 27, Bazo has worked daily helping others recover from living on the streets, offering to share with them her story and guide them through the program that helped her build a new life at Florida Keys Outreach Coalition.
The nonprofit safety net, in the form of a counselor at the Guidance/Care Center who referred her to FKOC, caught Bazo's fall in late 2009.
Now it's people like Bazo who help staff the agency.
There, Bazo and another survivor of addiction and the streets, William Anthony Sakis, recently landed paid internships at FKOC through a grant from the National Coalition for the Homeless. They help with the intake of new clients and keep up with supplies.
They also can listen to others drained from addiction, alcoholism, disability or financial collapse and nod in complete understanding.
"We can't make anyone quit drinking or quit drugs," said Sakis, 51, who seven years ago slept on rooftops in downtown Key West. "But when they are ready to stop, we can offer them tools."
Both already live in FKOC housing, having found a safe place in the nonprofit's programs and attained sobriety.
The internships provide health insurance, and at the end of the year-long job, a $5,500 grant for education.
Bazo marveled at the fact that this year was the first time she has ever had a Labor Day holiday off, with pay, due to the internship.
Both are interested in studying addiction counseling. The money, however, will first help them earn their GEDs.
FKOC approached Bazo and Sakis about the internships, originally presented as only an opportunity for one person.
Stephanie Kaple, women's program manager at FKOC, said the staff couldn't choose between the two and so she brought the decision to the Rev. Steve Braddock, president and CEO of the nonprofit.
Braddock said he would see what he could do. Soon, there were two internships available, both paid by the outside grant.
"Here the executive director knows your name, and it's not because there is a problem," Kaple said of Braddock. "They have both been client achievers of the year. We believe in all of our clients. But these two we could see were in line with our goals at FKOC."
These days, Bazo is a smiling presence at the front desk of FKOC's Neece Center, which provides temporary housing for men on Patterson Avenue. She is able to comfort new clients who often come in straight from the streets.
"First of all, they care," said Bazo, of FKOC staff. "We're not just a number. There is no judgment."
Bazo shares her experience with others and says that helping people helps her. She is beginning to see in herself what her co-workers tell her they see: a vibrant, compassionate woman.
"I'm getting self-confidence," said Bazo, who arrived at FKOC in November 2009 announcing that she didn't want any friends. Three years at FKOC, first as a client and now as a staff member, Bazo has new ideas.
"Material things are nothing if you don't have relationships, love of even yourself," Bazo said, originally from Melbourne, who has lived in Key West since 1981.
The work, taxing at times, involves watching people's lives fall apart and sometimes come together.
Sakis, who has been a volunteer at FKOC for two years, said he is learning not to take it personally if someone he cares about relapses.
His own sobriety of seven years didn't come easily, he recalled. When his parents died years back, he landed in Key West "looking for something."
It would be years, however, until he had a moment of clarity. His sister died, and Sakis said he had a sudden grasp of his own mortality.
"I didn't want to be remembered as a drunken cokehead," said Sakis.
Giving to others has become a way of life for Sakis and Bazo, whose co-workers tease her over her dedication to holiday decorations, which she drapes across the living quarters in staggering amounts.
But behind the laughter, Bazo and the staff know that such things can matter dearly.
"I have had clients who haven't had a sober Christmas in 20 years," said Bazo.