MIDDLETOWN - Shawn Piatt's life has taken a dramatic turn since he was placed in a one-room apartment off Railroad Avenue.

"Have you ever watched that movie, 'Castaway?'" said Piatt, noting how Tom Hanks' character lived on a remote island for 14 years and had difficulty adjusting back to society after he was rescued.

Piatt, 49, relates to the movie character's journey, having been homeless for 12 years.

"I like it," Piatt said of his new home while sitting on his bed in the living room. "I'm trying to adapt to it. I still like the cold weather. I still like the outdoors."

About a year ago, Piatt was living in a large tent behind Sam's Food Stores on Academy Avenue. He lived there for eight years.

He'd occasionally get a sandwich or coffee from the store. His tent was carpeted and protected from the bitter winter weather by wicker slats and tarps. Piatt used a propane heater inside to stay warm.

Piatt was one of two people who accepted food and shelter from HONOR, a local emergency housing shelter, during last year's Point-In-Time Survey in Middletown.

The federal Housing and Urban Development survey is conducted by local homeless advocacy agencies and takes a 24-hour snapshot of how many are homeless in a community.

But Piatt stayed at HONOR for only a few days before returning to his camp in the woods. He said it was too hot in the shelter and he didn't like living in close quarters with groups of people.

Gary Texter, who works in outreach for HONOR, frequently continued to visit Piatt to make sure he was well.

Over the summer, Piatt tripped over a rock and was hospitalized for a shoulder injury.

“I didn’t think he would make it through another winter living outside,” Texter said.

The injury marked a turning point for Piatt. He agreed with Texter that he needed to take his health more seriously.

Texter told the shelter’s executive director, Chris Molinelli, about Piatt’s condition and they put him at the top of the list for HONOR’s Housing First program.

By October, Piatt had a new apartment and a new perspective on life.

Piatt spends most of his free time now caring for his friend's cats. His go-to drink is now coffee, instead of booze. He limits himself to a single $1 pack of two cigars a day, but he's trying to cut back.

He enjoys watching movies, cooking, and sleeps peacefully in his own bed.

Piatt has a full kitchen, a refrigerator stocked with food, and dishes in his cabinets. He has his own furniture and even a few decorations on the walls, including a small clock and a canvas painting of a cat he found in the trash one day.

He was teary when he spoke of all the help his case manager, Anne McKenna, has given him since he moved in.

McKenna gave him a VHS player and some tapes. Piatt has also amassed an impressive DVD collection, but does not have DVD player.

Piatt is not currently paying rent. McKenna will help Piatt get on his feet and transition into traditional living in the apartment over the next year or so, Molinelli said.

"Shawn can contribute (financially) via a job or will secure entitlements. But this can be a very lengthy process because he's been off the grid for years," Molinelli said.

"So going into any governmental assistance program, we have to go back to square one in establishing who he is."

Piatt has trouble maintaining a regular sleep schedule, which he attributes to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sometimes he gets lonely.

But overall, he enjoys solitude.

"I really hate the outside world. I like to be here by myself," Piatt said.

More help from HONOR

Sam Cooper, 66, also accepted HONOR’s help during last year’s survey.

Cooper was sitting on concrete steps off North Street last January when Texter and Middletown Police officer Rich Regino, who was assisting with the Point-In-Time survey, offered him shelter.

Cooper happily accepted help. He stayed at HONOR for about a month, but walked out when he received his Social Security check.

He spent most of the money on alcohol, but said he eventually realized that was no way to live his life.

"I'm not built for that out there," Cooper said. "There's something about taking care of yourself. It's supposed to be a fixation in everybody's mind."

Cooper was worried he might not find a home when the weather turned cold this year. But his sister found Cooper a unit at a senior-living apartment complex in Middletown that he can afford with his Social Security allowance.

Like Piatt, his apartment has one area for the living room and bedroom. Cooper also has a large kitchen and a full bathroom.

"I know guys in Middletown that loved to stay outside because they don't want to pay any bills," Cooper said.

"I said, 'What's wrong with watching TV? Cooking your own meals? What's wrong with taking a bath?' You can't do that out there. You can't do nothing out there but complain about your surroundings and where you live. I'm not complaining about anything anymore."

Neither Cooper nor Piatt said they could imagine returning to unsheltered living.

"They say life goes around one time. Why live poorly if you don't have to?" Cooper said.

"Get what you can out of life and enjoy it."

lbellamy@th-record.com