Speaker Spotlight: Don Rebuilds His Life

By: Bernadette James  NEOCH Volunteer

Editor’s Note: Street voices is a Speaker’s Bureau made up of homeless and formerly homeless individuals who speak about their experiences in order to inspire their audience whether they’re a classroom, a church congregation, or a charitable organization. If you wish to have a speaker from Street Voices talk for your group, please contact Community Organizer Joshua Kanary at (216) 432-0540 x106.

A conversation with Street Voices Speaker Don is so open, honest and compelling that it is an experience to remember. Don holds nothing back. He tells of his failures and his triumphs in the same low key. The quality of frankness in his speeches at High Schools, churches and community centers is certain to be highly inspirational, especially to people mired in lost hopes, loneliness, or tough addictions.

Don started life fifty-five years ago as the youngest of seven children in a Cleveland Irish Catholic family. Large families often treat the youngest member with advice, special care and gifts, all of which Don enjoyed. Yet, one unfortunate trait passed down to him was the family’s love of alcohol, and their lavish access to it. Don saw family members become alcoholics, almost as a matter of course.

In High School, Don’s superior intelligence was discovered. His teachers skipped him a full grade ahead of his original class. As a result, Don graduated from High School at age sixteen. However, the early graduation, coupled with separation from friends in his previous class, did not serve him well. He found himself in a complicated world, a world expecting him to be a completed, self-possessed adult. He worked at whatever jobs he could get, but began finding solace in whiskey, just as his brothers and sisters had done.

At age seventeen, Don became seriously ill. Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, he spent the next several years enduring multiple surgeries and long painful periods of recovery. By that time, though, he had added marijuana and other drugs to his intake of liquor, and sometimes his medications mixed with the remains of drugs and alcohol in his system.

Finally well enough to work, Don held jobs as a salesman, carpenter and library aide, but now he was a confirmed drug addict and alcoholic. At age twenty, he married a girl who was also dependent on drugs. The marriage lasted nine years (with no children), but eventually they broke up and went their separate ways. Now, looking back, Don realizes that they were both too young and naive to make a success of it.

Throughout the next decade, Don’s addictions deepened. His fine mind still worked, and his natural empathy to the needy still drove him to respond, but the drugs and liquor were paramount. He became homeless, unwilling to use his paltry earnings for food, rent, or clothing, but only to feed his addictions. Yet, a day came when he realized, with a jolt, that he had hit “bottom”.

It happened when a man, a stranger visiting the shelter, saw Don walking down the hall. The man’s voice was loud, and something about Don’s presence in the shelter prompted him to ask pointedly, “Why is he here?” When Don heard that question he stopped walking for a moment, as if it had been a block of wood thrown his way. “Why is he here?” The question echoed in Don’s consciousness and took on a special meaning he could not ignore. He knew why it stayed in his mind and he knew what it meant, but at first he couldn’t look at it. It was too big, too powerful. The question stayed with him. It would not go away. Only later did he find the courage to admit to himself that he would have to change the ways he was living. He’d have to break the addictions, the alcoholism, the dependence. But how to do it?  That was the question. He tried cutting down, but the nights went by, the miserable nights without the comforts he’d become accustomed to. Then NEOCH’s partner organization Bridging the Gap gave Don the chance to participate in a special program designed for shelter residents over fifty years of age.

Through the program, Don met Danny Kerr, a law student at Case Western Reserve University. Danny recognized Don’s sharp intellect at once, as well as the value of his experience as a client of temporary labor agencies. At the time, temp jobs were taking over the labor market, companies offering jobs listed as “temporary”, a locution obscuring the extra profits to employers from cheaper labor, with no commitment to better, long-term careers. Danny interviewed Don in connection with research for his thesis on the rise of temporary labor agencies.

Discussions with Danny made don’s difficult days and nights without drugs pass more easily. He also took great pride in the knowledge that he has been able to help Danny with important information. As Don’s general health improved, his association with Bridging the Gap also expanded, and he soon learned all the particulars of effective speech-making. He had always had a fine vocabulary, so before long, he became a spokesman for Bridging the Gap.

With the spirit of his new activities, Don felt a desire to leave the shelter and find a quieter place to live. Bridging the Gap helped him obtain a subsidized apartment in the heart of a community that satisfied his needs. Now in his spare time, Don goes on errands for house-bound neighbors, or walks to the Farmers Market nearby. An accomplished cook, he often makes meals and takes them to those in his building who are crippled or shut-in. Comfortable in his new home environs and free now of his cruel addictions, Don revels in his work as a Street Voices public speaker. He’s been a Speaker now for almost six years. It fulfills his desire to contribute positively to society.

In one of his most significant talks, Don gives his audience a rare glimpse of human nature’s ability to see and not to see at the same time. He does it by asking the audience to close their eyes and picture in their minds a homeless person. It is an apt suggestion, since few people have a chance to enter a shelter and see homeless people as they are. After a minute or two, he asks them to open their eyes and describe the person they saw when their eyes were closed. He then explains that in the past, he had pictured homeless people exactly as the audience reports: dirty all over, in raggy clothes, and carrying lots of bags. Most important, it was not anyone they knew, or had ever known. It was someone apart. Then he tells them of his amazement to discover, when he himself became homeless, that everyone in the shelter looked very much like him.

In this way, Don achieves something seldom achieved by highly-paid government or corporate speakers. He puts a universal face on homelessness, a face silently attesting to the relatedness of all, whether homeless or mansion-housed, clean or dirty, rich or poor, all connected by the undeniable bond of humanness that can never be undone. That is clearly Don’s message, and the reason people walk out of his sessions with a lighter step and a brighter look in their eyes. And (at the risk of sounding trite), all looking very much like one another after all.


Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #86 in November 2008 Cleveland Ohio.