Rich, the Veteran, Tries to Turn His Life Around

by San Seviera Marshall

     Many of us believe the homeless epidemic that plagues the nation is spearheaded by the homeless themselves. Individuals who are believed to be derelicts of society, with little to no work ethic, who have contributed very little to society at large. In short, they are considered opportunists looking for a hand out. But as Rich would say the Homeless Grapevine vendors "aren’t looking for a hand out they are looking for a hand up." This is the very premise that this country was built upon.

     Rich is a 46-year old Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1964 at the age of 8. And virtually since his arrival to this country he has demonstrated high self-motivation, a very good work ethic and contributed to society at various stages of his life prior to becoming homeless and even during the past 20 months that he has been homeless.

     Rich began life here in the U.S. in Chicago, IL and as the oldest boy and the second oldest of 10 children he felt compelled to be a role model for his siblings and to help alleviate the financial pressures his parents were under. As such, Rich was an honor roll student and a child athlete who excelled in football and baseball, all while maintaining a part time job after school and on the weekends. Rich gave most of the money he earned to his parents to contribute to the household and help his family financially.

     When Rich advanced to high school he added the ROTC to his already busy schedule and managed to maintain his honor roll status and continued to excel at sports. Rich believes that the discipline and focus he learned in ROTC prepared him for his tour of duty in the Airforce. When Rich was drafted, as an alien with permanent green card status, he was glad to serve his "country." Rich used his time in the military wisely, earning an associate’s degree in child psychology and a bachelor’s degree in business.

     When his tour of duty was up, Rich found himself in Texas and decided to make Houston his home, where he put his business degree to work and established a very successful floor laying business for single family homes. Rich is a very savvy businessman, he very eloquently explained how he subcontracted his workers and leased his equipment, and was able to generate a gross profit of $80K, and bought a home for approximately $65,000, all at he age of 24. The structure of his business also enabled him to unwind his operation rather quickly when the ‘80s Oil Crisis hit Texas and the housing market dried up.

     When this happened, Rich went back to Chicago for several years to regroup. After several different managerial and sales jobs, Rich landed a position as a retail manager for new and used Lexus vehicles. It was here that he was approached with a business opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. Rich became an independent franchisee selling upscale men’s clothing. For all practical purposes, Rich became a traveling salesman on the road for months at a time selling imported Italian suits, silk ties and dress shirts to lawyers, car salesmen, insurance agents and time share reps in states east of the Mississippi. Again, Rich became very successful at this business and netted over $100K annually. Rich ran this business from ’92 up until the time he became homeless in June of 2000.

     Rich became very ill and was admitted to a local hospital here in Cleveland, where he had been living at the time, on June 15, 2000 for about 10 days. Despite having paid his rent through the end of June, Rich returned to his apartment only to find that his landlord had discarded his belongings and leased his apartment to someone else. And like most Americans who live outside of their means and are one paycheck away from being homeless (keeping up with the Jones’); with no income for the second half of June, Rich found himself homeless inside of 30 days.

     Being homeless to Rich has been both a curse and a blessing. The loss of his material possessions and social status coupled with the hardship of trying to make it on his own living on the streets has been a very humbling experience. Rich has slept in almost every local shelter at one time or another, lived in various camps in the forest and has been robbed and/or beaten at least six times since he became homeless. We often times take for granted having food and shelter, but being able to get a hot meal, a shower and a place to sleep are always at the forefront of Rich’s mind. As a Grapevine vendor in Ohio City, Rich has come face to face with the true character of a man and often times it has been unpleasant. Most people understand that "you can’t judge people on your [own] circumstance, because [most] people aren’t homeless by their own choice but by life circumstances."

     Despite the negative people Rich has encountered and the bad experiences, Rich has been blessed to feel the loving and supportive side of mankind through the people at the Grapevine and the philanthropy of the local shop owners in Ohio City (like Talkies and the Great Brewery). The local shop owners are very kind to Rich, sometimes offering him food and coffee and allowing him to come into their establishments to sit down and watch TV, even if he doesn’t buy anything. Rich is very pleased that through very engaging conversations, these individuals have taken time to really get to know him as a person and not just the homeless guy on the corner selling newspapers. Rich recounted a very special moment last June 1st on his birthday when he had fallen asleep near a shop entrance and awoke to find a warm Whopper sitting in his lap with a $5 bill inside. He treasures this memory, because it is moments like that one that renews his faith in the goodness of human kind.

     Prior to becoming homeless, Rich was on top of the world. He thought he was "invincible" and immune to such hardship, disappointment and failure. Although Rich is not embarrassed by his situation, he is very disappointed in himself and feels like he failed himself. As a Roman Catholic, Rich believes that his homelessness is a test from God, a test of his faith, his strength, his resolve and his resilience. Rich believes that everyone at some point in their lives should experience homelessness for a few months for their own personal growth. Rich has experienced minor set backs prior to be becoming homeless, but has always managed to regroup and use his intellect and his instinct to redirect his efforts and become successful at a new project in a very short period of time.

     Being a Grapevine vendor allows Rich to do what he does best and what comes natural to him, be an entrepreneur and interact with people. Selling the Grapevine is a stepping-stone for Rich to re-establish himself and rebuild his men’s clothing business which he hopes to have reopened by the summer. I don’t doubt for one second that this very intelligent, insightful, articulate, hardworking man will again one day soon, pursue the American Dream, reopen his business and prosper and prosper and flourish once again. If Rich has learned nothing else from this experience, he now knows that life can change in an instant. Rich’s life has been forever changed.

Copyright NEOCH published in May 2002 in Cleveland Ohio Issue 54