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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Homeless Graduate: My Journey to Liberty University Class of 2012...A little insight on being homeless

Good Morning gang...
It's going to be hot today. It's May 1st and already we're going to be around 90 degrees. I have to work today and then get some school work done tonight.
I've occasionally had people ask me "Were you really homeless?" The answer is yes. From May of 2008 until January of this year I pretty much lived on the street. I slept in my car and showered at the Rec center. I worked when I could find work and I put out 207 resumes and got one call back. It was for a part-time stock clerk in a grocery store. Before I started back to school...from August 2008-until today...I would spend the remainder of the day walking. Just walking aimlessly. I think I kept moving to stop myself from thinking about what was going on in my world. Or at least to distract myself from those thoughts. Because in reality the thoughts kept coming. I walked about 10 miles a day. Sometimes in the public park near where I lived. (Before losing my house) Sometimes on the walking trails at the rec center. I walked for hours. In the evenings I would walk at Pinkerton Park in Franklin. There's a one mile walking course that meanders through the park and it's very pretty. I would go there in the afternoons when it was still warm. I would bring a blanket and a pillow and lay out in the grass and sleep. I felt safe sleeping there. It's not unusual for people to nap in a park on a sunny day. When you are sleeping in your car and hiding it from view you are an unwelcome guest. I was run off by the Police the first night I slept in my car. I learned the value of a good hiding spot after that. But I also found it impossible to sleep soundly all night. Every twig breaking, every barking dog or honking horn or...especially...every siren in the distance woke me in fear. I cat napped more than I ever slept. So warm afternoons in the park were an occasional treat.
I got to where I couldn't stand to see my own reflection anymore. I had been a successful man. Recognized for achievement in his career. I owned a home and I was a dad. I had fought against the sadness of divorce and near-orphanage and disappointment and made something of myself.
And now it was all gone and I was sleeping in a car. I kept a laundry basket in the trunk with clean clothes in it and a milk crate for dirty ones. I had a storage shed where I kept what few belongings I held after the devastation of losing it all.
I wandered. I was isolated and left alone by almost everyone here in TN.  It hurt worse than anything I'd ever lived through. Every day I fought for some hope. I worked odd jobs for gas money (gas had hit $4.50 at this point) I was receiving $235 a week in unemployment and half of that went to gas. Gas so I could apply for jobs and so I could go somewhere to walk. I walked so I didn't have to sit still and think about my life.
As a dad, this was a time in my life where I questioned my own value more than any time before or since. I love my daughter more than I can say with words. For her to know I was living this way was too much for me so I lied to her about it for a while. Eventually she figured it out. I felt like the biggest failure I could imagine. I didn't sink the economy and destroy the mortgage industry but it felt like it. It felt like I had failed everyone I ever knew.
In August 2009 I decided to go online just to see what financial aid I could get. I thought maybe finishing my degree would open doors for me for a job. I applied and got the maximum aid. Then I went to LU Online and called to arrange some classes. It was early August when I'd started the process. On August 17th of that year, I spent about 30 minutes on the phone with an LUO adviser. I was sitting in the parking lot of Panera, where I would spend a lot of time using the free wifi and endless refills of iced tea. I scheduled my first five classes for the fall semester. I wrote them down on an old envelope and when I hung up with the adviser I broke down in tears. There were a few reasons for the tears...not the least of which was that I had long forgotten how much it bothered me that I never finished at LU. I buried that for years but I never let it go. Finishing my degree was a hole in me that simply had to be filled someday. God chose this moment in my life...when I was broken and desperate and give me a glimmer of hope by restoring one of my oldest dreams.
Over the next 2 1/2 years I lived in a friends basement for about 2 months, I traveled home to Philly a lot. I wrote two books. And I plodded through my school work. I would love to tell you I am graduating with honors but I am not. I should be. I have that sort of potential. But college and homelessness are difficult roommates. Here is what a typical day was like for me then...
I woke up at 4:45 AM, because even though by this time I had a place where I was permitted to park (a friend with 10 acres offered to let me park there) I was still very embarrassed to be seen sleeping in my car. It is humiliating in ways I can't even explain. I felt like I needed to apologize for every breath I took. So I would get up before sunrise and get to the gym. The gym opened at 5 AM so I worked out, took a shower and went to Dunkin Donuts for coffee.
I was careful to roll my sleeping bags and pillow and store them all in my trunk, because the one time I forgot I got strange looks at the drive-thru. I was already embarrassed enough, I didn't need exclamation points added to it.
I would go to my storage shed and change clothes and go looking for a job. When you don't have an address other than a PO Box, you pretty much admit you are homeless. If you are homeless they won't hire you. It's a vicious cycle. I learned to lie about that too. I hate admitting it but that's what I did. After a few hours searching for work, I'd go back to the storage shed and change clothes. I would do odd jobs if they were available and then I'd take my milk crate full of text books and go to Panera or the Library. I would study there until they closed. The library closes at 7:30, Panera at 9PM. After this I would go back to Pinkerton Park and study by flashlight for another hour and then maybe if the weather was nice I'd walk for an hour to clear my head. If it was cold, I'd put a sleeping bag around be because gas was too expensive for me to keep the car running. I'd study by flashlight until 11PM when the park closes and then I'd drive to the place I parked for the night. If I had work that was due and a deadline was looming and I needed late night wifi I'd go to Fedex office and work there. They are open 24 hours. The night shift got to know me by name.
It was hard to give my best living like this. I dropped a lot of classes because I was struggling to do well in these circumstances. It took an extra year for me to finish. If I had a "normal" life I could have finished a year ago. But that wasn't God's plan.
I missed my daughter so terribly during this time. It hurt me physically. Some nights the temps dropped to the teens. I remember waking up several times with frost on the windows inside the car because my breath would condense on the glass and then freeze. I had a cough that lasted all through the winter because no matter how warm you keep your body, when you sleep in your car and it's 19 degrees outside, you are still breathing 19 degree air. There were a lot of nights that I fell asleep seeing Morgan's face in my head and the tears would turn ice cold on my cheeks. It was too cold to pull my hands out of the sleeping bag to dry them.  In the summers, I sprayed myself head to toe with "OFF" and slept with the windows open. I tried putting makeshift screens in my doors but they weren't designed for that. I questioned my own worth and existence more times than I can count. If not for my love for my daughter I might have ended my own life. Morgan and school literally kept me going.
I lived like this for  3 years and then on August 17th 2011 I had my epiphany moment. Maybe for the first time in my whole life. It was about 11PM and I had just uploaded the final homework for my summer classes. I decided to run a degree audit and when I did it came back with "You need 120 hours to graduate. You have achieved 103 Credit Hours"
I did the quick math and realized that with the courses I was registered for in fall semester and with Spring semester yet to come I was going to graduate. It was done. great thing...I tried had not failed. As hard as it was I had seen this thing through.
From that day until now I have had hope. Big, huge, wonderful, life-giving hope. Graduating from college wasn't just about a paper-chase for me. It literally kept my hope alive. And I believe it kept ME alive in the process. It was the only thing that kept moving forward and the only thing I could measure and see success.  I was homeless for 5 more months after that but it hardly mattered. I could deal with the homelessness if I knew there was something good coming. Graduation was my Holy Grail. And now I was within sight of it.
You keep plodding along...trudging through night after night of endless, hopeless, grinding disappointment. You come to a curve in the road and maybe at first you think "This is it...the finish line is right around the bend". And as you round the turn you find out it's just another curve. This happens over and over and over and every fiber in your being says "Just give up!" Sometimes you do...for a while. But something makes you stand up and keep walking again and finally...usually when you've reached the point where you've stopped believing and you don't view the curves hopefully round one more curve. It looks like all the other disappointing curves you've been negotiating for the past few years. You walk through it mechanically this time without even thinking about it possibly being different. Only this time it is.
Off in the distance is the finish line. It's still a long ways off but there it is nonetheless. And something in that vision gives you life again. Your steps pick up,  your shoulders square, and your bent, broken stance becomes a proud, conquering stride. You still step on stones and potholes. The walk is still tough. But the end is in sight and the hope that brings is something you wish everyone could feel.
That is what it feels like for me today. A Homeless Graduate in less that two weeks. For me, the finish line is right back where the starting line was 28 years ago.
On a mountain in Virginia...

Until Tomorrow,


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