I know from my own experience that the difference between persevering and being lost is sometimes an infinitesimal distinction. Most people don’t think their life situation is going to fall apart, and neither did I. But it did.
I wound up homeless and on the street, and utilizing the local shelter system where I live in Oak Park, IL. It is a temporary system meant to house the homeless overnight. In the mornings we were all forced out in the winter cold promptly at 7AM. Fortunately, my first few weeks being homeless I had a small amount of money on my Starbucks Gold card. The $25 dollars or so on the card was all I had to my name, and with it I was able to stay out of the bitter freezing cold by having coffee with free refills all day long. My fellow homeless brethren were not so lucky, and had to wait two hours wondering around in the cold until the local library opened. Those that tried to come into the Starbucks were often forced to leave because they were not paying customers.
Because I had my Gold card, I was able to stay at least a little connected to the mainstream. This proved to be a huge asset to me, and eventually others in the local homeless community. I had one other asset, an iPhone, and fortunately my ex-wife would continue to pay for while I was homeless, mainly because she wanted me to stay connected to our 8 year old daughter. This little “good deed” would soon prove to be invaluable to myself and the new community I belonged to.
When the money was starting to run out on my Starbucks card, I began to grow very concerned as to how I would stay warm and safe in the mornings. I did not want to continue to come to Starbucks without money to spend. This was my community; I really didn’t want my friends and neighbors to know I was homeless. And of course I did not want to be removed from the store because I was not a paying customer. It didn’t feel right and this was “my” third place long before I was homeless. I did not want my friends and neighbors to know I had no place to go.
When I became homeless, and because I had my iPhone, I began to tweet to my followers about all the things that were not available to the homeless. Simple things like food, clothing and shelter, things I assumed would at least prior to my being homeless would surely be available. As my very funds were dwindling, I asked my followers for any ideas as to where I could go to stay warm, safe and dry before the library opened. After several days and many tweets, no one ever came up with a single idea where I could go, but eventually one of my followers asked if they could send me a Starbucks card with some money on it. I was hesitant at first, pride and all, but I quickly realized I had no other option. From that moment forward one of my followers always sent me a card, or refilled my card for me.
By having a place to stay warm and connected to the world through Twitter, I was able to start helping others using the power of the Twitter network I was building to get things they needed: gift cards, winter boots, eyeglasses and other essential needs. A network was formed between our local homeless community and Twitter users around the world. I discovered through my own example and the success we were having with others that small things can do great things. I was able to use social media to help others in small, but very specific ways that would greatly change their lives. I now as often as possible, and thanks to Starbucks and Twitter, try to show the world how important it is that homeless people have a warm safe place to stay and the ability to connect to the outside world through the internet. I want everyone to know the power that social media has to help create change.
In my journey through life I’ve been an advocate for justice both social and environmental. I’ve managed large businesses and organizations. I have been a filmmaker and artist, a father and husband. Above all else I am one man and I can’t possibly change the world alone. My friend and partner at Become: Center for Community Development and Social Change, Dominica McBride and I were incredibly lucky to have made a powerful connection, in part because I was homeless, that is rooted in the desire to make the world a better place. Our diverse talents lend a wonderful balance, a beautiful synergy that propels us in the work we are doing. We fight for social justice, racial justice, and true equality for everyone. We fight with you and with everyone who believes all people deserve an opportunity to thrive.
With all success there is failure, so even if “rock bottom” returns, we hope that the farthest anyone will fall will eventfully always be a nice place to land – a place filled with hope, continued opportunity, justice and equality. A place where no one will ever go hungry, denied safe housing, an opportunity for an excellent education, job or career because of class, creed, or color.
I have come incredibly far. I have used the lessons I learned while homeless, in combination with the genius and vision of my partner in Become, Dominica McBride begun to implement a paradigm shifting new philosophy for doing community development in Chicago’s most marginalized communities that is beginning to bear tremendous fruit. We are beginning to find support from local, national and international leaders who see the tremendous potential when science, love and compassion are combined in a very focused, evidenced based fashion to bring about change.
We could not have begun and be able to continue to do this to without Shakirra Jones, our irreplaceable Projects and Research Associate, our fantastic Leadership and Development specialist Stuart Jamieson, and The Chicago School of Psychology along with dozens and dozens of amazing interns, volunteers and our amazing Board of Directors and Advisory Board.