Much of my adult life has been spent homeless or incarcerated. Now I help homeless and returning citizens.
I’ve lived on the streets, starred in Hollywood movies, owned my own shoe service, rubbed shoulders with a Saudi prince, and even sang for Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago — while roaming and off. I was also in federal prison and struggled with drug addiction.
In some ways, I’ve lived an unusual life. But with 140 million poor or low-income Americansthere is nothing unusual about growing up in a broken home, enduring homelessness or ending up in the criminal justice system.
We all make our own choices. But I learned that our social and political systems often make choices for us too. And these are the choices we can change together.
My father left when I was 2 years old and my stepfather was violent. My mother did her best to protect me. But in reality, our “broken home” was a reflection of the politically and economically neglected community in which we lived.
As a teenager, I was never sure what I would find at home. So I joined a band, drama, athletics, football, martial arts – whatever I could do to avoid danger and make myself stronger.
I was supposed to go to college in Miami for football, but I also suffered from what is called today ADHD. At that time, children like me were simply called hyperactive, drugged and punished. So my grades dropped and I went to Miami Dade College instead.
Eventually, I stumbled upon the wrong crowd, lured by the money that came with a life of dealing drugs in Miami. When I got caught, I realized how much I had betrayed the values my mother raised me with.
I used my time in federal prison to become more educated and began counseling my former inmates, who called me “Preacher.” The guards broke the rules and allowed a dozen inmates at a time to enter my cell to be led in prayer and teachings.
Armed with my faith in God and my values—and practical help from critics housing check program — I was able to move from a refuge to a house of my own after my release.
I now work with the National Coalition for the Homeless, helping other homeless people and citizens returning from incarceration. i am even a “lived experience expert” with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developmenthelping to streamline programs to help people find stable housing.
Many people I work with have stories like mine – or yours.
Some lost their jobs or had jobs that did not pay enough. Some had babies and could not afford child care. Some have suffered domestic violence. Many had health problems, injuries or debts.
These things can happen to anyone. So when you see us on the street, look at us as human beings. If you can spare them, gift cards for food, medicine or supplies can make a huge difference for individual homeless people.
But collectively, we can also make different political choices that will allow everyone to keep a roof over their head.
Nowhere in America is there rent affordable on the minimum wage, so we should raise it to a living wage and invest in affordable housing, rental assistance, housing vouchers and reinforcement of unemployment insurance. Better access to affordable childcare, mental health care and health insurance would also help keep more people in their homes.
of President Biden Building back better plan would have provided all of this, but congressional conservatives pushed it aside. But with enough pressure, we may be able to reinstate housing needs in a reconciliation bill that Congress is now considering.
If we recognize our common humanity and fight for everyone’s rights, we can create a fairer society for all of us.
Don Gardner is an advocate for the National Coalition for the Homeless and member of the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC This comment was originally posted by OtherWords.org