John is a victim of chronic homelessness. He’s been living on the streets for eight years, and searches every day for a reason to keep going. He tries to do one “good thing” a day, to restore his faith and prove to himself that he can keep moving forward. This is his story:
Look familiar? If you’ve been to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA, recently, it’s likely that you’ve seen John before. You may have come face-to-face with him at a red light, even swerved out of his way as he trekked his wheel chair up and down the middle lane of Market Street, adjacent to the train station. If recognition has hit by now, have you ever caught yourself letting your eyes trail after his retreating form and wondering, “What’s his story?”
Well, now’s your chance.
Forty-one-year-old John Turner will tell you that he’s been homeless for the last eight years of his life. Nearly a decade ago, John lost all of his relationships with his family, worldly or otherwise, to one horrible accident.
“I had a bad accident, I had a bad house fire. My mom died in the fire, as a result to my smoking. My family just kind of let me go [after that],” said John, admitting that many of his other family members couldn’t accept what had happened.
As a consequence of a horrible mistake, in one night John lost his family, his home, and much of his will to keep going. But that’s what it was, an accident. John would never harm anyone on purpose, especially his loving mother who provided for him despite his shortcomings. He accepts this, but it was difficult not to feel discouragement when his support system became smaller and smaller until it was nothing.
John admits that he burned a lot of bridges. Having struggled with addiction on and off for 20 years since he was 15 years old, many of his relationships suffered at the hand of his own choices. Now sober, he’s trying to get back to that place that feels like home, where he can allow himself to once again be surrounded by people that care about him.
“I’m still looking for that place,” said John.
After a while, John started pushing people away on purpose. He’s now completely self-sufficient, the next time he loses someone it won’t hurt as bad.
Homelessness will do this to you too. Those who are chronically homeless are especially at risk of experiencing depression. It’s hard not to feel low when you’re always being looked down on, as if you’re something that’s lesser-than. It’s something that sticks with you.
This, of course, doesn’t speak for everyone. Having been surviving in the streets for an extended amount of time, John says that there has never been a shortage of people who’ve treated him with compassion.
“Oh, they’re the best. They’re awesome,” John said, describing the general public of the city of Philadelphia. “Everybody who does chip in—I’m blessed, I’m truly blessed, that’s all I can say.”
Although forever grateful for these moments, they’re still fleeting. At the end of the day, it’s just John.
His afternoons are spent in the middle of Market Street’s busy traffic. There aren’t any mediums separating the bustling route. Unfazed, John wheels his chair into the middle of the street and traces the line in-between the two left-hand turning lanes. slowly wheels himself back and forth, with the flow of traffic. He trains his clear blue eyes on each vehicle that approaches him, displaying a cardboard sign in his lap that reads, “HELP… HOMELESS, PLEASE ANYTHING IS A BLESSING.”
“I wish I could re-do it again, I wish I could do a couple things over, and make different decisions,” said John, it’s not lost on him that he could start over if he wanted to, but he really wishes that he could go back in time and change some of the decisions that he did make.
It’s just John.
Sometimes those experiencing homelessness at the same time will band together for support, and to combat the echoing loneliness that comes with living on the streets. John doesn’t allow himself these types of relationships, he’d rather do everything on his own.
“It’s just me,” he said.
He does everything on his own and doesn’t let anyone get too close to him. Whether its fear of abandonment or his distrust for others, everyone has their own reasons.
John believes that he’s “so far gone” from his family that they just don’t want to be bothered. They don’t want to get hurt again, and he has to understand that.
He still maintains contact with his brother by phone—as well as his 13 year old son. When asked how often he sees his son, John replied, “I don’t.”
Despite not seeing each other face-to-face for 8 years, John and his son have a close relationship and talk to each other regularly. John is generally confined to Center City due to his disability, while his son is located on the opposite side of the city.
“If I was able to get to him, I would probably be able to see him,” John said. “When my son was born, his mom went back to work and I was like a stay at home mom and dad. I raised him [when he was younger].”
You can tell that he holds these memories close to his heart. His son would have been 5 years old at the time of the accident at his parents’ house.
John’s a caretaker at heart, he loves taking care of other people. In his grandparent’s last few years of life, he took care of them, fed them, bathed them, changed them.
“It’s what they would have done for me, when I was a kid,” he said.
Now, he takes care of himself.
Numerous times, people have reached out to him and offered to help him get into different housing programs. After several sequences of trial and error, he decided that these programs weren’t right for him.
“Some programs, you have to go in there for months, years, I just don’t have time for all of that,” he said, reiterating what many people in the chronically homeless community have said in similar conversations involving shelters. John’s disability makes it difficult to get around, and shelter rules can often be restricting.
John was a provider. When he was able-bodied and working, he was a heavy equipment operator.
“Failure,” John said, is the hardest lesson that he’s had to accept since becoming homeless 8 years ago. There was a quiet note of acceptance in his voice, like he’s already been over this a million times in his head and knew what he needed to do next. If he could just stay positive, it will all have been for something. He won’t let those negative thoughts consume him, he won’t let them win.
“All I can do is stay positive, I can’t give up. Even though I want to, I can’t [give up]. I can never do it,” he said, firmly. John knows that he has a purpose, and knowing that he can be a source of positivity for others is enough for him.
Although, John hasn’t found a housing program that suits his needs, he is committed to his sobriety.
“I’m just trying to do better [every day], hopefully I’ll catch on one day,” John said.
He got sober because he was tired. He got sober because he wanted something to look forward to everyday that wasn’t killing him, something positive. He got sober for his son. He wanted to be someone that he could grow up to be proud of.
“I got tired of being sick. I didn’t want to wake up sick every morning and try to get $5 to get a bag, I’d rather get something that I need with it. I need clothes, winter clothes, and stuff like that. I’ve gotta stay positive,” he said.
John starts every morning with a visit to his drug program, where he receives methadone. He lingers there, meeting with his drug counselor regularly. He also sees a psychologist.
He begins every morning with a feeling of gratitude, purpose, and tries to maintains this positivity as the day progresses. It doesn’t matter what hardships he’s experiencing, as long as he can help one other person a day, he can restore his faith and keep going.
“Stay focused on what you’re doing and stay positive. Even though my life is like this, I still try to do at least one good, positive thing a day. I know I’m doing this now,” he opened his arms and motioned to the cars speeding past on either said of us, “But, there are good people out there, that do look out for you.”
Now, 6 years sober with an active role in his son’s life, although distant, John can push forward every day knowing that his son is proud of him. He’s told him so, and that makes everything worth it.
So, he survives.